Esports

Sim Racing Experts Discuss: COVID-19 Boost and the Esports Niche’s Future


Several weeks ago at the beginning of May, I began an article series explaining sim racing with the sentences: “When a commentator is praising a racing driver for a perfect lap in qualifying earning the driver pole position, shouting someone on to pull through with an overtake attempt, or analyzing a racing incident between two competitors, a fierce race is going on somewhere. Anytime we hear those comments right now, it’s safe to assume that the action didn’t happen on the Circuit of the Americas or any other real-world track but on one of its virtual counterparts in a racing sim as racing was brought to hold due to COVID-19 policies.”

Since then, sim racing has seen its biggest spike in attention as several high-profile sim races were broadcast globally on channels including TV. For a couple of weeks now, that situation has changed as motorsports restarted its engine and took to the circuits in some of the most important race series such as NASCAR, IndyCar, and Formula 1. For this latest article in the series, The Esports Observer talked to sim racers, racing drivers, motorsports organizations, and esports organizers to understand how COVID-19 policies have impacted sim racing and where the esports niche is headed from here on out.

A Surge in Sim Racing Events

After motorsports ground to an abrupt halt as COVID-19 policies went into effect, sim racing experienced a large boost in attention, which was primarily driven by popular racing drivers streaming and participating in virtual events as well as motorsports series organizing races to fill the void. A list of the most well-known motorsports series started sim racing initiatives. Formula One organized a series of F1 Virtual Grands Prix in lieu of its real races in cooperation with esports event organizer Gfinity using the official F1 2019 game developed by Codemasters. NASCAR, IndyCar, and the all-female open-wheel formula W Series launched esports series on iRacing. The endurance event 24 Hours of Le Mans organized a virtual rFactor 2 race in cooperation with Motorsport Games. The concept was adopted by many other motorsports series such as the World Rally Championship and several junior series, including the FIA F2 and F3.

24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual

Stephen Hood, president of Motorsport Games, which is part of the Motorsport Network and worked on several sim racing esports events recently, including Veloce’s Not the GP, Formula E’s Stay at Home Challenge, the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, and World Rally said that “the demand for our services has gone through the roof. It’s all credit to the esports team within Motosport Games, because they are working seven days a week.” Hood also reported that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, sim racing had seen a surge in demand, including their eNASCAR Heat Pro League.

Motorsport Games’ biggest single event project was the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, which took place on June 13-14 in lieu of the actual race that was postponed until September and co-organized with the real race’s organizers Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). “Last year we had the big grand finale at Le Mans which was fantastic. I actually think that opened the doors to what we’re doing now because a lot of the key personnel behind the Le Mans event and the World Endurance Championship could see it first hand,” said Hood, talking about the company’s Le Mans esports event. “I suspect that made it a lot easier for us to propose that this Le Mans virtual event has their full backing so that they could facilitate the drivers coming to the competitions. We were overwhelmed with the number of people that were applying to be a part of this.”

Hood explained that it took roughly seven weeks to organize the event from start to finish, while a normal turnaround for events they ran previously was about a week. This came down to the sheer scale of the event with its 200 drivers and support teams, the manufacturers, integrating the hydrogen safety car into the game, organizing the full backing of the ACO, licensing partners, and rFactor as a platform.

A cumulative audience of over 14.2M tuned into the 25-hour show in 57 different countries worldwide on mainstream channels such as Eurosport, ESPN, Sky Sports, and J-Sports to follow the virtual race. On digital channels, the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual gathered over 8.6M views across Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch.

F1 Virtual Grand Prix

Formula One’s management revealed that its F1 Esports – Virtual Grand Prix series achieved 30M views across TV and digital platforms during the lockdown period. The esports exhibition series consisted of eight Virtual Grands Prix, Pro Exhibition races, and the #Challenge events.

Credit: 24 Hours of Le Mans

The Virtual Grand Prix races reached 21.8M views on digital platforms alone, including the official Formula 1 YouTube, Twitch, and Facebook channels as well as Weibo and Huya channels in China. TV viewership estimates suggest the Virtual Grands Prix also accumulated a further 5M views through broadcast partners in over 100 countries. On top of that, several F1 drivers such as Lando Norris, Alex Albon, and George Russell streamed the races from their perspectives on their private Twitch channels.

Drivers’ Experiences

Experienced professional sim racer Michi Hoyer who collected many esports trophies over his 15-year sim racing career, including the prizes for the 2020 rFactor2 GT-Challenge Champion and GTO 2020 Championtold The Esports Observer that the lockdown “period is the best thing that could basically happen to sim racing as a branch and as a business.”

