The digital revolution

Esports has become so big, not even Formula 1 can ignore it any more but is it really the future of motor sport?

That Formula 1 launched its bigger and better esports series in a part-converted cinema is rather fitting. Both F1 and Hollywood are at crisis points, facing growing threats from the internet, changing consumption habits and an audience unwilling to be held to ransom by overpriced food and drink, tickets, all-consuming merchandise… And TV deals.

But while cinema fought back with boutique screens and comfy chairs to attract a new audience, F1 is trying to do it with technology.

In an age when youngsters are spending more and more time in front of screens, F1 is attempting to harness the power of online gaming to boost the sport. It might sound modern, but actually it is the oldest trick in the book: if you can’t beat them, join them.

Esports has recently crossed over into the mainstream, so much so that it’s now being talked of in the same breath as the Olympics. It reportedly reaches 320 million people worldwide and is predicted to generate £1 billion in revenue by 2020.

It’s not just traditional sports-based games such as FIFA or the NFL game Madden that have taken over esports. Fortnite is one of the biggest games in the world, reportedly earning $300 million every month, and routinely fills football stadiums in America with spectators watching the world’s best gamers competing. It even offered a prize fund of $100 million (£77m) for its esports tournament.

Gamers are capitalising, too, with their own YouTube channels documenting their exploits and building them huge followings. They can then make money from advertising revenue on these videos, supplementing their more traditional sponsorship deals with gaming companies. They’re routinely earning seven-figure sums.

Naturally, racing is an ideal fit. Gran Turismo and Forza are among the most popular games worldwide, with leagues and championships cropping up by the day. More than five million gamers have played GT Sport, which is less of a simulator, more an arcade game. Project CARS blurs that line between sim and game, appealing to those who want more realism from their game, but as a result the independent game will never get close to the Sony-backed GT Sport and Microsoft-developed Forza in terms of reach. iRacing and Assetto Corsa both take things even closer to simulator quality, and are the titles of choice for the more serious gamer. Including Max Verstappen and Aston Martin works driver Nicki Thiim.

F1 is hoping to capitalise on this booming industry by further developing its own esports championship for its Codemasters-developed F1 2018 game. Last year featured a soft launch, a toe-in-water championship that culminated in a race between 20 gamers on rigs set up in the Abu Dhabi paddock in November.

Involvement for season two has been ramped up, and it launched with this inaugural Esports Series Pro Draft. Similar to NFL’s draft system, or school PE, teams will take it in turns to select drivers from a batch of 40 qualifiers.

F1 said 66,000 gamers entered its open qualification phase, which included a series of tasks and races that whittled down the fastest ones – evenly split across PlayStation 4, Xbox and PC.

Two further spots in the draft were available to the fastest two from the ‘Online Qualification Wildcard’, a time trial event combining lap times of Sochi and Barcelona.

“Picture grandstand seating to watch Ferrari deciding between Leclerc and Räikkönen”

Fabrizio Donoso Delgado and Sven Zürner, who finished second and third in last year’s championship, completed the field. Among the qualifiers are former junior single-seater drivers and karters, including Brits Graham Carroll and James Doherty, Swede Kimmy Larsson and Germany-based Cem Bolukbasi.

No racing will take place at the draft itself, we’re only here to see the choices being made. Picture grandstand seating for Ferrari deciding between Charles Leclerc and Kimi Räikkönen.

Once the drivers have been chosen, the championship will comprise three live races in London in October and November to decide the F1 Esports Pro Series champion and a $200,000 (£153,000) prize fund will be split.

At Hammersmith’s Odeon cinema, the Draft is about to get underway…. A slightly panicked shout asks where number 23 is. The voice leads to a line of 40 teenagers and 20-somethings dressed head-to-toe in black with the F1 logo emblazoned across their identical t-shirts.

This is as far from Spa or Silverstone as you could get – this is more like a TV set. We are ushered in, told to be clear of the aisles, and the cinema screen has been replaced by a fancy staircase that leads up to the names and logos like those on the F1 grid but somehow different. Renault Sport has gained ‘Vitality’, Force India has ‘Hype’ and McLaren a ‘Shadow’, because this esports series is an opportunity for teams to partner with new gamers and sponsors.

So too for Liberty: footwear brand New Balance is the series’ ‘presenting partner’. Drivers will be wearing New Balance shoes and socks.

As for the team names, Renault’s partner Vitality is an esports specialist with teams in all manner of competitions, Hype is an energy drink that is a long-time Force India partner (and counts Bertrand Gachot as its CEO), while Shadow is the brand McLaren has set up for its own esports exploits.

The lights dim, and the small crowd of family and industry people is instructed to shuffle into the middle seats to make it look busier. And to clap on demand.

We are not alone. In a sign of how important F1 regards this event the ‘VIP area’ is hosting a familiar face or two, both holding a beer (Heineken, naturally): Chase Carey, F1’s chief executive and Sean Bratches, the sport’s managing director. Proper drivers have turned up too: Red Bull racer Max Verstappen and fellow Junior Team graduate Pierre Gasly are here helping their teams pick drivers.

The insight in the studio is provided by BBC commentator Jack Nicholls, who began his career commentating on gaming, and Johnny Herbert, who’s all for the change in tack provided by Liberty Media.

