A backdrop of drivers standing around a load of racing sim rigs, with the logos for FaZe Clan and Unicorns of Love with a red arrow pointing down next to FaZe and a green arrow pointing up next to UOL.

What ESL R1 Needs to do Next


The brand new esports championship may have been a landmark event in sim racing. But there is just one thing ESL R1 needs to make the series even more interesting: providing a way for new teams to compete.

Image credit: ESL R1

Twelve sim racing teams of four drivers each travelled to Katowice, Poland on 11-12 February to attend the Intel Extreme Masters Expo. Sharing the same event as other high level competitive gaming championships on the ESL Pro Tour like Counter-Strike and StarCraft 2, ESL R1 was a huge step towards putting sim racing in the esports spotlight.

The first two of eight rounds were held onsite featuring seven races each, which saw the top six from each stage progress. Ultimately, the first round on Spa-Francorchamps went the way of MOUZ’s Max Benecke and Porsche Coanda’s Josh Rogers won the second round on the Hockenheimring.

After the eighth round, the top 24 drivers will gather once more for the Major where the champion will be decided. The drivers will be tasked with getting their points total up to a certain number which will put them into ‘Finalist Mode’. Then all they need to do is win a race. An unusual and interesting format.

R1 will then run for a second season between August and November 2023, featuring a year round prize pool of €500,000 across both seasons. Unsurprisingly, such a large prize pool attracted the interest of many leading sim racing teams but also huge esports organisations.

With all that being said, it’s still very early days for this championship. For all of its great racing and high level talent, R1 need to avoid making a mistake that is seemingly becoming an epidemic in high level competitive sim racing, esports and even real life sport.

A Path to Compete

In the world of mainstream esports, the players may be the ones competing but most of the focus are on the teams. Esports is all about people cheering on their favourite org, repping their merch and spamming their hashtags all over social media.

R1 has twelve teams, and unlike other forms of esports, they’re not going head-to-head in separate matches. There are always multiple teams on track at the same time, and as we established in our 1vs1 opinion piece, racing with either only two drivers or two teams on track at a time rarely works.

But there is one problem. In other forms of esports, there are pathways for new teams to qualify and then go up against teams that didn’t do so well during the season. This means that teams that aren’t doing so well don’t just end up resting on their laurels. It provides a sense of prestige for holding a place in the competition if there’s a way that it can be lost.

As of now, there isn’t any apparent way for any new teams to qualify for R1. This is most likely because of the fact that the very popular mainstream esports orgs that have ventured into sim racing through R1 like FaZe and FURIA are still not established enough to really put up a proper fight against the more seasoned sim racing teams that have been around for years. Therefore they could easily be relegated and lose their spot in the series.

It’s a bit of a lose-lose scenario. With a franchising sports model where they don’t have any doors open to let new teams in, the series retains the teams that the organisers believe will attract the most viewers. But, in a way, that’s creating an elitist environment that fans of the sport don’t want to see.

We have spoken at length about events like the 24 hours of Le Mans not allowing hobby sim racers to run after canning the iRacing Special Event in favour of the Le Mans Virtual where only pro racers as part of established teams can compete. ESL R1 is in danger of creating a very different kind of elitism. One more comparable to the Super League in football.

For people who aren’t in touch with football (or soccer), the Super League is a proposed breakaway competition with a fixed amount of clubs competing and no way for teams to qualify their way into it. Many football fans do not appreciate the concept, as they don’t want the competitions to be limited to those select teams. Instead, fans believe it should reward the teams who perform the best to earn their spot in the top league.

By not currently providing an opportunity for any other team to join the series as part of the twelve – since it’s unlikely ESL will increase the number of teams allowed to compete – ESL R1 is running the risk of becoming just like the Super League. Although, since the platform Rennsport is not even available to the public yet, and supposedly won’t be until after the Fall Major in November, maybe there is the opportunity once it is released for teams to qualify for R1 in 2024.

How it Would Work

Since the entry is team dependent, we propose that in the week after a round of R1, a hotlap qualifier opens up on the same track as that round and a team has to enter into these hotlap qualifiers with four assigned drivers. With eight rounds throughout the regular season and four drivers entering per team, each one would do two hotlap qualifiers.

The average best lap-time from all eight hotlap qualifiers combined would determine the final result and the top six teams would be able to compete in ESL R1 relegation playoffs against the bottom six teams from the previous R1 season’s team standings. These can take place either between the final regular season round and the Major, or after the Major if any of the bottom six teams have a driver competing.

The relegation playoffs would consist of four races with one driver representing each team (essentially like the R1 quarter finals) on four different tracks. The top six teams from the qualifiers would run their four drivers that did the hotlap sessions and the bottom six teams from the R1 team’s championship would have their four best placed drivers assuming they ran more than four across the season.

The teams with the most points after all four races would then line up on the grid in the first round of the following season. Whether they’ve avoided relegation or qualified for the first time. This would not be a new concept in sim racing, with the rFactor 2 GT Pro and Formula Pro championships running relegation playoff races as well.

Last May at the first Rennsport Summit, many of the teams now competing in R1 were in attendance such as Redline, Coanda, Apex and G2 Esports. However, there were also teams there that never got the call up to compete in R1. These included URANO, Altus, Race Clutch, Burst, KOVA and Unicorns of Love.

Red Bull were also in attendance but their esports team is operated by G2, so technically they are competing in R1. KOVA have since disbanded but as for the rest, what chance do they have to also take part in the series? That’s not even including the endless amount of other teams who would also love to have a place.

When Rennsport releases, there needs to be a chance for teams to enter into the series so it truly does reward the very best and provide prestige for holding a place in this incredible championship. But for now, 2023 can act as a building year for R1.

Plus, it can also give the mainstream esports organisations that attract big viewership a fighting chance to develop their sim racing programs further. So they can subsequently not be sitting ducks in these hypothetical relegation playoff races.

Which teams would you like to race in ESL R1? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!

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