The scene is failing at making its new audience stay.
Photo credit: Porsche
This year has been amazing so far. Well, at least from the perspective of an esports racing fan. Events like the #NotTheGPs or the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual were an absolute relief during the coronavirus lockdown.
But as real racing slowly starts to get back to business as usual, esports racing does too. We have various competitions going on like the 2020 Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup or Lamborghini’s The Real Race. But they all have the same problem.
They are broadcasts that have been around in this format for years, tailored to the core sim racing scene. The new audience is being ignored entirely. Esports racing is missing the biggest chance it has ever had to finally get out of its niche and attract a broader audience.
Boom or backfire?
When the viewer counts boomed in spring, it was because a lot of people came in from the shutdown world of real motorsport. Not only did they find a temporary replacement in esports racing, but the viewers also saw how much additional potential for entertainment there was.
The #NotTheGPs were a prime example of that. Letting experienced racers, influencers and random celebrities race in F1 cars against each other offered a whole new racing experience. It created immensely fun moments and races that were everything but clean, yet super entertaining.
The broadcasts reached hundreds of thousands of viewers via Twitch and YouTube. Never had virtual racing gotten this much attention from the broad public.
But if you take a look around today, those events have disappeared. Esports racing went back to where it was before the pandemic. We have many different tournaments running, but they are mostly the same: Pure sim racing, with broadcasts tailored to a small core audience.
The viewer counts for the Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup, the inofficial world cup of sim racing, underline this development. While the first race, which was held in May in the middle of the lockdown, received more than 40,000 views on YouTube, Round 2 only reached half as many people.
The viewers didn’t stay because they did not like what they saw.
Where we’re going
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m neither saying that sim racing is boring nor that we need influencer-only events where a one-hour DJ set becomes more important than racing itself. The truth lies in between.
Something that the dropping viewer counts clearly tell us is that esports racing needs to become more innovative. Real racing is going back to business and the fans of clean, standard racing are leaving the esports scene as well. You won’t get the big audience with hardcore sim racing. They will always rather watch F1’s qualifying on a Saturday than the Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup.
If we want those viewers to stay in the scene, esports racing must present new formats and events that cannot be recreated in the real world.
First attempts for that have been there. The VCO Cup of Nations not only presented a world cup format with different nations competing. It also sent the drivers on various tracks worldwide in very different cars over the course of a few hours.
The organizers of “Das Race” bring together virtual and real racing in a truly unique way, by letting celebrities steer real miniature cars via a gamepad from their homes. Sadly, those events did not receive much public attention yet, but they are a step in the right direction.
All the hype just because of the real drivers?
Some might argue that the low viewership of all those events is proof that the boom in spring 2020 was mainly caused by real-world racing superstars joining the competitions. And yes, I think they probably are a main reason why so many people started to get involved with esports racing.
But just because the real-world drivers won’t be there anymore does not mean the viewers won’t come back to esports. Many people have regularly tuned in to formats like the F1 Virtual GPs and #NotTheGPs and started to get to know esports racing and the people of the scene through those broadcasts.
So why not use this foundation and bring back those renowned events during an F1 weekend? You won’t have the real drivers joining anymore, but there are so many talented esports racers ready to take their spot. Together with celebrities and content creators, the formula that brought hundreds of thousands of viewers in front of their screens will still work.
Tell their stories!
Something I have been missing in so many recent broadcasts is a proper storytelling. When Lando Norris joined the Supercars or IndyCar Challenge, the focus of the broadcast of course was on him. Same went for with Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, or any other real-world driver in the F1 events. Sometimes it would really feel like the esports personalities were just decoration to fill the grid.
But now that fewer of those real-world superstars can outshine the virtual racers, it’s finally time to tell their stories. Give the audience new heroes, properly introduce them to the mastermind Maximilian Benecke, the World’s Fastest Gamer James Baldwin, or the entertainer Jimmy Broadbent.
Get people involved with the interesting characters in esports racing and the scene will be so much less dependent on the real-world superstars. Many people will regularly tune in because they will want to see their virtual racing idols
The time for courage is now
The organizers of esports racing tournaments must be courageous now. A lot of racing fans are still sitting in their homes due to the ongoing pandemic, eagerly waiting for new ways of racing entertainment.
The public eye has not lost esports racing out of sight yet. I hope the broadcasters will find a way to please both the new and the pre-existing audience. Instead of doing the tournaments they always did, they have to renew their broadcasts and event formats. Otherwise, the virtual racing boom will rapidly become a small setback.