With the 24 hours of Le Mans this weekend, the ACO confirmed a second season of the highly successful Le Mans Virtual Series. But that wasn’t their first attempt at a gaming championship. So, what happened to the Le Mans Esports Series?
Image credit: Tobin Leigh
September 2021 saw the first round of the Le Mans Virtual Series taking place with the 4 hours of Monza on rFactor 2. After the immense success of the inaugural 24 hours of Le Mans Virtual in June 2020, it seemed all but inevitable that it would result in the official sim racing championship for the 24 hours of Le Mans.
But it wasn’t the first officially sanctioned video game series by Le Mans organisers ACO. That was instead the Le Mans Esports Series, which was held on Forza Motorsport 7.
The series was very much unlike any other racing championship. So what made the Le Mans Esports Series so different. Furthermore, why was it scrapped in favour of the Le Mans Virtual Series?
Season 1: Revolutionary Format
In an age of by-the-numbers sim racing competitions, the Le Mans Esports Series was something different. Instead of running a bunch of races over the course of a few months and tallying up the points at the end, it was instead made up of qualifier rounds for one big final.
Participants competed in a series of online rounds and offline qualifying events at WEC’s Fuji and Sebring rounds as well as the Autosport International Show. Each of those offline events acted as a regional qualifier for a Super Final held alongside the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
There were two types of qualifiers going on. There were races for Pro teams and then Rivals hotlap qualifiers for drivers not aligned with any team. These ran between November 2018 and April 2019.
All the qualifying rounds then culminated in the first ever Super Final held onsite at the Le Mans track the day before the real 24 hour event. 12 teams of three drivers each entered, with ten teams having qualified and two teams entering via a wildcard invitation.
In another effort to diversify from the typical motorsport structure, the super final didn’t play it safe by having the drivers compete in one 24 hour-long race. Instead to keep the drivers on their toes throughout the 24 hours, they were required to compete in nine endurance races.
Players would drive cars from the early 60s era of Le Mans, Group 5 cars, Group C cars, 2000s Prototypes, modern Prototypes and GTE cars. All taking place across five different circuits.
In the end, it was Veloce Esports who came out on top. They recovered from a 15-second deficit and took home their majority of a $100,000 prize pot. A second season of the series was confirmed to be happening, but some issues lay ahead.
Season Two: Making Compromises
The qualifier rounds were going by as usual but then the world went into lockdown due to a worldwide pandemic. As a result, there was a huge elephant in the room.
Forza Motorsport 7 , unlike racing simulation games like rFactor 2 and iRacing doesn’t have an in-game driver swap system. This allows players to hand control of their car to another driver online. Through this, the drivers on those sims are able to do endurance races while racing remotely.
It was clear that the Super Final in 2020 couldn’t be held onsite like the previous year. The competitors would have to race from home. So what did the organisers do?
A Segmented Solution
Since they couldn’t really do continuous 24 hour racing, they instead broke the format into four segments. In the week leading up to the newly rescheduled 24 hours of Le Mans in September, there would be four groups of three races (two 1-hour races and a 2-hours race) held from Tuesday to Friday.
In the first segment, teams would race in pre-1970s era cars. The second segment would see teams racing cars from the 70s and 80s. The third segment had 90s and 2000s era cars, and finally the fourth and final segment saw competitors driving cars from the 2010s.
After each day, the bottom two teams in the standings would be eliminated and the points would be reset. The teams would also field a different number of drivers each day. One per team in the first two days, two on the third and three for the final day.
In the end, Red Bull won in the Pro Team category ahead of Lazarus and Williams, but there was also a secondary category for the independent drivers called Pro-Am. It featured teams with very out there names like Hotlappers, Arnage Titans, Tertre Rouge Rangers, Setup Demons and Hairpin Heroes, but the team that ultimately came out on top there was LM Squad.
The format had proven unique but as we’ve already touched upon, the series seemed to be on its way out. The first running of the 24 hours of Le Mans Virtual ran in place of the real life Le Mans a couple of months earlier. It was an incredible event that saw 200 drivers – including real world pro racers – compete on rFactor 2.
The Le Mans 24 Virtual featured a more conventional motorsport-esque event structure with just the simple continuous 24 hour format. It was an immensely popular event and as a result – one year after the 2020 Super Final – the Le Mans Esports Series on Forza Motorsport 7 evolved into the Le Mans Virtual Series which used rFactor 2.
It has since held its first season, five endurance races culminating in the second Le Mans 24 Virtual. Judging by viewership on YouTube, the Le Mans Virtual Series has the Le Mans Esports Series beaten.
What Separates Both Series?
Le Mans Esports and Le Mans Virtual represent two sides of the same coin in more ways than one. LMES used a more casual console-based title whilst LMVS uses a high level racing simulation game.
Whilst the idea of using a more accessible console game isn’t inherently wrong, the Forza games do have a reputation in the sim racing world. A lot of which we covered in the article below about Forza esports.
But their main difference is how they approach the idea of racing itself.
Le Mans Virtual was more like conventional motorsport in its structure. Le Mans Esports tried to borrow elements from more mainstream esports tournaments to try out in a racing series. In a way, it was an inspired choice. Since every other major simracing series out there was merely just a virtual version of a real life racing series.
It’s not ridiculous to say that it was ahead of its time. But perhaps the world wasn’t ready for its genius. Of course, with the Le Mans Virtual Series, real-world pro racers compete in it and that attracts larger numbers, but an audience from a racing side perhaps wouldn’t be able to follow such a vastly different format.
The spirit of the Le Mans Esports Series is alive elsewhere in other esports racing tournaments. It was a genuinely great and unique series. But maybe the officially-sanctioned esports series of the World Endurance Championship needed to be a bit more like its real life counterpart.
What did you like about the Le Mans Esports Series? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!