Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Formula 1 Esports Series: Blending fiction and reality

Posted on 13 October 2017 by Ena Bilobrk

Formula One have their eyes on the future creating their first ever Esports Championship. The semifinal held at Gfinity Arena in London on the 10th October exceeded all expectations drawing any old-fashioned motorsports fan into the world of gaming. Sports Gazette’s Ena Bilobrk went to have a look at how close virtuality and reality really were.

There was no engine noise, no smell of petrol or of overheated tires. The familiar buzzing of drills in a paddock garage was exchanged by an arena, pretty much looking like the X-factor. The only hint was the familiar big and bold Formula One crest gracing walls, floors and occasional caps and T-shirts. The Formula 1 Esports Series Championship is seen as the virtual evolution of the highest class of auto racing. As the lights of the Gfinity arena in London dimmed for the first ever live broadcasted semi-finals of a virtual Formula One race, you were drawn into a game that made you walk on the borderline between fiction and reality.

The massive screens feeding live footage of the game to an even bigger audience in the arena projected images that made you rub your eyes.

TV screen showing red F1 car.
Unbelievable graphics. (image by Ena Bilobrk)

“Traditional ESports can be quite niche. What we purposely did was creating an environment where people can really follow the action. We purposely picked a panel that had experts in the world of Esports citing alongside F1 talent”, said Mark Brittain, Chief Commercial Officer of Gfinity – the world’s leading Esports company hosting the event alongside Formula one.

So the likes of Sky Sports’ Davide Valsecchi and BBC’s Jack Nichols providing live commentary to the virtual races was mind blowing. The borderline was thin, almost invisible.

Only when you looked up to the ten gamers competing next to each other in their simulators at a time, the line thickened again.

Overall, 40 players from all over the world qualified to race against each other in the arena and 20 moved on to the finale taking place in Abu Dhabi end of November.

Here, we have our first problem of such reality/fiction crossover. How do you call someone who plays a game but handles a steering wheel, clutch, break and a gas pedal at the same time? Is that a driver, a racer or still a gamer?

“I’d say we are gamers but in our case it is difficult to classify”, admitted Sven Zürner, one of the five Germans that qualified for Abu Dhabi. The 18-year-old continued: “The biggest difference is that you don’t feel the G-forces. The only resistance is at the steering wheel.”

Formula One has struggled with viewing figures in the recent past. After Millennium babies childhood heroes like Michael Schumacher, Mika Häkkinen or David Coulthard went away, the sport had trouble reaching a new demographic – one that grew up with technology.

Two boys in racing simulators.
Surreal: Are they drivers or players now? (Image by Sam Bloxham)

“Brands look at this as a legitimate way to reach a demographic that they can’t reach through traditional media. This is about engaging a whole new community into the potential of Formula One”, agreed Brittain.

But Esports don’t want to compete but rather sit alongside or merge with the brand. The possibility of Formula One teams having their official Esports counterparts hasn’t been ruled out.

No other virtual sport is as close to reality as motorsports gaming. It is not just button-pressing on a joy-stick, it is physical play. Most simulators used for such games – and they differ from series to series – resemble the ones real Formula One drivers use to get familiar with tracks. But this is just the beginning.

“The resistance of the pedals here is quite light. In Formula One they have a resistance of 90kg and here it was only 2-5kg”, explained Zürner. Introducing real-life resistances and G-forces to simulators used in gaming would be the next step towards reality.

Numerous drivers/players (one is still struggling to finalise on a title) have expressed their wish to make the jump to the real world through Esports. Formula One manufacturer McLaren has already started a competition called the ‘World’s Fastest Gamer’ through which the team hopes to find their new official simulator driver.

The Esports Series could potentially act as another platform for shifting talent from virtuality to reality. Brittain confirmed that “it would be great if maybe one of these drivers in ESports went to real Formula One”. But he also explained that “it isn’t the goal”.

“It is about creating a series that anybody can participate in. A lot of these were amateurs who were competing against other people in their bedroom and last night they were broadcasted around the world”, he said.

20 boys standing in line on stairs on stage.
They made it to the final in Abu Dhabi. (Image by Ena Bilobrk)

It is an extraordinary pathway that has never been achieved before and no one expected the hype.

Another Abu Dhabi finalist Dutchman Allert Vanderwiel found the right words:

“I didn’t expect it to be this big, I didn’t even know that Karun (Chandhok) and Matty G (Esports expert) will be here. If this is only in the first year, the following years will become even bigger.”

Formula One, Gfinity and the game’s designers ‘Codemasters’ have all pulled the right strings to stage an event unlike anything before. In an age of technology developing at the speed of an eye-blink it is no surprise that virtual and real world are on collision course .

A sport where technology plays such a massive role is the perfect guinea pig and Britton is sure it will bear fruits:

“This is a space that is evolving on a daily basis and a brand that can be brave enough to put that foot in the water is a brand that should be applauded. It is truly gonna stand the test of time.”

In Abu Dhabi, the two worlds will literally collide as the Esports studio will be built on the side of the race track. This means more of the personalities and the atmosphere of real Formula One will come into play and the 20 finalists, as well as the audience behind the screens, will soon find themselves in the presence of the future of sports.