This weekend’s Formula E London E-Prix took place at the ExCel Exhibition Centre, the only top-level indoor and outdoor track in international motorsport. It may not have the prestige of Formula 1, but the sport’s popularity is growing rapidly.
And it’s not just about electric cars, but also about virtual ones. On Friday night, the focus was on the second Accelerate eSports Championship at the London E-Prix. Broadcast live on Twitch and Youtube, the contestants saw a neck-and-neck race for a share of €100,000.
Formula E’s eSports division grew during the pandemic and the need to engage racing fans online. Now this is shifting to broadening the sport’s audience and enticing fans through their love of video games and esports to see the real E-Prix.
“It’s not just about creating a media product that is theoretically a competitor to our core race,” says Kieran Holmes-Daley, Formula E’s director of games, creating a new audience to really engage with the sport.
“I think it’s been a success for us and we’ve seen real uptake, especially this season when we opened up the competition to participants and how many people from all over the world are participating in Accelerate. ”
What’s particularly impressive is how advanced racing simulations have become in replicating real-world driving. For example, the Accelerate London final was held on a virtual replica of the real track at London’s ExCel, which was specially developed for the eSports event.
Accelerate currently uses RFactor2 as the simulator of choice, with simulated racers set up for racers along with their sponsored teams. The same simulated racers will also be available for the public to try out in the event’s gaming arena.
“You’re driving official Formula E tracks and official Formula E cars and the experience is as close as you can get to being behind the wheel of a car,” says Holmes-Daley.
The two sides of real and virtual racing certainly influence each other, but Holmes-Daley is very keen for e-racing to be considered a separate product.
“We want to use the core parts of the Formula E IP in our gaming and esports activations,” he says. “We want to try to replicate our really cool qualifier duel format, we want to replicate the attack mode. These core parts of our IP we want to showcase in a gaming environment because that’s new and exciting. It’s different with players.
“The ideal scenario is to license the Formula E IP into an existing game with an existing fan base. That existing fan base gets great new content to engage with, learn about Formula E, participate in an eSports competition, invest more in Formula E, maybe come to a race and become a super fan. That’s really the goal for us.”
So what does it take to become an eSports champion?
Jarno Opmeer is the 2020 and 2021 F1 eSports World Champion who also competed in the Accelerate London Final. The Dutchman’s career began in Formula 4 and he was accepted into the Renault Sport Academy in 2017. He has since moved into the sport due to his strong skills in test simulators.
“It’s natural for me to continue racing, but just to take a slightly different path,” he says.
“Usually you want to train every day. Between three and six hours, you usually improve a little day by day. I think consistency is probably the most important part.”
Of course, virtual racing has the advantage of not being constrained by budgets, test days and the like. And if you crash, it works out a lot cheaper.
“I feel like racing in real life is a lot more relaxed because there’s a lot less preparation for yourself,” says Opmeer. “For eSports, of course you can train as much as you can. And you want to practice so much or you won’t win.”
He continues: “I think there’s a kind of nature for real racers that they have to adapt to every time they get in the car because real life is so much more dynamic with everything, especially the weather.”
That’s why his experience as a real competitor could give him an edge in eSports. It’s also a testament to the realism of sim racing in its real-life recreation, although Opmeer doesn’t expect many eSports racers to make the transition to real-world driving – even though it’s been done by former F1 eSports driver Cem Bolukbasi. which switched to Formula 2.
“I think it’s definitely possible,” he says. “I think some people have already done that. But I think it’s a lot harder than a lot of drivers think.
“Just jumping straight into a car is probably too difficult. You’ll probably have to go through the ranks as well. I don’t think we’ll see anyone go straight from eSports to F1 or even F2. I think you definitely have to start lower and work your way up.”
Holmes-Daley agrees that promoting eSports drivers to become real racers is not a primary goal of Formula E’s eSports program.
“It’s still a really admirable goal and something that would be amazing if we could tell that Cinderella story and take someone through that journey,” he says. “But the number of people who can really pass on their skills is a very small number of people.”
Formula E eSports is also different from other eSports such as League of Legends and Rainbow Six: Siege. Formula E does not intend to compete for the same audience, and motorsports fans can easily appreciate the skills of eSports competitors.
“This eSports world in motorsports is the only place where, theoretically, if you’re good at the sport, you’re good at the core sport,” says Holmes-Daley. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else, does it? Being good at FIFA doesn’t mean you’re a good soccer player. But in theory, if you’re a good simulator, you’re also a good driver. That’s the way things are.” truly unique.”
Formula E is also very much a video game: its standout feature is Attack Mode, where drivers can deviate from the racing line to get a performance boost. You can almost hear “You got boost power!” of F-Zero! speaker in the head. And that makes Formula E ideal as an e-sport.
But where other eSports have thrived on toxicity – despite excellent performance and support for women – Formula E has so far not been a problem.
“Through our partnership with the FIA, these eSports competitions are really well regulated at the highest level,” says Holmes-Daley. “And that stops a lot of the toxicity because people know where they are and ultimately don’t want to endanger it.” And the FIA can sometimes be as brutal as it needs to be.”
In addition, most of the races were single lap times where it was all about the driver and the car. “You’re not in races where people can really screw up your lap time, so the only thing you can really be mad at is yourself,” says Holmes-Daley.
This further leads to a more inclusive environment for eSports. The FIA Girls On Track program aims to empower young girls and promote gender equality in sport. It also made an impact in eSports.
“Anecdotally, with Accelerate, we’re getting a lot more female participants,” says Holmes-Daley. “Through Formula E initiatives like Girls On Track, where we’re actively trying to get more women and girls into the sport and get them into the playing arena at every race and get them to experience the sport as closely as possible without actually doing it behind a car when they walk away from it and say, “I love racing, I want to have one of these setups at home.” That’s what they’re doing there, you’re just giving them opportunities and experiences to inspire them.
Indeed, Holmes-Daley’s ambitions for Formula E eSports are that they can be as inclusive as possible, opening up racing and gaming to those who would not normally have access. Esports events are also subject to the same sustainability assessment that underpins Formula E.
Unfortunately, back at Accelerate, Opmeer was unable to stop last year’s Accelerate champion, Frede Rasmussen, who dominated the race to win €35,000. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I’m definitely glad I did it – days like this don’t come around often,” he said after the win.
This is why Formula E eSports has a bright future that will grow hand in hand as real and virtual sports reach new audiences.
Another way to do this is by playing it yourself. While RFactor2 is currently in use, Holmes-Daley is open to working with game developers to add Formula E to existing motorsports titles. Perhaps changes could be made as early as next season – especially given the problems at developer RFactor2 Motorsport Games.
“There are talks about Season 9,” he says. “We have not entered into any partnerships at this stage. So I can’t say much. But we’re in discussions with a lot of people about Season 9.”
Could we also see an official Formula E game in the future?
“I will never rule it out because I think it makes sense. I just think it’s more a matter of time,” says Holmes-Daley.
“At this point, does it make sense to create a game if the goal is really to further engage your existing fan base? Or does it make sense to license your IP into an existing game with an existing fan base to try and eventually garner some of that fan base? Probably the latter.
“But it’s definitely on the table. We have already had discussions with the game developers about this. I would say it will happen.”