“Since the pandemic has spread out and all the real racing has been canceled, we’re now sitting in zoom meetings with Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, having a race every other Saturday where we get a really good amount of money,” Hoyer said. “Usually, you have a specific amount that you can get for the year out from leagues and championships, at the current state looking from March to May now we could have got the same amount within a month. For us sim racers it’s probably the most important phase in our career; we have won a lot of championships, we’ve been on the air on some broadcasts here and some internet broadcasts there, but neither of us has been on a race that has been broadcasted on TV channels across the world.”

His Argentine teammate for the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual race and 2019 Spanish F4 Champion, Franco Colapinto, added his perspective stating that sim racing “is a really good thing to stay in form, to stay racing, to keep fighting with real drivers and sim racers. For my side, I’m more nervous in a sim racing race than in a real race.”

Differences to Motorsports

Pictured: Simon Pagenaud

Throughout the weeks of sim racing events in lockdown, several incidents reminded us of the array of differences between sim racing and motor racing. A few highlights included an in-game bug that lost Team Redline’s entry around Lando Norris and Max Verstappen its chances of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual while in the lead of the race. The same race bore witness to IndyCar driver Simon Pageneaud fixing a hardware issue with his sim racing rig by swapping it out for a spare one he lent from a friend foreseeing such an issue could arise. Not your typical front wing change.

BMW works driver and 2019 W Series runner-up Beitske Visser, who got a sim rig at the end of April and started to participate in digital races, talked about some of the differences that are apparent to a real race driver. “It’s very different from real racing; there are a lot of things like the feeling of the car and the behavior of the car, which they can copy quite well. But obviously, you miss the feedback of your body, you don’t have the feeling of speed. As you see in many online races, there are a lot of crashes that wouldn’t happen in real races.

“For now, it’s the only way to race. I can only speak for myself, but I think most of the others are also really enjoying sim racing, but it’s not like the real world,” Visser said. “The real car is definitely 10 times better to drive, but I have been enjoying sim racing so far. I also think it’s a good help to stay in racing mode during the time that we can’t race. We spend a lot of time learning the tracks. I think it’s definitely helping us all for when we get back in the real car.”

Colapinto, who graduated to the F3 spec Toyota Racing Series at the beginning of 2020, pointed out that “most different from real racing is that all the feedback you get from the car is via visuals, audio, and especially the steering wheel, while in racing you have the constant feedback from car movements, g-forces, etcetera.”

Changes to the Sim Racing Scene

“I think perceptions have changed very quickly,” said Motorsport Games’ Stephen Hood addressing how sim racing was affected by COVID-19 policies. “I argue that the pandemic has moved sim racing esports forward several years, where people are actually more capable of appreciating what sim racing and esports can mean to a real motorsports series.”

Leeston Bryant, who serves as senior marketing manager at McLaren Racing, which entered esports a few years ago and built brands such as McLaren Shadow and the G Challenge in cooperation with Logitech’s gaming brand Logitech G, shared the sentiment that sim racing experienced several years of growth within a span of months. 

“Brands that we have been talking to about activating in esports, who were sort of on the fringes and were a little bit reticent, have seen the power of it,” Bryant said. “So we’re having a lot more interesting conversations and we’re focusing our energy on how we can take this forward into the future.”

“Sim racers benefit a lot to see how a real team is working because at the end of the day, most of the sim racers are doing everything themselves,” said sim racer Hoyer talking about how working with motorsports organizations changed the approach to competitions of sim racers. “Sim racers do the driving, do the setup work, do the engineering. In league races, we engineer each other. The guy who is not racing is sitting on the pit wall watching the stream and trying to do the calls. Now you’ve got dedicated people for everything, so you can soak that up and learn a lot from it and maybe include that in a type of esports organization where you get an engineer from elsewhere so we can focus on driving while the engineer does the numbers work.”

Credit: McLaren Racing

Aside from how sim racing was perceived by outsiders and what sim racers learned from working with motorsports organizations, several things changed within the scene. For example, sim racing games recorded an increase in new players and viewership numbers as well as streamers playing sim racing games. Furthermore, the combination of increased demand and supply chain shortages due to COVID-19 lockdowns globally led to sim racing equipment manufacturers such as Heusinkveld running low on products.

Benefiting Motorsports

Dutch W Series driver Visser, who picked up several wins in the first rounds of the W Series Esports League (which replaces the canceled 2020 W Series) illustrated that “the good thing about sim racing is that you can just try something. Let’s say in real life someone tells you; you can do that corner flat, you’re not going to do that corner flat on the first lap because if you go off and crash, you waste half of your day with your damage and it’s quite expensive. And on the sim, you can just try it and if it doesn’t work, you just press escape and restart.

“It’s a lot cheaper than the real thing, so I think it’s a good way for young girls, young drivers to start out and learn how the racing world works,” she added before mentioning that it is also a nice platform to engage with fans on a personal level through her Twitch stream.

“I’m learning a lot from sim racing, it can be very useful in the real cars,” said race driver Colapinto, agreeing with the sentiment that sim racing is benefiting his motorsports career. “And I’m gonna be stronger when the real races come again.”

