MEDLAND: How seriously should we take Esports?

Image by Miller/Lumen

MEDLAND: How seriously should we take Esports?

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: How seriously should we take Esports?


Lockdown has been a very strange time, but certain things don’t change. Social media ensures there are plenty of opinions (and often divisive ones) being spouted about every little development.

We’ve had sim racing controversies before over the past few weeks – I’m looking at you, Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson – but there was a whole new debate ignited at the weekend when two worlds collided, and not just figuratively, at IMS.

I urge you to read Marshall Pruett’s piece on what can be learned from IndyCar’s iRacing Challenge if you haven’t already, but before you do that, I’m going to have an argument with myself. Because I find myself taking Esports too seriously.

And part of the problem is because Esports or sim racing are terms that can potentially cover a wide range of events at the moment, so the way you view one might be different to how you view another.

Take the Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix series, for example. That’s hosted by the Esports presenters, does not have a mainstream F1 commentator on it (although Alex Jacques should be – he’s far better than only being on the F1 pit lane channel, as his F2 commentary has often shown), and does not feature a full grid of racing drivers.

By inviting celebrities to take part, F1 has tailored its approach towards mainstream entertainment. That doesn’t stop some great racing taking place – you only need to look at last Sunday’s battle between Alex Albon and Charles Leclerc to see an example of that – but it also completely removes it from any sense of reality.

Then there’s also the platform of F1 2019, which you can describe more as a ‘simcade’ rather than an outright arcade game or sim. It does take skill to be quick, but it also allows the average fan to pick it up reasonably quickly thanks to different assists and settings. Plus there’s the added ease of sticking a disc in a PlayStation/Xbox/PC to play on a pad, rather than needing to sign up to the iRacing servers at $13 a month, where a wheel and pedals are required.

But the latter then allows for a much more realistic offering, at least in terms of the dynamics of racing. Sure, the cars might not react exactly as they do in real life, but they do react in a much more realistic way than a car in F1 2019. And that’s OK, because they’re clearly then appealing to different markets. But that’s also where it gets tricky.

By using iRacing, the IndyCar and NASCAR events have been tailored much more to the specifics of the respective categories and the way they would usually present themselves. When a fan tunes in, they hear the usual voices, see recognizable graphics, and get what is a clear representation of the real life version of that series.

Of course it’s being used to try and provide entertainment to fans, but it is also an attempt to give some added value to sponsors and partners. Broadcasters are desperate for any sort of content, and right now they’re using a virtual race in order to try and fill a little of the gap.

And while some fans will be watching because there might be a crash or an incident, more are tuning in for the competition. It’s to see who wins, to see who has a bad day, and to see where there are controversial moments. Nobody’s judging any real-world performance based on sim racing, but we are looking for an escape by watching something resembling a normal race.

Done right, a virtual rivalry like that of Ericsson and O’Ward could turn into an ongoing storyline. Image by Miller/Lumen

So when a driver decides to no longer treat it that way and act in a way they definitely wouldn’t in real life, there’s a problem.

How much of a problem? I just don’t know yet.

Part of me thinks the best thing IndyCar could do right now is host another race at IMS and give everyone another shot. The interest in seeing Lando Norris go wheel-to-wheel with Simon Pagenaud again, or how anyone would react to Santino Ferrucci when alongside him would be fascinating. Marcus Ericsson and Pato O’Ward weren’t happy with each other either, so I think another race would ensure a bigger audience than the previous offering.

And that’s because there’s a storyline of controversy and rivalry following on from a previous event. Just like happens in the real world.

I come down on the side that racing is escapism for fans, whether it’s real or virtual. “It’s just a game” doesn’t wash as an overall dismissal, because by that logic a race is just a race. It’s just trying to see who can get to the finish line quickest. Like football can be distilled to just watching which team scores the most points by running or throwing a ball over a certain period of time.

We’re not saving lives here, we’re distracting people, and sponsors are paying money to then be seen in some form by those people watching – whether in the virtual world or the real one.

But lives, and money, are the big defining points that are nagging away at me when I’m taking it too seriously. Nobody’s life is in danger in sim racing (unless you’re Jordan Taylor, who genuinely managed to wreck his sim rig a few weeks ago), and nobody is having to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair cars or barriers after an incident.

And in that knowledge, maybe the retaliation we saw from Pagenaud – even if it was misplaced – can’t be too heavily criticized, because I said we want controversy and rivalry like the real world. In one sense, it makes sim racing even better.

I guess until sim racing finds its place among the drivers, then we can’t actually know how seriously we should take it as fans. There were no championship points on offer, no prizes at the end of it, only pride. IndyCar was offering exhibition races that had no overall result, just like the F1 events.

If there were standings to think about, a champion to be crowned and each event had a direct impact on each driver’s hopes of receiving some sort of return at the end of it all – like there is whenever we watch a real life IndyCar, NASCAR or F1 race – then actions would carry more weight.

Sim racing is not a replacement for the real thing; it’s just all we have right now. And if viewing figures are increased by drivers taking each other out and not really racing, and sponsors are happy with that, then have at it. But if it captures the attention better to try and recreate reality and take it seriously, so viewers know they’re watching their heroes give it 100% in the virtual world, then that needs to be the message to all involved.

Different categories taking different approaches is fine, but I don’t think the drivers fully know what the expectations are. And that means we as fans don’t really know what we should be hoping to see.