We take a look back at 2020, the year that shook esports racing to the very foundations.
Photo credit: Porsche
March 12, 2020 at Albert Park, Melbourne: It’s only a few hours until the new Formula 1 season is set to kick off with the first free practice session. But something is strange this morning. Only members of five teams showed up in the paddock and fans are not allowed to enter the track. Confusion spread across the visitors. A little later, track officials step in front of the waiting queues, bringing forth the bad news some already expected: the Australian Grand Prix is cancelled.
March 12 marks the day COVID-19 started to change racing. But this day also marks the kick-off to the most influential year esports racing has ever seen.
Worlds collide as the world shuts down
Just two days after the cancellation, an esports racing event took the place of the called off Grand Prix. The Not the Australian GP brought together real F1 drivers like Lando Norris, esports racing pros and influencers from in and outside the virtual racing scene in the F1 2019 game. Formula 1 introduced their own Virtual Grand Prix series with a similar concept just a weekend later.
“We were in a very unique situation in that live sports had for the most part been forced to go dark”, remembers Julian Tan, Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports of Formula 1. Suddenly, the entire world of racing seemed to gather in esports competitions across various platforms.
All new events followed the successful concept of bringing together real-life and sim racing personalities. And suddenly, many people discovered esports racing for the first time. “I’ve heard many times people telling me they never understood why anyone would watch other people play a videogame. But now they do”, says Julian Tan.
“The best sim event the world has ever seen”
The “lockdown era”, as some people in esports racing refer to spring and summer 2020, had its pinnacle on June 13. The 24 Hours of Le Mans had been another race to fall victim to the pandemic. Therefore, the organizers of the real-world race set up a sim racing edition, taking place in rFactor2. The 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual was born.
“The names were just incredible,” remembers Ben Constanduros, host and commentator of the event, on our show Nitro Nights. Each of the 50 teams consisted of four drivers, from which at least two had to be FIA licensed. The rest was filled with the elite of esports racing. F1 world champion Fernando Alonso, Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne and two-time Le Mans winner Sébastien Buemi are just some of the big names that joined the grid.
“It is universally felt to be the best sim event the world has ever seen,” Constaduros recapped on Nitro Nights. Even though the production value was the highest an esports racing event ever had, the show also had its hiccups. Server crashes caused red flags, and some teams were not able to complete their race due to software problems.
Despite the issues, the endurance race still was very well received among the participants. “At the end of the day, they would only have 15-minute red flags, which is quite impressive. When you look at real motorsport, a red-flag usually takes 40 minutes,” GTE class race winner Joshua K Rogers explained on Nitro Nights. The viewership also confirmed the success of the event. Over 14.2 million people watched the show in 57 different countries around the world on TV and on the Internet.
F1 2020 is the most successful game of the year
Esports was not the only topic in the world of virtual racing in 2020, as many new games hit the market. One of the most anticipated releases of the year was Project Cars 3 by Slightly Mad Studios. But fans of the franchise criticized the new game heavily, mainly because it put less focus on a realistic simulation of racing. For example, Project Cars 3 does not include features like tire wear or pit stops. “For us, one of the big things with this game is that we are trying to bring new people into the genre and sim racing,” Joe Barron, Marketing and esports Manager at Slightly Mad Studios, explained on Nitro Nights in August.
Meanwhile, the most successful racing game of the year came from British developer Codemasters. F1 2020 is the eleventh Formula 1 game by the studio and became the most well-received racing game of the year, earning a Metascore of 88/100. “My Team has been very well received, and it’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Lee Mathers, Franchise Director of F1 2020, tells OverTake. In the game mode, players are able to send their own F1 team to the grid for the first time. Racers also found joy in the return of the split-screen multiplayer mode as well as the addition of Hanoi Circuit and Circuit Zandvoort.
New consoles change gameplay
November 2020 marked an important month not only for esports racers, but for games in general. The new console generation finally hit the market with PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. With their arrival, the next iterations of two of the biggest racing game franchises were announced as well. Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo 7 are expected to come out in 2021.
Racers got a first taste of what impact the new generation is going have on racing games with DIRT 5. The arcade racer was a launch title for both new consoles. Robert Karp, Development Director of the game, thinks fast loading is something racing games are going to benefit from a lot, as he told OverTake in an interview. “Next gen makes that a bit like mobile gaming. You open your phone, you flick, you can have a couple of quick games in a few minutes and move on.”
Apart from that, new hardware always means better graphics and a polished gameplay, as he explained. “DIRT 5 supports 120 hertz on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. That is only possible due to the new HDMI 2.1 connectors on those consoles and the power of it. Particularly for racing and probably for first-person shooters, it leads to a much smoother experience.”
2020 has been a wild ride. While the year is coming to an end, esports racing will continue to profit from the events of this year for a long time. It clearly has been the most impactful year esports racing has ever seen.
What was your favorite esports racing moment of the year? Tweet us your opinion at @overtake_gg!