Credit: Dutch W Series

His sim racing teammate for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Hoyer, went a step further in saying “I think sim racing will be a part of racing itself as a lot of academy programs are based on simulator driving and stuff, so I think sim racing can be a discipline in the world of motorsports itself.” An opinion that is shared by McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, who is quoted saying that he thinks that within the next  10 years, there will be someone on the Formula One grid who was discovered in esports.

Brown’s colleague at McLaren Racing, Bryant, told us a story highlighting how sim racing is making the sports more accessible by familiarizing young people with motorsport-specific terms and knowledge. “I think we’ll see a lot more of those 360-degree journeys where people maybe start in esports and then it sort of brings their passion into Formula One as well because they understand things like ERS, DRS, and sectors from playing the game,” Bryant said. “Also, they have this tool where they can compare themselves a little bit to their heroes and real-life drivers, see their faces, and engage with them. So I just think that esports is going to add to the motorsports experience.”

“With esports, there is no real reason why we can’t have any real high-level female competitors. I think for us having some really strong women come through would be a great thing to see because we always do what we can to make our esports initiatives as accessible as possible,” said Bryant promoting the chance to create inclusivity, which sim racing offers to motorsports brands. “In our 2019 McLaren Shadow Challenge, we had our first participant who wasn’t fully able-bodied, we built a custom rig so that he could race alongside all of the other participants of the challenge. He was really talented and I think would hopefully inspire other people to enter the challenge and know that at McLaren we do everything to make sure they can race to high standards.”

The Future of Sim Racing

“I’ll definitely continue with sim racing. I’ll do several races even once we get back into real racing,” said W Series competitor Beitske Visser, sharing her intent to stick with sim racing regardless of lockdowns lifting. “For us drivers, it would be cool to continue doing those things in the offseason.”

Pictured: Beitske Visser

A positive outlook on the future of sim racing is shared from an events organizer’s perspective. “I’d love to see the Le Mans Virtual event become a staple of the motorsport calendar going forward because it’s not something that we’ve had to persuade people to participate [in]. The drivers are willing to participate in this, they’re flocking the world over to be part of Le Mans Virtual, which is something very important to the credibility of esports and the event that motorsport games can provide,” Motorsport Games President Hood said. “I don’t want this to be a one-off, I think it’s a platform for the future.”

Similarly bullish on sim racing’s future is McLaren’s Leeston Bryant. “Esports is definitely here to stay. It’s going to affect real motorsports so already we have people talking to us about racing fans and people, in general, they want to be entertained 24/7 all year around. And we have the summer shutdown and we have the break preseason. Brands and fans are talking to us about how we can actually do more esports activities during those moments.”

Rounding up the expectations of a bright future for sim racing is the scene’s veteran Michi Hoyer, who thinks “sim racing has proved to be a lot more entertaining due to its advantages in terms of the costs and maybe the more risks other drivers are taking and therefore are more incidents which is maybe a little bit more appealing to the standard viewer.

“I do hope that post-COVID-19 we still have those kinds of competitions because I think with the viewing numbers rising and the attention rising for sim racing that will also drag some investors in that will also drag some more interested parties in which will grow the business,” Hoyer added. “We have been working for that progress [for] many, many years. In March, when everything started to happen in sim racing, we saw the numbers and that was insanely good.”

The Ugly

Credit: Daniel Abt

While sim racing managed to provide millions of people with competitive entertainment and was overall received positively from all sides, all the attention on the esports niche turned out to be devastating for several motorsports competitors who experienced negative consequences to their racing careers caused by their behavior in esports events.

Two-time Formula E race winner Daniel Abt lost his seat at Audi’s official Formula E factory team Audi Sport ABT Schaeffler as a result of an esports scandal in the Formula E Race at Home Challenge. The racing driver decided to let an experienced sim racer drive in his position without coordinating this stunt for a YouTube video with his employer or the Formula E leadership. Nevertheless, Abt will finish the Formula E season once it returns for its final six rounds in Berlin, Germany, as Chinese racing stall Nio picked him up for the remainder of the season.  

During an official NASCAR sim racing event in April, former Ganassi CGR driver Kyle Larson used a racial slur on his broadcast causing his team to release him from his driving duties. Additionally, several corporations such as McDonald’s, Credit One Bank, and Chevrolet terminated their sponsorship of Larson. In April, fellow NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace lost his sponsor Blu-Emu as a consequence of rage quitting during an iRacing eNASCAR event.

Aside from the incidents that affected drivers’ racing careers, several situations caused upset amongst fans. One of the most talked-about examples happened during the Indianapolis season finale of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge when McLaren Formula One driver Lando Norris was taken out on purpose by Simon Pagenaud. In the same race, Santino Ferrucci crashed into the leader Oliver Askew, who inherited the lead from Norris, yards in front of the finish line.


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