What is the future of onsite esports racing events

What is the future of onsite esports racing events?

Before the pandemic, we had become accustomed to on-site events. But even in a post-pandemic world, is there really a place for them?

Image credit: @LeMansVirtual

There’s no beating an on-site esports event, isn’t there? The energy is unparalleled when you see a stadium packed to the rafters with everyone there watching the stage with players doing battle, the atmosphere is incredible. But of course, we are seeing less and less of them these days, no prizes for guessing why.

Like traditional esports, it was no surprise to see sim racing follow the trend. You had the first season of F1 Esports having the drivers in the Yas Marina Circuit pit area during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend for their grand final, Gran Turismo regularly had all their players gathering in one place for their World Tour events and the organisers of the Le Mans Esports Series had on-site events at the Autosport International show and their first Super Final was held at the Le Mans track the day before the 24 hour event.

Speaking of Le Mans, they were due to have their all new Le Mans Virtual Series’ final – the second running of the highly successful 24 hours of Le Mans Virtual – at the Autosport International show. However, due to ASI being postponed because of the uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant, the event reverted to being an online race.

With the pandemic forcing the majority of esports to be held online, the question must be asked, should on-site events become the norm once they are once again possible?

Why bother?

To an outsider looking in, they may be justified in asking “What’s the point in having all the competitors in one place if you can compete online?”.

It’s a completely valid point, esports are unique from other sports as you can compete in from the comfort of your own home separate from the other competitors. We saw how sim racing came to the forefront when everyone had to lock themselves away, it provided a great solace for so many of us in that time.

With real world racing and all kinds of other sports, all participants need to be in a set location. So with esports, why would you overcomplicate things by trying to get everyone in one location?

There is one undeniable advantage to having a race hosted LAN style as appose to online, and that’s to do with netcode. All gamers have experienced synchronisation issues many times when playing online, whether it be with someone on the other side of the world whose servers are unable to keep up, or a result of sub-par WiFi.

Having all players gathered in one location eliminates the risk of lag or desynchronisation, and therefore there would not be any of the issues which can plague online races, such as when someone appears to have been tapped into a spin by a fellow competitor when from that competitor’s perspective, they were nowhere near.

This alone, though, doesn’t justify having video game competitive events taking place in person, because for many reasons, it’s not sustainable.

Issues for the players

Esports and sim racing have become increasingly professionalised in the last few years, with big money behind them and organisations willing to invest in talent. However, as you can expect, the industry has a very low age range and you rarely find people remaining competitive and in the scene into their 30s.

The majority of the playerbase are still in education, and as things stand many can see that even if they manage to forge a career in esports, that it likely won’t last very long, and that it lacks a safety net. So asking players to travel consistently is a big ask, especially when they often don’t get compensation and “being there” is said to be enough of a privilege.

From May 2018 until February 2020, the FIA-Certified Gran Turismo Championships hosted all racing on-site which was a real spectacle and a true demonstration of how to host these sort of events. In that time, they raced at the likes of the Nürburgring alongside the 24 hour event, at the FIA’s headquarters in Paris, the Red Bull Hangar-7 in Salzburg, even the Tokyo Motor Show. Their World Finals were held in one of the captials of motorsport, Monaco.

Sounds like a dream scenario, right? Well, not really. The Gran Turismo championships don’t allow team representation and therefore everyone in the World Tour was there in neutral clothing racing for themselves. 2019 Nations Cup champion Mikail Hızal is part of Team Redline, 2021 Nations Cup champion Valerio Gallo is a member of Williams Esports, but you’d never have guessed it unless you caught a glance of their PlayStation Network IDs when they appear momentarily on-screen.

On top of not being able to have their in-game cars rock a livery of the team they are a part of and getting their team’s sponsors represented in these events, there was no prize pool involved either. There was really no way of making any money in the Gran Turismo championships, so along with how time consuming it is to qualify for each individual event, participation became difficult to balance with other obligations like a full-time job or education.

We spoke to a couple of former Gran Turismo competitors who told us how they had to take time away from work or neglect other duties in order to travel to the host locations, and they were never compensated for their time. If an esports organisation can hire a driver and can pay for their travel expenses, or even if a driver can be paid so they don’t have to balance their sim racing efforts with work and can afford to dedicate themselves to driving full time, these brands should get their money’s worth and therefore the driver can put in the best performance possible.

The danger with too many on-site events with players who aren’t yet doing this professionally is that it’ll result in them having to either neglect practicing for an event because they need to prioritise their education or work, or vice versa. If the income isn’t there, that’s a major problem.

Retaining its prestige

Like we’ve already said, you can’t quite match the feeling of an on-site esports event. But another danger with having too many on-site events is that each one feels like less of an occasion, less special. Especially when you always pick the same location.

After having their first world final alongside the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, from 2018 onwards the F1 Esports Series held all their events held at the Gfinity Arena in London (until, of course, they had to go online from 2020). The fact that the location never changed made it feel less special, so instead what a lot of esports competitions are doing now is having their grand finals be the one event to be hosted on-site.

In the case of MotoGP Esports in 2021, their first six races were held online, while the final two races saw all the competitors gather at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo alongside the MotoGP season finale. Of course, the Le Mans Virtual Series would have gone the same way, and it may well do so next year at ASI. The VCO Esports Racing World Cup is intending to hold its second running offline as well.

This should be a good balance, to have the final round be the big in-person event with a big crowd. Makes it a real spectacle, putting all the importance on that one event. Having the year round set of tournaments culminating in this one big grand final with everyone there, so the final can be this one big celebration of the championship.

What we hope

At the moment, there’s an acclimatising process ongoing and an easing back into normality. Hopefully at some point when COVID is under control, we can start going to these events again and that the time taken away from them all to re-evaluate the importance of the on-site events has put into perspective how valuable they are.

Would you like to attend an onsite esports racing event? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!

Luca Munro
Biggest esports racing fan in the world.