Smith: First Vegas eRace throws up pitfalls, huge potential, of sim racing as an eSport
Formula E has a knack for thinking outside of the box and venturing where other series wouldn’t dare to.
So when the all-electric series announced last July at the London ePrix that it would be hosting a virtual non-championship round in Las Vegas, it really came as little surprise.
This is a championship that has one of the fastest-growing and youngest audiences in motorsport. In an era where video games are not only consumed directly en masse, but have also become a spectator sport, the move seemed to be a masterstroke.
And the massive potential of the concept was certainly evident in Las Vegas on Saturday night. But so were the unavoidable pitfalls of sim racing that make eSports so hard to match up with the real-world thing.
The race weekend was intended to go by like any other ePrix. The drivers were afforded a first taste of the track on the Friday before further practices on Saturday, followed by qualifying and the race later in the day. The only difference to the regular FE schedule was the presence of a qualifying race, necessary to reduce the grid from 30 to 20 drivers.
Joining the 20 regular Formula E drivers were 10 of the world’s finest sim racers, who had qualified for the event through the Road to Vegas scheme. Don’t go thinking these were kids mucking about on their PlayStation while sitting on their sofa. Their success on platforms such as iRacing and rFactor 2 - the latter being used for the eRace - has made them household names in the sim racing world, and have even led to a handful of real-life race car run-outs.
The ability of the sim racers was such that few expected the Formula E regulars to stand a chance. One Formula E driver told me before Christmas that they would be “fighting for 11th”, fully expecting the gamers to sweep the board.
And indeed, nine of the top 10 qualifiers in Vegas were from the virtual sphere. The only man to break their dominance was Felix Rosenqvist, who proved that not only is he superhuman behind the wheel of any real racing car, but that he can also cut his teeth as a sim driver.
Rosenqvist put up a good fight through qualifying and the race, but it was five-time Formula Sim Racing world champion Bono Huis who dominated. Huis topped every single practice and qualifying session before shooting off into the distance at the start of the race. Despite coming under pressure from Rosenqvist throughout, the Dutchman entered the pits with five laps to go with a comfortable buffer. Victory and the $200,000 top prize seemed to be his.
But then things turned around.
Finnish racer Olli Pahkala had been running on the fringes of the top five for much of the race before coming in to make an early pit stop. He’d benefitted from an almighty crash involving three sim racers in the battle for third, but somehow, he’d emerged nine seconds clear of Huis at the front. In a race without cautions or safety cars, it didn’t really matter when you pitted - but somehow he’d made the undercut work to great effect.
Pahkala rounded out the final few laps with ease to pick up the first Vegas eRace victory, but didn’t seem too overawed by his success. Huis, on the other hand, was fuming, appearing to refuse to initially take to the podium when called for.
It then transpired that something was up. Pahkala had received one of the FanBoost votes, intended to work in the same way as its real-life Formula E counterpart. But instead of having extra power for a short burst, Pahkala had it for six laps. His times were three seconds per lap faster than what Huis was recording.
As one sim racing reporter and commentator, Justin, put it: “You don’t just go two seconds per lap faster than Bono Huis. I’m sorry but that’s impossible. These are the best of the best, the gaps between them are in hundredths, not two full seconds every lap.”
A post-race stewards investigation - just like a real Formula E race weekend - deemed that Pahkala had gained an unfair advantage, resulting in a 12-second time penalty that dropped the Finn to third in the final classification. Huis was declared the winner with Rosenqvist now second.
While the affair was resolved, it was deeply embarrassing for all of those who looked to make the inaugural eRace such a success. It was like Balance of Performance on steroids. Pahkala did nothing wrong at all, and there was no foul play involved; it just proved that software is no replacement for the real world thing. The fact that Lucas di Grassi and Jerome d’Ambrosio were also denied the chance to race because of issue with their pods is another drawback of such an event.
The chatter on Twitter and in the online chat accompanying the video was of particular interest when gauging how the event was received. There was a definite fervor surrounding it, such was its enormity in sim racing and eSports circles. But you also felt certain level of cynicism; a cynicism that appeared justified in the wake of the FanBoost faux pas and the on-track clashes.
It is admirable what Formula E is aiming to do. The YouTube generation is part of a late-millennial era, a time where teenagers don’t spend their time playing games as much, but instead like to watch others doing battle and having fun online.
While games such as Call of Duty and FIFA remain the biggest hits for YouTube stars, there has been a rapid growth over the past couple of years for motorsport gamers. The likes of Tiametmarduk, Aarava and xMattyG may not be household names in wider motorsport yet, but they could well be in years to come. If you’ve watched any racing video game footage on YouTube, you’ve likely seen one of their videos.
Their popularity is such that they were often the main discussion point in the Twitch chat, not the race itself. Sure, the comments were tongue-in-cheek, but it shows what Formula E is going up against. It is trying to bridge the gap between real-life racing and virtual entertainment. It’s a big, big ask, particularly in something as sensory as motorsport. Fans thrive on the smells and the sounds of a motorsport event; it’s impossible to recreate that in the virtual world.
And despite the pitfalls, for a first go, it was a good effort from Formula E. The presentation was slick, with regular Formula E commentators Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti on hand for the call. Nicholls was seamless as ever throughout, and was able to offer an insight that other commentators would have struggled to provide, given he started out on the sim racing scene himself.
Should Formula E push on with plans for an eRacing series, it has the potential to be very lucrative indeed, such is the interest in eSports. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but Formula E has never been about pleasing the traditional motorsport fan. It’s different and fresh.
And that will help to foster a new kind of racing fan, something that the motorsport YouTuber clan is already starting to do.
Instead of going from watching motorsport to racing video games, why not flip that around?
The motorsport YouTubers are helping to create new fans: kids who love their videos and then decide to check out the real-life thing. It may seem like backward thinking to the motorsport purist, but in an ever-changing, millennial-driven world, it could be the right course to take.
The inaugural Vegas eRace wasn’t as smooth as the organizers would have wanted it to be, sure. At times, it was difficult to watch and consume; even a little shambolic, given the ending. I went to bed at 2:30am a little disgruntled given the confusion over the result.
But there are still plenty of positives to be taken from this first event. Formula E has taken the first step towards something that could be huge in years to come; it must take great pride in that.