Why Formula E’s esports thunder has been stolen, and how to win it back

It’s been three years since Formula E pioneered motor racing esports with their $1 Million eRace event in Las Vegas. Since then Formula One has found huge success with their own esports series. It begs the question: Why hasn’t Formula E been able to capitalise on their head-start in esports?

Last month, in a shopping centre in Fulham, London, the climax of Formula One’s third esports pro series took place at the Gfinity esports arena on Codemasters’ F1 2019 videogame. David Tonizza was the victor for Ferrari, impressively besting a talented field including Bono Huis, Enzo Bonito, and Patrick Holzmann, who helped to secure the team’s championship for Red Bull.

If those last three names sound familiar, it may be because all three of them competed in Formula E’s Vegas eRace in January 2017; Huis took victory that day, beating Felix Rosenqvist in a narrow and hard-fought contest. However, despite Formula E being the first to venture into this unexplored territory for the sport, it is Formula One who have since reaped the rewards, with 5.5 million viewers tuning in last year to watch Brendon Leigh win his second F1 pro series driver’s title.

Whilst F1 has gone from strength-to-strength, Formula E’s much-hyped esports division lies dormant, having been quietly discarded and forgotten about. So what went wrong, and what could be done to bring it back successfully?

Race off

Formula E’s esports story begins, ironically enough, in that same shopping centre in Fulham. On the 23rd of January 2016, Formula E held their first Race off event at the Gfinity Arena, with all-comers going up against Bruno Senna and Nicholas Prost in Formula E cars on the Xbox One exclusive Forza Motorsport 6. This made a lot of sense given that Formula E obviously does not have it’s own dedicated game to use, and in retrospect the event was a test run for what was to follow, with Electronic Sports League running the Race off pro series online, concluding with a LAN final in the Evillage at the 2016 Formula E season finale in Battersea Park, which was won by professional Forza player, TX3 Liege.

The Vegas eRace

At around the same time, Formula E contracted Madrid-based company Cloud Sport to create a Formula E mod for the PC game RFactor 2, initially to use in their eVillage-held eRaces, where a few fans with the fastest lap times took on a field of FE drivers. These races tended to be very short and extremely chaotic as the professional drivers didn’t take the events particularly seriously, the majority treated them instead as an excuse for a demolition derby, meaning damage was turned off.

A major part of Cloud Sport founder Luis Pachon’s pitch to Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag was the idea of a Sim Racing competition in Las Vegas, where the best sim racers would compete against the entire Formula E field for a $1 Million total prize pot; for comparison the other biggest simracing competition, the iRacing esports world championship, offered a total prize pool of $30,000, so this was unprecedented in what is still a fairly niche area of esports.

Since the stakes were upped, the races themselves would get a bit more serious: Instead of being three-lap sprints, this race and its qualifiers would match the length of real Formula E rounds, lasting 45 minutes, and finally, damage would be turned on, discouraging drivers from treating the race like a destruction derby.

The first sign of things going wrong came in the qualifying rounds to decide the 10 best sim-racers for the Vegas eRace, which Formula E Zone writers Edward Hunter and Jack Pickering provided live commentary for. (We’re a far cry from Jack Nichols/Dario Franchitti, but we did our best) Cloud Sport created their own custom liveries to help differentiate between each driver, but the problem was that many drivers ended up picking identical liveries, making it next to impossible to tell them apart on screen if they were side-by-side battling for position.

It was also very apparent that overtaking was extremely difficult due to the slipstream effect being rendered largely ineffective. The stewarding for the series was very thorough and diligent, however, and as such bad driving standards were often quickly punished and stamped out. At the same time though, there was no barrier to entry for new drivers; this meant the difference in pace between the frontrunners and the backmarkers in the same race was often vast. Nevertheless, the cream still rose to the top across the four rounds.

Formula E gave Cloud Sport a time span of four weeks to design, model and deliver a fantasy Las Vegas circuit for the final at the Venetian hotel during the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2017; the project was shrouded in mystery to prevent any competitors from gaining an unfair advantage. The final result ended up being a compromise and it was clear that corners had to be cut to get the virtual circuit finished on time. Nowhere was this more apparent than when Formula E decided to replicate their FanBoost system for the final race, resulting in one of the FanBoost winners, Olli Pahkala, experiencing a glitch which gave the Finnish driver a power boost for 5 laps instead of the intended 5 seconds.

