We recap the Virtual GPs and assess whether real-life drivers hurt esports efforts of F1
Photo credit: Ralf Roletschek
The Virtual GP has officially ended two weeks ago. A series of races in which real-life drivers mixed with celebrities raced against each other for the sake of fun and honor. Of course, the main aspect was to give fans something to watch during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The series drew a total of 21.8 million views across all online platforms, making it a record-breaking success in terms of viewership. It all seemed like we witnessed the biggest series in esports racing possible and it barely included any professional esports racers.
We saw high-octane races in each of the seven rounds. The first part of the series was dominated by Charles Leclerc with two wins and another podium finish in the first four races.
The second part of the series, however, saw George Russell bringing home four victories and eventually the championship. In total there were four race winners with Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, George Russell and Guanyu Zhou. It was indeed interesting to see real-life racers show their skills in the Virtual realm.
The dominance of George Russell was most definitely intriguing as he was finally able to show what he can do if his car is able to compete. Something real-life F1 unfortunately can’t provide for the extremely talented Brit.
It may not be the real thing but it’s been such a buzz battling for wins with the lads again these past months. I’d missed that feeling!— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) June 14, 2020
Enjoyed the series way more than I expected. No matter what you do you’ve gotta give it everything!#VirtualGP Champ… cheers everyone! 🏆🙌 pic.twitter.com/HQmF13YlA0
In addition to the Virtual GP, we had the Pro Exhibition. A race that featured esports racers that would normally face each other in the F1 Esports Pro Series. Compared to the Virtual GP, the Pro Exhibition barely enjoyed any attention. The official F1 website states:
Pro Exhibition races, featuring the Pro F1 Esports drivers, received over 2.5m digital views, as competitors honed their skills ahead of the F1 Esports Series 2020 which will take place later this year.
While 2.5 million doesn’t sound too bad, this number equals merely a tenth of the main event. This raises the question: Did people only watch the Virtual GP because of to the celebrity factor?
The more, the less
If you are looking for an easy answer: Yes, the Virtual GP was so successful because F1 fans were happy to see racing action and people like Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc are so widely popular. Is that a bad thing for the already existing F1 esports series? Maybe.
But what was the purpose of the Virtual GP? According to the official F1 website, the series was created to enable fans to continue watching Formula 1 races virtually. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 situation, they were supposed to be able to watch their favorite drivers battle it out when racing was not possible.
However was it planned to be an actual esports event?
If so, then we must accept that professional esports racing still doesn’t seem to appeal to people as much as star power. No big news, but it carries implications towards the future of esports racing.
What if the Virtual GP wasn’t an esports event at all but just a show? Then we have to realise that the hopes of people staying in the esports racing scene after COVID-19 seem to be a pipe dream. Because if it takes celebrities to up the viewercount now, it will most likely stay that way in the future.
It’s not that the pro series was lacking views before. The first event of the F1 Esports Pro Series 2019 is currently at 1.1 million views. But in comparison the Pro Exhibition for the last race in Canada only reached around 130,000 views. Of course, it’s not the same timeframe but it seems to pale in comparison. One explanation could be that the Virtual GP and all the stars attending, took the spotlight away from professional esports racing events.
One of the drivers racing in mentioned series, is Joni Törmälä. The Finn won the constructors championship with Red Bull last year. When asked if the new faces in F1 would do service to esports he answered:
It is definitely an opportunity. They bring in more viewers and I would say that is always a good opportunity. I don’t think they are stealing our spotlight.
It’s hard to argue against subjective feelings and professionals like Törmälä might have a different view on the situation. The raw numbers tell a different story. When the F1 Esports Pro Series used to be something special, views were up to over a million at times.
With the rising competition between the series and the increased amount of content produced, the pro scene has taken a hit. You get the feeling that esports racing had never been important, but rather that there was nothing else comparable. This proposition makes the future of esports professionals look a little grim.
If some of the racing series that emerged during COVID-19 stay around, we could see a continuous stagnation of views in formats like the F1 Esports Pro Series. If it turns out to be true it feels like the star showcase didn’t do the Virtual F1 scene any favor.
We can hope that the slacking numbers are due to the nature of an exhibition. There is less thrill in terms of competition since no race really matters. That can certainly impact the viewer count. But the Virtual GP didn’t have a scoreboard at first either. Yet, still the numbers were there. So hope does exist, but we should stay realistic.