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Why esports events like Not The Australian Grand Prix will help fill the sports void

The global shutdown of sporting events presents a golden opportunity for esports

F1 2019

Lando Norris, after a freak mishap in qualifying, starts on the back row of the grid. P19. It’s not the start to the 2020 Formula 1 season he would’ve wanted in his second year at McLaren.

But in an exceptional drive – in which there was definitely no corner-cutting at all – he charges through the field to finish well into the points in sixth place. On the way, he sailed past two drivers who haven’t been in F1 since 2016 and 2018, respectively, a YouTuber with 3.3 million subscribers, and Real Madrid’s goalkeeper. Oh, and he was in his socks.

While the actual Albert Park Circuit lay dormant, the virtual one was definitely open for business. The coronavirus pandemic has seen sporting events like the 2020 F1 season opener in Melbourne cancelled for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean fans of the sport can’t get their racing fix elsewhere. The ‘Not The Australian Grand Prix’ – played on the F1 2019 game by a host of F1 esports pros, former F1 drivers, content creators, and celebrities – filled in the gap left by the cancellation of the actual Australian Grand Prix.

Put together in just a few days by Veloce Esports, the race was streamed to the world on Twitch, in the hopes that both esports and F1 fans alike would take an interest. And boy, did they.

It resulted in a trending Twitter hashtag, a six-figure peak viewership across all platforms, and the stream from Lando Norris’ perspective achieving the largest audience on Twitch that day. It was an unprecedented success and certainly the most coverage any kind of virtual Formula 1 race has ever really had.

Veloce Esports’ founder, Jamie MacLaurin, thought it would be a good bit of fun for the F1 esports community. Plus, with the likes of Norris, former F1 drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Stefan Vandoorne, and Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois taking part, it had the potential to attract new eyes to the scene. But he never predicted last Sunday’s race to draw in the crowds it did.

“Obviously we anticipated that there’d be a good amount of people who would want to watch it, but we were completely blown away by the level of support that it ended up getting,” MacLaurin tells The Loadout. “We had 175,000 live concurrent viewers across all the streams, which is pretty awesome for an event we turned around in three or four days.

“They were probably the busiest few days of our lives to be honest, running around trying to sort drivers out, but we pulled together a grid. We didn’t want to try and mimic the real race and make it super serious. We wanted to keep it casual and lighthearted, so that people who were maybe new to esports or new to F1 could come and watch it and leave with a smile on their face, given the circumstances in the world right now.”

This Sunday will see the virtual F1 2020 season continue with the Not The Bahrain Grand Prix, featuring a similar grid to the first race but with a few new faces. Thanks to the versatility of hosting a sports event virtually, there can be some creative rule-bending too to add to the excitement of last weekend, with a ‘reverse grid’ race happening in which the grid order from race one will be flipped, putting the strongest qualifiers at the back.

But was Not The Australian Grand Prix just a flash in the pan? Or can esports and streams of sports-based video games really replace the real thing as stadiums remain empty?

“I think there’s an esports audience that was always going to have the appetite for this, but our biggest challenge is to get the people who are on the fence and are just temporarily scratching their sports itch to stay for future races and post-coronavirus,” MacLaurin says. “It’s super exciting and the opportunity that lies ahead of esports in general is huge. Sports is cancelled for the foreseeable future and it’s the first time that’s happened since the Second World War really, so it’s a massive opportunity for the space and we’re gonna do our best to capitalise on it.”

Veloce’s success with the Not The Australian Grand Prix has also seen interest in virtual sports games grow in other fields, such as football.

Leyton Orient FC recently became one of the most talked about clubs in the world as swathes of other teams from across the globe bit its hand off for the chance to compete in its FIFA Quaran-Team event, which sees clubs use their FIFA 20 equivalents to play each other, with either first team players or FIFA esports pros at the helm.

In a similar level of surrealism to watching Lando Norris blast round Albert Park in his socks, Leyton Orient, who currently reside in English football’s fourth tier, face a first round game against Russian Premier League team Lokomotiv Moscow. Other barmy fixtures include Walsall versus Italian giants Roma and Oxford United against Lille of France’s top division.

Esports has the ability to produce some bizarre yet entertaining spectacles that would never be feasible in the real sporting world. While entertaining viewers – and the initial novelty of this whole esports malarkey for those less familiar with the scene – has created a lot of interest, it’s not just the sports-less fans that are benefiting.

MacLaurin says that events like the Not The Australian Grand Prix are crucial for the image and popularity of the sports stars themselves and their teams, who now face who knows how long without sports to promote their brands.

“I’ve spoken to management teams and agents and even directly to drivers themselves who are worried that they’ll be at home for the next four or five months, potentially, without any exposure,” he says. “Sponsors too are thinking: ‘How are we gonna get exposure?’ So we’re providing a solution for those guys. Aside from the fact it’s fun and they [the drivers] want to do it for the enjoyment of it, I think a lot of them also want to keep interacting with their fan bases and be able to post engaging content on social media, and that’s hopefully what we can provide to them.”

Attitudes towards sports-based esports, in particular, have always been generally negative by fans of traditional sports. It is often seen as illogical, and a bit Black Mirror-esque. Why would someone play a virtual version of something you can do for real?

But now without the ‘real’ events, the likes of Veloce’s virtual Grands Prix and Leyton Orient’s FIFA Quran-Team give esports a platform to prove itself to the mainstream audience.

We’re still in the early days of the sports shutdown. But will the popularity of these esports events continue? And not just until sports resumes once more, but beyond that point too?

Esports, even before the coronavirus outbreak, was starting to seep more and more into mainstream culture, but competitive sports games have struggled to make as big an impact as the likes of Fortnite and League of Legends. Maybe this opportunity, albeit in unfortunate circumstances, is their time to shine.