In a guest article for Motorsport Broadcasting, Andrew Young looks at the virtual motor sport scene, after a flurry of events since the cancellation of real-world activities.
In keeping with Motorsport Broadcasting ethos of looking objectively at the broadcasting element of motorsport, I thought we would take some time to look at the virtual replacement and the offerings so far.
It has become increasingly confusing to know what to watch, when and why, as all things Esports and gaming floods the motor sport world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A history lesson…
Competitive, online racing is not new, and in fact has been around for over 20 years away from the eyes of the wider racing community. Take for instance, Grand Prix Legends, a fiercely difficult game released in 1998 which, internet permitting, you could race others around the world.
Widely considered the first adapters to the online gaming world, Live for Speed followed in 2003, with semi-professional races largely for the German community. The game provided the platform for the first-ever Intel Racing Tour offline series, a collaboration between BMW and Intel during their participation in F1 in 2007.
The biggest platforms, rFactor and iRacing, hit the market in 2005 and 2008 respectively, changing the game. rFactor 2, Assetto Corsa and RaceRoom all followed, with the specific purpose of racing online against others, unlike games that provided accessibility on consoles or computer-controlled competitors (AI), such as TOCA, F1 and Gran Turismo.
Sim competitions are as old as the games itself. Formula Sim Racing, running on rFactor 2 nowadays, crowned their first champion back in 2001, whilst iRacing organisers kickstarted their own World Championship in 2010.
Drivers form teams to help each other set cars up, or indeed run in endurance races where they can swap drivers. Some will simply be engineers, monitoring the rest of the race to decide on strategy and help the drivers or team do the best they can. At the highest level, it is as every bit as professional as the real world it has run in parallel with for so long.
Although some way behind the likes of Fortnite, League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in the popularity stakes, online racing has gained momentum in recent years, thanks to an increase in broadcast quality led by the likes of the Gran Turismo Tour, helping bring sim racing into the mainstream fold.
Getting a group of people together to put on a race from a single venue is one thing, and as shiny and impressive as that may sound, COVID-19 has taken the organisation involved to another level. The pandemic has forced organisers to live stream competitions with racers from across the world. A very big challenge, but for some, the norm…
With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of real-world races, the pandemic is forcing fans and championships alike to delve deeper into this virtual world.
The Race gets off the line on top
First out of the blocks was new publication The Race. The outlet, backed by Torque Esports, reacted to the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix by getting sim and real-world racers together on rFactor 2 (rF2).
So many real-world drivers and teams are familiar with the feel of rF2 (as used by teams) meaning that this was a wise choice by Torque. BBC’s 5 Live F1 commentary duo Jack Nicholls and Jolyon Palmer flew straight in from Melbourne to add star quality to the broadcast and, despite commentating from “a stranger’s bedroom,” sounded as though they were on 5 Live.
The entry list pulled in Max Verstappen, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmy Broadbent and the race coverage felt professional, with fantastic GFX and replays. Readers not versed in sim racing may wonder why I added ‘Jimmer’ to that list, but with 425,000 followers on YouTube, Jimmy is probably the most famous sim racer out there.
His numbers are staggering considering he only has made 1,500 videos, but Jimmy broadcasts fantastically well, which is the appeal of his channel in high-stake situations. His channel also offers a unique behind the scenes look, which Nicki Thiim and now famously Lando Norris both replicate. The ‘bloke in shed’ vibe gives Broadbent fantastic appeal and a second screen option which can be hugely addictive to watch.
While The Race totally nailed their first offering, Veloce Esports in comparison stumbled. The group replicated what so many people outside of sim racing believe sim racing to be, mates having a laugh with no care for professionalism.
This should have been the stream for F1 fans, but with the first 30 minutes littered with connection, sound, and picture issues, it was very much a miss. They may have had the numbers, thanks to Norris, Broadbent and randomly Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid footballer), and because they chose to use F1 (the business connections placed them on the F1 channels), but it was a mess.
We can excuse Veloce, while many of their individual athletes stream their online battles, this was a separate undertaking, but they did not have the equipment to cope and their ‘in-house’ presenting team struggled.
On the same weekend as all the above, iRacing eSports Network ran one of their special events ’12 hours of Sebring’ – a full replication of the famous event, a precursor to the actual race happening the weekend after.
iRacing broadcasts are stunning to watch, with immersive cameras, replays and GFX. At times however, the commentary suffers from inferior quality and, at high octane moments, a lack of discipline as to who reacts and leads the moment. Such is the number of events they do, and the commentators they have, the quality varies.
F1 joins the party with ‘Virtual Grand Prix’
One week later, IMSA streamed their Super Saturday offering, with the Radio Show Limited (better known as Radio Le Mans) commentary team at their disposal, a clear step up from previously. Having BMW Motorsport heavily promote and support it with real engineers working with real drivers helped a lot. The event was exclusive to IMSA competitors, which helped the immersion.
The Race stepped up as well. A studio to show Nicholls’ and Palmer’s faces made it feel super slick and additional real-world drivers took part. Oddly, Verstappen withdrew late on, and a lack of buzz meant that audience figures were down, even if the product was more refined.
