This current COVID-19 crisis has presented an unexpected opportunity for eSports to shine, with many sports across the world running eSports series whilst their real life series is on hiatus. Motorsport is no exception, in fact the ways motorsport can be recreated and simulated in the virtual world give it an advantage over other series.
Most major motorsports have organised eSports races and competitions. It is clear that the stateside motorsport series have been the leaders in this particular scenario, with both IndyCar and NASCAR managing to attract the majority of their drivers, and even some notable drivers elsewhere, including Lando Norris, who as well as an F1 driver is also a professional sim racer and has been for some time. The end of the iRacing race at the Indianapolis oval, the ‘First Responders 175′ saw a couple of drivers unfortunately decide not to take it seriously and intentionally crash into others. This was a shame as it in some ways trashed the incredible work IndyCar did to make this series as realistic as possible. Formula E have also joined the eSports bandwagon, by doing a fairly similar thing but on rFactor 2, using officially licensed content.
However it can be said that F1 has been left in the dust in this situation. Whilst they have done eSports events on the days that their cancelled or postponed races would’ve been, some of them, such as Charles Leclerc and Alexander Albon’s battle at Interlagos, making for compelling viewing, it has not served as a proper alternative the way that their stateside counterparts have done. They have struggled to attract anywhere near as many real life drivers in their series as they have. They have gone down the route of having other celebrities outside of motorsport, such as Liam Payne, Ian Poulter and Sergio Aguero, taking part in a race or two, to make up for that drawback.
The reason F1 has not been able to crack it the way IndyCar and NASCAR have is the official game, and its exclusivity when it comes to official F1 content. Now to say this is Codemasters’ fault or to do with any kind of issue with the game is wrong. The official Formula One game, which is a franchise that has run since 2009, fulfils its purpose. Yes it has had its fair share of glitches in the past, and some still exist now, but it includes many features, such as an immersive career mode, that includes F1’s feeder series Formula 2, it has a solid online community and experience, and it sells well. As a game, the general F1 fan cannot ask for much more.
But its not a simulation and it was never intended to be a simulation. It is intended for the general audience, and the reason why it is this way is if they make it a realistic simulation, they are basically alienating a large portion of their customers. But this is why drivers like Max Verstappen, who is also a professional sim racer as well, are deciding not to race in the Virtual GPs in favour of others. The game is targeted at their casual audience, not the serious or professional sim racers.
This is where the issue is. Codemasters hold exclusive rights to all official F1 content in the video game world. With no alternative, the serious sim racers are not really catered for in the F1 world. Whilst some games every now and then are able to buy the rights to use a single track, or very rarely, a single car, for example the 2015 McLaren MP4-30 in iRacing, people have to rely on mods to be able to drive a Formula One car in a proper simulation. And unless its a professional league or a professional modding group building the car, the standards are not at the level that sim racers want. And it is not official content so cannot be used for official F1 sanctioned events.
The scenario we have been presented with has completely exposed this issue. But the question is how can Liberty Media combat the issue? The way IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula E do it is by striking a deal with a game, such as iRacing or rFactor 2 to give them the license to use their cars and tracks. And in fact a RaceFans article in the past couple of days reported that Liberty Media were considering having an alternative ready for the hardcore sim racers.
For that there are 2 options that could become available to them. Either release a new game entirely with a company such as Slightly Mad Studios, who Codemasters have acquired, or strike a deal with an existing game and release official F1 content through that medium. As Codemasters are unlikely to ease their grip on the licensing rights for a second official Formula One game to be released, striking a deal with an existing game to release official content would most probably be the way to go here.
What game would you strike a deal with though? In the professional sim racing world, the three most popular titles are iRacing, rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa. All three could be logical choices, iRacing may be the simulator Liberty Media could be most tempted to strike a deal with, due to its paid content philosophy, however the fact you don’t just have to pay for cars and tracks but you also have to work your way to be able to drive certain cars, which would alienate a certain audience. rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa also cater towards paid DLC, but the former in particular have shown they are able to strike deals with other game companies to release material, as they have done with Reiza Studios to convert and release material from their game. Perhaps they could do the same with Codemasters, with their car models and tracks.
This is not going to be an easy task for Liberty Media by any means. To enable official F1 content for hardcore sim racers they are going to have to get Codemasters to agree to give up some of their exclusive rights, which will be no easy feat. But it is clear that it is falling behind in the eSports world, and with eSports even starting to have real life relevance, with professional sim racers such as Rudy Van Buren and Igor Fraga getting into real racing through that, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.