Last night was the inaugural F1 Esports Series at London’s Gfinity arena. It’s been a busy year for licensed motorsports making a move into esports, and WRC, Project Cars 2 and MotoGP have all tried their hand at official tournaments, and several third-party organisations have had an attempt too.
However, Formula One showed last night why out of all motorised esports, it was in pole position, effortlessly demonstrating why it still commands attention as a motorsport and as a television product – entertainment and drama, effectively communicated to masses. “This launch presents an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans," said managing director of commercial operations for Formula One, Sean Bratches, back when the series was announced.
Simulcast on Twitch and on satellite TV channel Sky Sports, the F1 Esports Series held a live semi-final consisting of eight races. The 40 participants were chosen from the leaderboards of Codemasters’ F1 2017 game following two special online qualifying events. Regardless of platform or game assist level, the best were invited to London.
The premise was simple. The 40 racers were divided into four heats, each with two races with an identical points system to real F1. The first race was Brazil’s Interlagos circuit and the second race, which was broadcast, was at Britain’s Silverstone circuit. The top 5 in each heat after the two races qualified for the F1 Esports Series final, which will take place at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the end of November.
Treated as a full TV environment, there was an engaged live crowd, an interesting stage setup and a perfect race length in order to make easily watchable and enjoyable racing.
A special mention must go to commentary. Former GP2 racer and commentator Davide Valsecchi is one of the most entertaining voices in motorsport. The Italian loves racing and it didn’t matter to him that the carbon fibre flying off front wings were virtual. His chemistry with BBC F1 commentator Jack Nicholls was a delight. YouTube star Matt Gallagher, better known for his WTF1 channel, and F1 racing driver and Channel 4 pundit Karun Chandhok rounded off an excellent line-up headed by Tom Deacon.
F1 2017’s broadcast mode made for excellent viewing on a professional broadcast level. Formula One’s own social media channels (a combined reach of over 10m) treated this as if it was no different to an actual race. Instagram stories shared exciting snippets of the action throughout the night.
One of the key things that engaged me in the audience (and to viewers at home that I have spoken to) was the use of the racer’s actual names. No gamertags or nicknames were used in the broadcast and, for a new series with no prior history, this was a great way to get behind a racer – it felt a lot more personal.
F1 as a brand is littered with nostalgic moments of passion, dedication and daring. As synonymous as the car brands are the images of Mansell, Senna, Villeneuve, Hunt, Lauda, Hamilton, Vettel and many others pushing their bravery to the limits. Despite being a virtual racing environment, the passion for racing was evident from everyone.
The racers jostled and weaved, desperate to catch a tow and not crash and face the punishment of the post-race adjudicators. It was wheel-to-wheel action that got more intense as the shining lights of the Abu Dhabi prize either shone brighter or faded from view. As the laps went by, so did the resolve of some of the racers. A last lap lunge here, an incredible outside overtake there and even a battle where 3rd position down to 8th were within one second of each other, battling for points.
The action on screen was intense, fun, easy to follow, wonderfully commentated and, above all, incredibly accessible to all. Yes, there were a few issues. There was a false start for the game at one point which delayed proceedings and the adjudication, much like real F1 ironically, took a lot longer than it should have. Provisional results left for a lot of downtime between races and could have been streamlined a lot more.
But, as the show ended and the 20 remaining racers booked their plane tickets to the Middle-East, one thing was for sure – The inaugural F1 Esports Series engaged as it promised to and, given the speed with which this has come about, was a great example of how a real life sporting organisation can successfully turn their eye to the virtual world.