“We need to do whatever we can to reach a younger audience,” Herbert says later. “The games have come a long way from when I was given one to try and learn the Nordschleife and had to complete these little tests to get to the next section of the circuit.”

Nissan, Gran Turismo (presumably the game Herbert used) and Sony proved a decade ago the inherent link between racing games and real-world racing. Lucas Ordoñez and Jann Mardenborough are high-profile products of the Darren Cox-devised GT Academy, which put the world’s best Gran Turismo players through a rigorous set of tests to see if they could cut it in the real world. They could, and both reached the Le Mans podium, even.

That’s not the aim here with the F1 Esports Series. The ‘drivers’ will be making a living from the game and the contracts they are signing. The word professional is bandied around on the night, and it transpires they will all be exactly that.

Rupert Svendsen-Cook, a former single-seater racer who has co-founded sports management company Veloce with Jean-Éric Vergne – the current Formula E champion – and Jack Clarke – a former F2 driver – is running the Alfa Romeo Sauber esports team. He says: “I can speak for our guys and they’re all being paid contractual salaries. They are legitimate professionals.

“Our drivers wouldn’t put themselves in the hat as the best esports drivers, but they create fantastic content, they’re engaging and incredibly relevant to F1 and esports. There are two sides to the coin – who is the real winner of the F1 Esports championship? The guy who wins the races or the guy who engages the millions of followers and viewers? Right now, I don’t know. F1 has in its DNA performance and success. No one becomes a superstar unless they are winning.

“In the current esports world, ‘Ninja’ [27-year-old American Fortnite and Halo gamer Richard Tyler Blevins] is the best-known star. But is he the best? Perhaps not. So how do you measure success and what are you trying to gain from doing it?”

There seem to be more questions than answers in the world of esports at the moment, and that’s something Veloce is embracing – flying in the face of F1’s apparent need to know everything all of the time.

“We’re not being dramatic when we say we’re making it up as we go along here...”

“We’re not trying to be dramatic when we say we’re making it up as we go along here,” Svendsen-Cook says. “Everyone is. What else can you do? No one has done it before, we’re just having to trust our instinct. It’s super refreshing. Motor sport is what we love, it’s the best thing in the world. This is a refreshing branch-out that we have discovered.”

Back at the Odeon the drivers are getting jittery while they await their name being called to signal their selection.

All the pre-show videos were about ex-karter Bolukbasi, originally from Turkey, but he’s not first pick. He’s not even in the first five and he’s on the edge of his seat with his hands covering his face. It’s tense, and we’re all tense for him.

He’s finally chosen to join Toro Rosso, and Gasly hands him a branded t-shirt and cap. And he’s finally stopped jittering.

That’s how much this means to them all, there are tears after each pick, floods of them at 9pm from some who failed to make the cut.

It’s notable that those picked look more like a racing driver than those who didn’t – each of the competitors that climbed up the racing ladder at least a few rungs got a seat. That’s maybe the old world, unable to shake its expectations of what a driver should be. Or maybe they’re just more marketable.

Yet the line between esports and real-world racing is certainly blurring. Formula E, for example, will soon allow fans to ‘race’ against real drivers’ ghost cars – a simulation of recent races that gamers can join. Races will be re-run online, but this time with gamers. It’s a remarkable concept that already makes F1’s look rather outdated.

“I watch esports on my phone and I think ‘that looks like the real thing,” admits Svendsen-Cook. “But we need to stop saying that because it just is a thing. The generation that comes through, they don’t think it looks like anything else – it’s just what it is.

“Before F1 we had horse racing, before that the horse was a daily necessity in our lives. That changed with the combustion engine, but horse racing still exists and is very, very prestigious. Millions of people watch it and it’s hugely valuable. With F1, which has developed on and on, all of a sudden Formula E has arrived because the internal combustion engine might not be the way forward any more. Maybe F1 needs to find a bit more of its own DNA, but it will always exist. Esports is just another branch of it.

“It’s frustrating to see other teams or people not really embracing it because we know and understand the value of esports,” continues Svendsen-Cook. “It’s very important for us not to get caught up in the politics or slowed down, and not worry about who owns it, who can stream it, who can’t. The point of esports and its rapid growth is the fact it’s free to view all over the world. So don’t try and control it or regulate it. I hope motor sport doesn’t get too ‘motor sport’ about it and just lets it do what it needs to do.

“I spoke at the FIA conference in Manila and gave a broad update of the opportunity that is being presented to them. But the reality is, with or without them it’s going to happen. The train is going to leave the station, you can either get on it and be involved or don’t. It’s still going to go.”

It costs just a £200 console, a £50 game and maybe a steering wheel to compete at a high level in esports, which may also open doors to real-world racing should the players want it. A season of karting these days can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to be competitive, with no guarantee of progression.

And in esports, nothing but ability comes into it; age and gender, size and weight are irrelevant. This is as fair as racing can get and could well reach more people than F1 ever could on its own.

Back at the Pro Draft, Herbert tries finally to leave but is held up offering condolences to those in tears and smiling for photos.

“Who’s that?” whispers one fan’s friend to another, neither probably born when Herbert crossed the line for the last time in a Grand Prix, 18 years ago.

Maybe if Johnny had a YouTube channel they’d have recognised him.