How F1 Esports changed the virtual racing scene

How F1 Esports changed the virtual racing scene

In March 2020, engines remained silent around the world due to the coronavirus crisis. It was at that time when F1 esports proved why it’s vital for the esports racing scene and how much it has already impacted it.

Reading time: 7 minutes

The History of F1 games

A bit of history at first: In 2009, Codemasters acquired the Formula 1 game license. Their first game, F1 2009, was released for Nintendo Wii and PlayStation Portable. That might give a hint on how far it was away from being a racing simulation. But just one year later, Codemasters made a U-turn with F1 2010, which put its emphasis on realism and surprised sceptical fans.

Since then, PC, PlayStation and Xbox players have been getting a new edition each year, with gameplay becoming more and more realistic.

Some of them were better, some were worse, but the player base grew regardless every year.

With esports tournaments taking over the gaming industry and opening new markets, it was just a matter of time until the premier class of motorsports would start to get involved as well. Up until a few years ago, there was no official esports for the Formula 1 games and players had to organize tournaments for themselves. But that changed with the establishment of the Formula 1 Esports Series in 2017.

From the living room to the throne

Right from its beginning, it has been the possibility to make it to the top from your rig at home which makes the F1 Esports Series so fascinating. You don’t need any sponsors and there is no big financial investment to be made. All you need to qualify for a spot in the series is the game and to be the fastest.

The 2017 Series surely was the purest form of that. There were no constructors, no players already contracted for a seat in the series. Just the fastest people in the game competing for the championship. Of course, that premise has always been around in esports racing.

But every racing fan will confirm that there is something truly unique about being a Formula 1 champion, in real life and in esports. Being able to reach this goal from home is fascinating and has been making a lot of people participate in their first tournaments, opening up the world of racing simulations.

A massive player base

Yes, we know, you can’t really call the F1 games proper simulations. While they try to implement a lot of realistic aspects, they are still trailored to be appealing to a broad audience, especially console players, and should rather be called SimCades.

F1 games proper simulations
Source: Codemasters

But this is actually not the game’s weakness. Actually, it is one of its biggest strengths. In 2019, an outstanding number of 109,000 players took part in the qualifying procedure for the 2019 Pro Draft. There is just no competition in esports racing that can even get close to these numbers.

Through its name and reputation and the SimCade character of the game, F1 Esports is pulling new players into the esports racing scene in a unique extent. The game is an entry point for so many new racers, makes them aware of the racing scene behind it and may encourage them to get in touch with other simulations.

Connecting real sports with esports

Speaking of using the name and reputation of Formula 1, it was not just the its appeal to new players that heavily impacted the sim racing scene. From 2017 to 2019, F1 Esports made a huge step into professionalising esports racing. When the series started, there were almost no real F1 teams involved or even interested in sim racing. Just two years later, all F1 constructors have established their own esports teams.

F1 Esports made a huge step into professionalising esports racing
Source: Codemasters

In 2019, the legendary Scuderia Ferrari was the latest F1 constructor to join the series, entering the world of esports for the first time in their history – and immediately winning the driver’s championship with David Tonizza.

“We understand the importance of gaming for the new generation, and esports is part of our Ferrari Driver Academy programme. It’s not something which is fully separated – it is a part of it,” says Ferrari team manager Mattia Binotto on F1.com.

Binotto is addressing another development that has made F1 so important within the scene. Through their commitment in esports, teams are creating a link between real sport and simulations. They integrate their esports talents way more into the real sport than it is the case in any other game.

In a game like FIFA, the difference between what pros do on their consoles and what they do on the turf is fundamentally big. The former handle a controller, the latter run up and down a field. In sim racing however, the lines between simulation and reality are fluent.

The input to handle a sim racing rig can be astonishingly similar to that in actual cars. You’re using pedals and a wheel, just like in real life. Sure, the G-force and feeling of the car are missing, but the game inputs are still much closer to reality than in any other esport.

Esports talents get transferred to real racing

This is why racing teams are actively looking for the help of their esports talents to improve their simulators which have become an important part of any F1 drivers training routine. Now and in the future, having experts on racing simulations will be indispensable for the constructors.

That’s why the teams are on the hunt, always looking for upcoming talents. Not only for simulators, but also for real cars. One driver who made it from his home rig into a real racing car is Cem Bolukbasi.

On our show Nitro Nights, he spoke about how F1 esports brought him into real racing: “For me, my big chance was getting involved with F1 esports. It basically changed my life because the exposure it gave me helped me find sponsors to race in a real Formula car. All the things I’ve done in the past year was thanks to esports and F1 esports.”

Cem Bolukbasi Twitter
Source: Cem Bolukbasi Twitter

Cem is not the only one who was able to make this step. Lately, former F1 Esports Series driver Igor Fraga signed a contract for a Formula 3 team. If you listen to the constructors and officials of F1, they won’t be the last ones to make their way from virtual to real racing.

“We see the potential of sim racing as a steppingstone for getting into racing – and this is really exciting for us,” says Julian Tan, Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports at Formula 1 on F1.com. 

New audiences as a new chance

The link between real racing and its virtual counterpart has become increasingly important in Formula 1. Besides the sporting aspect, F1 has always been about marketing. It’s no secret, that the sport has been struggling to reach new audiences and lost a bit of its glory from back in the days.

This is where esports becomes important for the sport to survive. In 2019, the F1 Esports Series reached a total of 5.8 million viewers, with 79% of the viewers being 34 years old or younger. Rising viewer numbers are an indicator that esports will become even more significant as a marketing aspect in the future and teams clearly don’t want to miss this opportunity.

Raising the bar

Prize pools have never been too big in esports racing. While there were some tournaments like the Visa Vegas eRace with much prize money, these were exceptions. Even the best virtual racers winning several world championship titles struggled very hard to make a living off sim only.

Formula 1 Esports has turned virtual racing into big business, not just because of the rising importance of simulators but also in terms of marketing. It’s become bigger than anything esports racing has seen before.

Formula 1 Esports
Source: Codemasters

In 2019, the prize pool for the championship rose to a record-breaking $500,000, more than twice as much as the year before. Just for comparison: The Porsche Esports Supercup 2019, one of the most profitable tournaments in iRacing, had a prize pool of $100,000.

There are good reasons why so many top drivers from other racing simulations try to get a spot in the F1 series. For the first time in history, there is a sim racing league with twenty professional drivers.

For the first time, sim racers got to team up in a professional environment, getting the same professional coaching as real Formula 1 drivers. For the first time, the biggest motorsport in the world became aware of how much potential lies in sim racing – and started to fuel its development.

If anybody needed proof of how big and important this esport is, they got it in spring 2020. When the real engines remained silent, F1 esports stepped out of the shadow of its real-life counterpart. The “Not the Bahrain Grand Prix”, a virtual race with real drivers, sim racers and racing influencers, reached hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch. The FIA organized a similar event to compensate for the cancellation of the Grands Prix with a similar following.

There has not been a single sim racing event that could reach these numbers. But not only did the F1 events pull viewers for their own races. When the real racing scene was on a forced hiatus, the F1 events attracted the masses to virtual racing and opened the scene to new audiences – again.

One more time, F1 proved to be the biggest racing esport right now and an entry for new people into the scene. The events in spring 2020 have surely accelerated the incessant rise of esports even more.

This league has raised the bar for professional esports racing unlike any other tournament and through its name, its reputation and its ongoing success will do so for many more years.

Teaser source: Codemasters