Sports, like many other industries, has been left reeling by the coronavirus sucker punch. Leagues have been cancelled, and competitions called off or postponed, due to the impact of COVID-19.
Yet we’ve seen a clear trend of traditional sports relying on esports for some relief during this period of crisis. And one sport, in particular, seems uniquely positioned to adapt to the virtual world. I’m talking, of course, about simulation racing, and F1 Esports.
As a testament to the fast adoption of sim racing as the new norm, though it’s likely to be temporary, F1’s debut Esports Virtual Grand Prix is reported to have reached 3.2 million viewers – with a concurrent record of 359,000.
We spoke to Dr. Julian Tan, Formula 1’s Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports, to discuss F1 Esports’ meteoric rise to prominence: both as a widely televised and streamed substitute for regular Formula 1 action, and as a standalone entertainment product.
Esports Insider: Can you explain a little about your role at the moment, with how everything’s changing and adapting?
Julian Tan: My title is Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports, and essentially I look after all of Formula 1’s esports business. The way I tend to look at it is anything that involves the Formula 1 game, wheel, pedal, mobile, whatever that is, that sits under me, and I look after that side of the business. And I also look after our digital strategy as well. So, within our digital media, how do we think about content? How do we think about distribution? Et cetera, et cetera. And then, I also look after our F1 reselling ticketing business.
ESI: That’s quite a large umbrella of responsibilities you’ve got there!
JT: [Laughs] And to be honest, not all of them make a perfect fit next to each other, but there you go.
ESI: Regarding esports, how has the process of adaptation been – specifically with the new markets that you guys have been reaching out to with your content now?
JT: Yeah, it’s actually been really, really positive. When we had our first announcement about the Chinese GP being postponed, that really was when we started thinking about how we could use esports on the weekend of the Chinese GP specifically; to use esports and make some content on the Shanghai International Circuit through the game. And we were planning all around that, we’d gone out to the teams, we’d gone out to our partners and were pitching the idea, and we were mobilising around that. And things obviously escalated very, very quickly.
On the Friday of the Australian GP, when the Grand Prix itself got called off, and Bahrain and Vietnam were announcing that they were going to be postponed, we had to move very quickly off the back of that announcement to adapt this initial idea that we had come up with—to basically try to do something quick and scalable, more than anything. And yeah, I think when we organised our first-ever Virtual Grand Prix in Bahrain, that was really put together within five days. And it was a crazy five days, I can tell you that!
But I think, for us, it was really important to go out early. That’s obviously very important, and more than anything we really felt like we had a responsibility; at the end of the day, fans really look to sports for some relief. They look to sports and entertainment to escape. And in the absence of being able to put on a Grand Prix, it felt like esports could do exactly that, fulfil those needs. So, we thought really strongly about how we could adapt our competition to create some lighthearted racing content on the weekend when our fans would’ve normally got our F1 race.
ESI: You must look back at that as quite a successful operation, right? You must be quite pleased with the way that went.
JT: Yeah, I mean the reception and the numbers that we’re seeing off the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix were… phenomenal. I think they were the biggest numbers we’ve ever done in esports, since entering the world of esports two and a half years ago.
And I think a multitude of factors played into that. One, the way we positioned the product, as being “for entertainment”, on a weekend when F1 fans were craving for F1 content, I think that all helped. And the racing was super fun. We often survey and do a lot of research behind each of our shows just to help inform how we continue to develop the programming and by and large, a lot of people really enjoyed the racing. It was lighthearted, it made them smile, it made them laugh, which was all really positive.
And the numbers themselves, I think, for us, were really, really strong. We had close to 400,000 peak concurrent viewers online, and [McLaren F1 driving and streaming superstar] Lando [Norris]’s Twitch broke past 100,000, topping globally on Twitch at that point. By and large, we’re very impressed by the numbers, and we had 3.2 million people tune in online and an additional 1.2 million estimated on traditional TV as well. So, all in all, a really, really well-received product, and we’re excited to be able to continue to refine the product and bring entertainment to our fans.