Nicholls also popped up again on F1’s official first attempt at filling the void, with their Virtual Grand Prix, partnering Alex Jacques on commentary. Veloce’s event preceded F1’s, in the same way Formula Two precedes F1 in real-life: same track, bigger stars.
The quality of racing in the Virtual Grand Prix fell into two camps: entertaining, or a joke. To take online racing seriously you first need the participants to take it seriously and Johnny Herbert cutting the first corner set the tone for a chaotic race comparable to Destruction Derby.
Unfortunately, the one-dimensional commentary worked as much as it did not, and similarly incorporating shots of the drivers in their rigs gave a small flavour of where some of the guys were situated, although it was out-of-sync. With the largest audience by far, F1 failed to impress on the big stage.
If the first two weekends were busy, the third weekend proved that oversaturation could hit Esports sooner than imagined. IndyCar, MotoGP, NASCAR, and SRO joined Veloce, F1 and The Race on the Esports stage, all trying to get a slice of the (smaller than real-life racing) pie.
The Race introduced a Legends event, in old cars, which was genius, just ask Jimmer who has been doing this for a while on his channel. Unfortunately, social isolation forced Nicholls and Palmer to commentate on the races from their own houses, which created minor technical issues. The pace of the broadcast resulted in a lot of studio chat, both pre-races and in between the heats.
The introduction of Esports personality Sadokist was a welcome addition, although the quality of the direction decreased compared to previous weeks. It just felt like everyone cared a little bit less, with this The Race’s third event in successive weeks.
Veloce switched to iRacing from F1 for the first time. Their partnership with sim racing experts Motorsport Games helped them understand other platforms, also replacing some of the ‘Veloce Athletes’ with a field of real-world racers. The on-screen line-up remained the same as previous weeks, meaning that, even with The Race’s own issues, Veloce’s product was still not as polished as The Race.
IndyCar shows all how to master the game…
A new king soon emerged in the form of IndyCar: a full grid of real-world drivers, combined with an awesome broadcast made for a great night of entertainment. NASCAR did the same the previous week, also on iRacing, but was unavailable to this writer.
IndyCar’s broadcast felt realistic to real-life: the same commentary line-up, a pre-race prayer and national anthem, and within eight minutes, the cars were off the line.
Lead commentator Leigh Diffey and the remainder of the crew treated sim racing with respect rather than a second-tier inferior product. On-screen interviews with retired drivers featured throughout, a nice addition to the broadcast.
It did not go quite as far as NASCAR showing drivers in their rigs, but ultimately it felt like a very slick production, one thinks F1 could learn a lot from the iRacing broadcasts. iRacing has benefited hugely in the US with both NASCAR and IndyCar Esports airing on linear TV.
SRO was next to step-up, using the visually stunning Assetto Corsa Competizione. Turn away, and it would be easy to think that you were watching a real event at Monza. It looked stunning. The racing was spellbinding and, coupled with the graphics, was immersive, but without the basics (such as replays), some of the storytelling disappeared.
…only to go live behind a pay wall one week later
After a successful opening weekend, IndyCar returned one week later at the start of April live on NBC for fans in the US and Sky Sports for fans in the UK. However, there was no live YouTube stream in sight, instead, IndyCar only uploaded a stream post-race to their social channels (see above).
VLN and the Porsche Supercup entered the fray to kickstart April, the latter aired on Eurosport, a first for sim racing. Both broadcasts were professional and clean, following the same iRacing model of broadcast.
The Race once again did their thing, needing to tweak the format due to competitor numbers, as well as getting some great competitors on-board. The addition of a proper functioning ‘on-board’ camera in Jenson Button’s house a treat. The Race refined their post-race visual interviews, however their numbers were again poor, by far their lowest of the four weekends so far.
Guess where the most entertainment came from? Testing! Yup, Saturday evening entertainment was joining 140,000 others with Jimmy Broadbent in a practice lobby with six Formula 1 drivers practicing in the virtual world, all having banter and a laugh with one another. “Can we just do this race on our own, it would be way more fun,” was one quote from Red Bull racer Alex Albon.
The F1 stream increased in quality massively compared to the first outing two weeks earlier, with more real-world drivers involved and much better wheel-to-wheel racing. However, continuing to host on-site from their Fulham studios with Alex Jacques, Jack Nicholls, Tom Deacon and Matt Gallagher is an extremely poor decision considering the lockdown restrictions currently in force in the UK.
Although Charles Leclerc winning generated some good PR, the evening was not without its faults. The F1 2019 game kicked Norris out before the race even started, leading to an amusing phone call from Verstappen, broadcast over Norris’s Twitch stream. “You should throw the game in the bin, that’s why I will never join that,” Verstappen said to Norris. Ouch…
With COVID-19 expected to last a while and F1 toying with cancelling July events, Esports is our new norm, for the moment, and providing us all with a lot of entertainment in this difficult hour. Here is hoping we don’t get overwhelmed by it all just yet…
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