Max Verstappen responds to why he was so keen to get involved with esports saying “The cars are beautiful to see and watch and the best way to get involved is virtual” the interview continues for another two minutes, as Max talks passionately about his experiences in F1, plus some of the struggles he is facing while learning the best way to be fast in the virtual world. The interview ends with both the interviewer and Max clearly excited for the upcoming race, as both have smiles spanning ear to ear.
Lando Norris, who has found enormous success and popularity on the streaming site Twitch, sits in his simracing rig and on his screen, the Chinese Virtual GP where 6 F1 drivers will be competing along with Carlos Sainz on debut. For those watching Lando’s stream, it’s not what you are expecting to see though. We don’t see Lando poised in his seat, arms stretched, clasping the wheel mounted infront, while the constant sound of clicking being picked up by his microphone taps away in the background, set off by his paddle shifting gears on his digitally rendered Formula 1 car. What viewers see instead is a lonely figure slumped back, head tilted to the side, supported by his right hand, as he watches the race he was supposed to be a participant of.
Both names are synonymous with Formula 1 in 2020 but only one has involved themselves with F1 eSports. Max Verstappen wasn’t discussing the Chinese Virtual GP but the eseries for Australia’s V8 Supercars on iRacing. Lando Norris, who has been the main draw card for F1 during this Covid-19 downtime, hasn’t been able to successfully compete in any of the F1 eSports events to date. The problem for both drivers is a shared one though and Codemasters Formula 1 games are at the center of it.
For Verstappen his reasoning is simple but a real blow to the Codemasters franchise and the future growth of F1 eSports itself. Verstappen has gone on the record to explain “I don’t even have that on my computer (F1 2019) i think you really have to close down the game and throw it off your PC. Throw it in the bin…I will never join that” the short of it is that the game itself, is so far from simulating real Formula 1, he is not prepared to spend time with something he will not be competitive racing on.
Lando has elaborated why Verstappen and so many other drivers dismiss the officially licenced game saying, there are too many niche tips and tricks you need to learn to be fast. You have to race and drive in that game in a way which wouldn’t work in the real world, infact some of the strategies to become faster in F1 2019 would actually slow you down in a real F1 car. For Formula 1 drivers, they would need to learn a whole new skill set and many are just not prepared to spend the time doing so, especially when other sims like iRacing or rFactor2 are much better at translating a 1:1 experience, from the real world to virtual.
Dr. Julian Tan is the head of F1 eSports and it is his job to oversee and develop this sector of Formula 1 and while Covid-19 has been a boom for eSports and Simracing, since all other forms of sport and entertainment have ceased to exist, it is clear to see how difficult it has been for the Formula 1 fraternity to adapt and organise with frantic turnarounds, which is such a common element of eSports. The question then emerges wheather the issues are all on Dr. Tan or a combination of factors, which have so far culminated in an underwhelming end product.
F1 eSports are now organising the next round which was supposed to be the debut of Zandvoort but while they are using last years Formula 1 game, F1 eSports doesn’t have access to the new circuits, they don’t have access to the new liveries, dedicated servers to help reduce lag and on the broadcasting side they are held back from producing TV like broadcasts as Codemasters haven’t worked on any significant changes into the spectator mode since F1 2015 (Before F1 eSports existed)
These problems are on the developer, who in the eSports world are pivotal to a games success as an eSport. The irony here is motorsport is already a long established form of sport and entertainment but it’s a lack of innovation from Codemasters which is holding the esports side back. At the end of the day, Codemasters run a business developing games for profit. This is no secret but things like customisable liveries and in game items, which all cost money for the player, have seen more innovation and development than the multiplayer features, which form the underlying foundations of F1 eSports.
Codemasters do not seem prepared to go above and beyond, to go that extra mile with their F1 licence, which begs the question why haven’t FOM and the team behind Dr. Julian Tan been able to force Codemasters hand and request an in house early release with the new tracks, the new liveries or even a custom unreleased version which enables F1 eSports to tweak custom spectator options or just enable them to setup replays using the in game broadcast tools. What is really telling of their disdain to invigorate F1 eSports is how the mobile version of the F1 game is getting both the tracks and updated liveries almost 2 months ahead of the main games global release which has just been announced for 10th July. This atleast proves that some of the requests for updated liveries and new circuits are already possible but displays a real lack of care for F1 eSports from both Codemasters and Dr. Julian Tan.
The early Virtual Grand Prix’s where an embarrassment for Formula 1 and it shows with how the viewing public reacted, especially after the second Virtual GP, with numbers going down drastically, close to 50% drop.
Over time these events have certainly improved and as all involved learn how to utilise and setup all the infrastructure needed, this helps with production but a huge failure from Formula 1, is they have failed to attract anywhere near a full grid of Formula 1 drivers. The racing is sometimes more akin to watching complete amaetures, plus the use of a reduced damage model and driving assists really detract from the skill and spectacle. It’s also baffling to see the championships use a 50% distance rule, while it robs the viewer of half a race, it also means strategy almost goes out the window and in Formula 1, that is always amongst the biggest talking points of a race weekend. There may be some exciting moments but fans of Formula 1 deserve better, especially when most of the biggest motorsport categories like NASCAR, Indy Car and most notably V8 Supercars have been able to fill entire grids full of current drivers and put on absolutley unforgettable virtual races, which shows the best of eSports.
While Codemasters have taken alot of heat in this criticism, Formula 1 has also not done enough to grow Formula 1 eSports. The early virtual grand prix’s where embarrassing and while they have improved since the first one they have still been plagued with issues, especially for Lando Norris who has been unable to connect. Formula 1 could easily add some requirements for Codemasters too, as requirements for them to retain the official licence. By stipulating the ongoing support of the eSports features in game or providing new features on request. Codemasters have also failed to innovate in this sector and become too comfortable with relying on already established features developed in past releases, which includes the lack of insight to actively develop F1 games current yearly release, as to provide updated features for eSports and consumers alike.
The job Dr. Julian Tan has with F1 eSports is both difficult and exciting but as the leader it’s upto him to become the catalyst for change. As long as he continues to publicly hype and congratulate each event for it’s success, talk big numbers about the concurrent viewers statistics, all while keeping a blind eye to the failures and continuing to overlook the shortcomings of the software, nothing will change! Ultimately it will be at the detriment of F1 eSports.
Formula 1 may be the pinnacle of motorsport but without change it won’t be the pinnacle eSport series but a long running joke.