How real and virtual racing go hand in hand at Formula E esports

This weekend the Formula E London E-Prix took place at the ExCel exhibition centre, the only top-level indoor and outdoor track in international motosport. It may not quite have the prestige of F1, but the sport is rapidly growing in popularity.

And it’s not just about electric cars, but virtual ones too. On Friday night the second Accelerate esports championship took centre stage at the London E-Prix. Streamed live on Twitch and YouTube, it saw drivers going head-to-head to win a share of €100,000.

The esports arm of Formula E grew during the pandemic and a need to engage racing fans online. Now that’s shifted towards expanding the audience of the sport, enticing fans to watch the real E-Prix through a love of video games and esports.

“It’s not just about creating a media product that is theoretically a competitor to our core race,” says Kieran Holmes-Darby, gaming director at Formula E. “It’s actually about creating something that engages a new fanbase for us and gives a way for a new audience to really engage with the sport.

“I think that has been a success for us, and we’ve seen a real uptake, especially in this season, as we’ve opened the competition up in participants and how many people from all corners of the world are participating in Accelerate.”

What’s particularly impressive is how advanced simulation racing has become in replicating the real world of driving. The Accelerate London Final, for instance, played out on a virtual copy of the real track at London’s ExCel that was developed especially for the esports event.

At present, Accelerate uses RFactor2 as its simulator of choice, with sim racers set up for competitors complete with their sponsored teams. These same sim racers are also available in the event’s Gaming Arena for the public to try.

“You’re racing on official Formula E tracks and in official Formula E cars and the experience is, outside of actually getting behind the wheel of a car, as close as you can get,” says Holmes-Darby.

The two sides of real and virtual racing certainly impact one another, but Holmes-Darby is keen for esports racing to stand as a unique product in itself.

“We want to use the core bits of Formula E IP in our gaming and esports activations,” he says. “We want to try and replicate our really cool qualifying duel format, we want to replicate attack mode. These core bits to our IP, we want to show them off in a game setting because that’s new, that’s exciting. It’s different for players.

“The ideal scenario is we licence the Formula E IP into an existing game with an existing fanbase. That existing fanbase are provided with new cool content for them to engage with, they find out about Formula E, they compete in an esports competition, they get more invested in Formula E, maybe they then come to a race and become a superfan. That’s really the goal for us.”

So what does it take to become an esports champion?

Jarno Opmeer is the F1 2020 and 2021 esports world champion, who also competed in the Accelerate London Final. The Dutch driver’s career began in Formula 4 and in 2017 he was inducted into the Renault Sport Academy. He’s since transferred into esports, owing to his strong ability on test simulators.

“It’s just natural for me to keep on racing, but just go to a slightly different path,” he says.

“Usually you want to be practising every day. Anything from three to six hours usually makes you improve slightly day over day. I think consistency is probably the most important part.”

Of course, virtual racing has the benefit of not being limited by budgets, testing days, and the like. And if you crash, it’s far less expensive.

“I feel like real life racing was a lot more chill as there’s much less preparation for yourself going on,” says Opmeer. “For esports you can, of course, practise as much as you can. And you want to practise as much, otherwise you’re not going to be winning.”

He continues: “I think there’s a kind of nature for real racing drivers that they have to adapt basically every single time they go into the car, because real life racing is so much more dynamic with everything, especially weather.”

That’s why his experience as a real life racing driver arguably gives him an edge in esports. It’s also testament to the realism of sim racing in its replication of real life, although Opmeer doesn’t expect we’ll see many esports racers transferring to real driving – though it’s been done by former F1 esports driver Cem Bolukbasi who’s transferred to Formula 2.

“I think it’s definitely possible,” he says. “I think some people have already done it. But I think it’s much harder than a lot of drivers think.

“Just jumping into a car straightaway is probably way too hard. Probably you’d have to go through the ranks as well. I don’t think we will see anyone go directly from esports to F1, or even F2. I think you definitely have to start lower and also learn your way up.”

Holmes-Darby agrees that promoting esports drivers to real racers isn’t a core goal of the Formula E esports programme.

“That’s still a really admirable goal and something that will be amazing if we can tell that Cinderella story and get someone through that route,” he says. “But the amount of people that can really transfer their skills is a very small number of people.”

Formula E esports is also set apart from other esports – the likes of League of Legends and Rainbow Six: Siege. Formula E isn’t intending to compete for that same audience, plus fans of motosports can readily appreciate the skills of esports racers.

“This motorsports esports world is the only place where, theoretically, if you’re good at the sport, you’re also good at the main sport,” says Holmes-Darby. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else, right? If you’re good at FIFA, it doesn’t mean you’re a good footballer. But if you are a good sim racer, theoretically you’re a good driver. So that’s really unique.”

Formula E is also very video gamey: its standout feature is attack mode, where drivers can steer off the racing line to receive a boost in power. You can practically hear F-Zero’s “You got boost power!” announcer in your mind. And that makes Formula E ideal as an esport.

Yet where other esports are rampant with toxicity – although there is some excellent representation and support for women – that’s so far been less of an issue with Formula E.

“With our partnership with the FIA, these esports competitions at the highest level are regulated really well,” says Holmes-Darby. “And that stops a lot of the toxicity because people know where they stand and ultimately don’t want to jeopardise that. And the FIA can be brutal as they need to be at times.”

What’s more, most competitions have been solitary lap timings where it’s just the racer and car. “You’re not in races where people can really screw up your lap time and so the only person you can really be annoyed at is yourself,” says Holmes-Darby.

This is further leading to a more inclusive esports environment. The FIA Girls On Track programme aims to empower young girls and promote gender equality in esports. That’s had a knock-on effect in esports, too.

“Anecdotally, I can say that we’re getting a lot more female participants with Accelerate,” says Holmes-Darby. “Through initiatives at Formula E like Girls On Track where we’re actively trying to engage more women and girls in the sport and getting them at every race along to the gaming arena and getting them to experience the sport as close as possible without actually getting behind a car, having them coming away from that and saying ‘I love racing, I want one of these setups at home’. That’s exactly how you do it right there, you just give them opportunities and experiences to inspire them.”

Indeed, Holmes-Darby’s ambitions for Formula E esports is that it can be as inclusive as possible and open up racing and gaming to those who wouldn’t normally have access. The esports events are also subject to the same sustainability scrutiny that’s at the core of Formula E.

Back at Accelerate, Opmeer sadly couldn’t hold off last year’s Accelerate champion Frede Rasmussen who dominated the competition and won €35,000. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I’m definitely happy I managed to get it done – it isn’t often you have days like this,” he said after the win.

There’s a bright future ahead for Formula E esports, then, that will grow hand in hand as both real and virtual sports reach new audiences.

A further way of doing that is in gaming itself. While RFactor2 is used at present, Holmes-Darby is open to working with game developers to add Formula E to existing motosports titles. Perhaps changes could be made as early as the next season – especially considering issues at RFactor2 developer Motorsport Games.

“Conversations are ongoing for season nine,” he says. “We don’t have any partnerships locked in at this point. So not much I can really talk about there. But we’re having conversations with lots of people for season nine.”

Could we also see an official Formula E game in the future?

“I’ll never rule it out, because I think it makes sense. I just think it’s more of a question of timing,” says Holmes-Darby.

“Does it make sense to create a game at this point, when really the goal is about engaging your existing fanbase further? Or does it make sense to licence your IP into an existing game with an existing fanbase to try and ultimately collect some of that fan base? Probably the latter.

“But it’s definitely on the table. We’ve had conversations with game developers about it already. I would say that it will happen.”