Could the F1 Esports Final herald a racing esports revolution?

When 18 year-old kitchen manager Brendon Leigh secured the crown of the inaugural F1 Esports Series in front of almost half a million viewers on YouTube and Twitch, something curious happened. It felt like a great, invisible veil had fallen down, uncovering a novel and exciting new future for racing esports. It felt like change.

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Brendon’s victory is not the first time that racing esports has been grabbing headlines in recent weeks. Last month’s F1 Esports Series Grand Final was preceded by its motorbiking equivalent, as the MotoGP eSports Championship ended in Valencia. A smooth production and engrossing final lead to a clamour of praise for the event’s awesome potential.

Then there was the news ten days ago that professional racing titan and household name Fernando Alonso was partnering with esports powerhouse G2. The first Formula 1 driver to take a direct involvement in the scene, the deal sees Alonso’s brand attached to a new team that will participate in professional racing championships, named ‘FA Racing G2 Logitech G’. They will reportedly be competing in F1, rFactor, and other leagues on the esports and sim racing circuit.

“It is very exciting, and it is a completely new thing to discover,” said Alonso at the time of the announcement. “I think esports in other formats has been very successful but in racing, it is at the very beginning, and huge potential will come.”

Alonso is not alone in his inclination towards competitive gaming. McLaren has been another force driving a considerable amount of attention to the potential behind a marriage of esports and racing. Their November competition in partnership with IDEAS+CARS, the smartly branded ‘World’s Fastest Gamer’, pitted a dozen finalists against each other to win the opportunity to join the McLaren team as a simulator driver.

Despite a streamlined production, their video series had some drawbacks, as they declined to show the final races held on the company’s top-secret racing simulator (for fear of handing over a competitive advantage to their rivals). The WFG format and narrative, however, were extremely engrossing, so perhaps there is enough inspiration here for a third-party to improve on the formula for a future event.

More than just accruing headlines, racing esports is providing viewers with some incredible storylines that can only see them attract more fans. For example, Brendon Leigh was one of four competitors starting the last race of the F1 Esports Series Grand Final in the knowledge that a win would guarantee them the title. Fabrizio Donoso was another of those four, and he lead the contest heading into the very final lap, with Brendon right behind him.

Then a moment of magic. With the road straightening out, Brendon faked an overtake on the right, before quickly swinging back onto the inside track to squeeze past Fabrizio as the pair began a sharp turn left. With his car poking in front just enough after the manoeuvre to force Fabrizio to have to cut the next corner, Brendon pulled ahead and stormed to victory.

With an exhilarating ending and some wonderfully compelling commentary, it was had all the hallmarks of a classic esports moment. In fact, the final was so thrilling that it led the automotive editor at Ars Technica to declare it ‘more exciting than the real thing‘.

In practical terms, whether racing esports is more exciting than the real deal is almost irrelevant, as there’s no evidence that yet suggests the two are in direct competition with each other. Even if it has the potential to produce closer and more interesting races, there’s no denying the raw appeal of an eight hundred kilogram modern marvel hurtling down a racetrack of real asphalt, just metres away from thousands of spectators, who battle for their cheers to be heard over the din of the engines. But esports will surely only help fuel renewed interest into racing, as the next generation is introduced to the sport via the medium.

The increasing number of tournaments proves that the marketing potential of esports is being picked up on by more and more companies in professional racing, which can only suggest that the burgeoning growth the scene has witnessed this year will continue into the future. I, for one, will be watching with a keen interest. Look out 2018: the next big thing is on the way.

The ESI Super Forum will explore the crossover between sports and esports on Thursday 22nd March 2018. The one day conference will include six panels and workshops, an esports exhibition zone and ample networking and fun. Find out more here.