Pahkala was penalised down to 3rd in the final standings, handing victory to Huis. On top of this, a few drivers failed to even start the race due to technical problems. Cloud Sport failed to live up to expectations, but the odds were also stacked against them; a former Cloud Sport employee told us that they did in fact warn Formula E beforehand that their deadlines would be near-impossible to meet, but unfortunately their concerns were dismissed.

Although Formula E only started promoting the event halfway through the qualifying rounds, they did advertise it heavily, and it’s fair to say the Vegas eRace attracted media attention, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Nevertheless, Agag heralded the event as “a great success” and “the first in a big future for Formula E in eSports racing.” Somewhat disappointingly, there has been no follow-up to the Vegas e-Race in the years since. Some of the sim-racers were signed by Formula E teams to work in their simulators, with Bono Huis and Graham Carroll both being given runs in a Gen 1 Formula E car, but with no further tournaments from Formula E, they all eventually moved on to other series.

Agag described the Vegas eRace as “an experiment”. Formula E’s lack of engagement with esports since suggests that they see it as a failure, and aren’t prepared to try it again.

Mobile games

In July 2017 Formula E partnered up with Electronic Arts to feature their cars in the Mobile game Real Racing 3, and this has since replaced RFactor 2 during the eVillage eRaces, making them decidedly more like an arcade than a simulation. Whilst the version of the game used in the live events features every circuit on the calendar, the publicly available IOS/Andriod version of the game features only three Formula E circuits: Hong Kong, New York and Berlin. Another downside is that Real Racing 3 features an excessive number of micro-transactions, where players are encouraged to spend real-world money in exchange for in-game currency, which allows you to buy and upgrade cars to progress more quickly. The driving itself is fun; waiting 3 hours for your car to be repaired so you can drive it again is most definitely not; the only workaround is to watch a bunch of adverts in exchange for skipping the wait times.

The most recent development has been the Formula E Ghost-racing app, developed by Virtually Live, who have a long history of working with Formula E using computer-generated imagery and virtual reality. Ghost racing utilises an interesting concept, in that it allows players to race against ‘ghosts’ of the actual drivers during E-Prix in real-time, using GPS data. The only problem is that, much like Real Racing 3, you can vastly improve your car via upgrades using in-game currency, (Once again micro-transactions make an appearance here) which means the real-life drivers become little more than mobile chicanes. It does at least have faithful recreations of all the Formula E circuits on the calendar, and the developers do take a lot of feedback from the game’s community, although unfortunately, the player-base has dwindled significantly since the game’s initial launch last year.

Both these games are fun to play if you’ve got a couple of minutes to kill, but make no mistake; they’re not esports games. Fans are simply crying out for something more in-depth and demanding on a console/PC title.

Unfulfilled potential

Formula E seems like a sport that should be almost tailor-made for a video game adaptation. Signing deals to appear as unlockable cars in existing games such as Forza Motorsport was a good idea to start with, but it’s clear that this approach doesn’t take full advantage of the unique selling points of Formula E, especially when placed in a game alongside other faster single-seaters such as F1 or Indycar. The mobile approach also feels dissatisfying and shallow, because the games can never be as comprehensive as fans want them to be, added to which the microtransactions are complete rip-offs and a symptom of wider problems within the gaming industry.

It seems ironic that Formula E abandoned RFactor2 so soon after the Vegas eRace, given that the game’s developer Studio 397 created an official Gen 2 Formula E car and tracks as downloadable content for the game; it’s clear that with more lenient deadlines and a more experienced development team, RFactor 2 has now become a far better sim-racing platform for Formula E than it was in 2017. Sadly Formula E seem to have completely lost interest in sim-racing in its pursuit of a more casual mobile gaming audience.

If Formula E had persisted with competitions in RFactor 2, then it might arguably still have a thriving esports scene today; in fact, it seems very odd that Formula E has licensed their cars and tracks out to RFactor 2 and then done absolutely nothing with it; not even promoting it on their website. There is so much potential for this DLC that it would be a tragedy if all that came of it was the occasional league race when they could have an officially-sanctioned Formula E online championship.

Finally, one Formula E gaming project on the horizon that does look promising is the series’ inclusion in Playsport’s Motorsport Manager Online, which comes out on Mobile in Spring. The game will include the entire roster of 24 drivers to pick for your team, the Paris and Rome circuits to race on, and Attack Mode as a strategic feature. Playsport’s previous Motorsport Manager titles have been exceptionally detailed management games, filling a niche that had been left vacant since the 90s, so it’s a perfect fit for Formula E; it may be sim-management rather than sim-racing but it still allows Formula E to reach its target audience.

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