“I’ve always believed that sim racing is a very uniquely positioned genre of esports, given the high overlap between our virtual world and the real world.”
ESI: Do you think people are watching just because they’re lacking other F1 content, or do you think sim racing can actually exist on television networks? Is it something that you think has potential in the long-term?
JT: I’ve always believed that sim racing is a very uniquely positioned genre of esports, given the high overlap between our virtual world and the real world, which obviously facilitates situations where we can have professional race car drivers come into the world of esports quite seamlessly. And vice-versa, which is also an incredible story.
And I think, for us at F1, we’re very lucky to be able to have a game that looks amazing. From a viewer’s perspective, when you’re watching an esport, you want to be able to watch something that’s visually appealing and something that’s authentic; and I think that our game, with its realistic graphics, offers that, [and] provides a familiar and authentic way of viewing racing. Although it’s virtual, it still looks very real.
I think, as well, that the kind of racing that you’re able to put in sim racing is something that is very hard to replicate in real-life racing. Someone who really enjoys watching racing, of whatever formatting, can really get stuck into sim racing or esports and be able to really enjoy the content that they’re seeing.
So, I think there is a lot going for our genre of esports within the motorsport world, which is why you’re probably seeing a lot of the new, different organisations jumping in and organising something around this. I think we are very uniquely positioned, and for us, while we are still quite small in terms of the relative size within the esports industry, we’re sort of charting our own kind of journey, really, in terms of navigating the esports world.
“Coming out from this, we’ll have a treasure trove of learning that we can then apply across our esports programs.”
ESI: You’ve received a lot of extra exposure in a very small space of time, all things considered. Do you think that this might change things for F1 Esports, but also for sim racing in general in the long-term?
JT: Well, I think that the impact that the global pandemic has had on the world, more generally… I think it will be a different world that we emerge from when this pandemic is over.
I think it’s important that we invested in this space, two and a half years ago. We couldn’t have predicted this would happen, but having a strong esports property has proved very beneficial for us. And I think that more than anything right now—yes, this has gained a lot of attention, but we’re also taking this, like with any digital product that we put out, in a “test and learn” sort of approach. So, we really want to use this as an opportunity to try a different format, learn from that, and coming out from this, we’ll have a treasure trove of learning that we can then apply across our esports programs, whether that is in our Pro Series, or in new products like the Virtual GP, or these sort of Challenge events as well. I think we’ll definitely be able to come up with a lot of learnings and see how we apply them.
To be very honest with you, I’m not sure anybody knows where we will be in two or three months from now, what that world will look like. But for now, we’re taking it day-by-day and seeing what we can do to service the fans at the core of it, in whatever form that fans want to engage with Formula 1; providing them with alternative, innovative ways to engage with our sport.
ESI: Was there anything else that you wanted to discuss?
JT: I think at this stage, how we’re kind of approaching it is: we’ve got Grand Prix weekends, where we’re hosting Virtual Grands Prix; then, on non-Grand Prix weekends, we’re hosting an F1 Esports “Challenge an F1 Driver.” We had our first one [on the 29th of March], with #ChallengeLando, where we basically gave fans the chance to race against their hero. This is another sort of alternative entertainment format using sports and gaming, to create entertainment out of it, give fans some racing that they can enjoy, and at the same time, trial a different format.
So, we had Lando challenge Ian Poulter, who is a huge golf star, but loved Formula 1, and they were racing against each other. We had Lando also race against an up-and-coming youngster in the world of motorsports, Dino Beganovic, who’s part of the Ferrari driver academy. Very, very young guy, but raced against Lando. This “Challenge an F1 Driver” concept that we do on non-Grand Prix weekends is also another way that we’re testing different ways that we can use esports to service our fans, give them some content, some racing action when we don’t have a Grand Prix or a Virtual Grand Prix happening.