Christian Horner’s tongue-in-cheek take on F1’s Esports Series might have raised a smile, but the Red Bull Racing boss knows there’s much more to it.
“It’s such a growth area for us. [Red Bull driver] Max Verstappen is a huge gamer – if he’s not in the gym or the simulator then he’s gaming. It’s something the next generation of drivers are getting more and more into.”
It’s certainly not just Verstappen. For F1, and so many other sports brands, Esports is the perfect vehicle for reaching younger audiences. Who wouldn’t want to tap into a sports-mad demographic that wants to engage and spend? But if you want to make Esports work for you, you need to think strategically.
F1 meticulously analysed whether it was right for them, before launching the first F1 Esports Series in 2017. It’s a venture that has since gone from strength to strength, growing rapidly and learning and innovating as it goes.
“As an industry, Esports is booming,” said Julian Tan, F1’s Head of Digital Growth & Esports.
“We really wanted to explore the opportunity to utilise what we have in F1 and create something quite special.
“One of our key objectives was to grow the fandom of F1. We realised there was so much potential we could tap into. Our current audience and fanbase is amazing, but to secure the future we needed to effectively communicate to a demographic that we may not have done a great job of connecting to in the past. This new fanbase is younger, more digitally savvy, global and growing.”
Finishes don't come much closer than this! 😮😮😮— Formula 1 (@F1) October 10, 2018
Mercedes' Brendon Leigh is inches away from making it 3 wins out of 3, but is beaten on the line by @ToroRosso's Frederik Rasmussen#F1Esports @newbalance pic.twitter.com/EBEFUrJUph
“How to manage an Esports league from a motorsport point of view was very exciting because it’s such a varied space. It’s basically the equivalent of a new sport.
“We know we have a much smaller gaming title and base compared with titles like League of Legends, Overwatch and Fortnite, but we do have a lot of parallels to our real-life equivalent sport and this meant we could learn from their successes and apply them in the right way for us.
“We’re lucky to have strong support from our senior leadership. They recognise the potential of this opportunity – not just for growing the fanbase but for diversifying the product mix. We’re not afraid to take a bit of a risk, which is something we apply to everything we do. There’s always an appetite to try things, be patient and learn.
“It’s easy to forget that we only launched our Esports league in August 2017. We’ve already come so far.”
For the 2018 F1 Esports Series season, the stakes were raised.
A new title sponsor in New Balance and a $200,000 prize pool on offer to the winning teams of the Grand Final helped elevate the competition to a new level, with a comprehensive social strategy to engage fans throughout the season.
With the 2018 Series attracting a TV audience of 1.2m, 3.2 m people watching on a dedicated live stream and more than 100m social media impressions, F1 now has some impressive numbers to build on.
And when you add in the fact that some 70% of the viewers tuning in to watch the final were below 34 years old, the future for the Series appears even brighter.
The offer was more substantial with 66,000 individual drivers driving more than 400,000 qualifying laps in order to enter the inaugural F1 Esports Series Pro Draft, with 16 drivers eventually selected to join nine of the affiliated F1 teams signed up with parallel Esports teams.
25 JULY, 2000 BST ⏰— Formula 1 (@F1) July 24, 2018
F1 Esports Series - The Story Of The Pro Draft
9 official F1 teams 📋
40 of the best Sim racers in the world 🎮
Only some will make it 🙏
WATCH: Episode one of a new, behind-the-scenes documentary - on the official F1 Facebook page 👀#F1Esports #F1 pic.twitter.com/M3gYIX70Wm
The idea is that the Esports Series will act as an entry point for new and younger fans and potentially unearth future stars of the traditional sport. “We see the potential of sim racing as a stepping stone for getting into racing – and this is really exciting for us,” said Tan.
“With sports like basketball and tennis, all you need to do is pick up a basketball or a racket. For F1, it’s much harder to get that entry point – you can’t just jump into an F1 car. Esports provides that access and bridges that gap through the game.”
The 2018 F1 Esports Series champion Brendon Leigh actually learned to drive a real-life car for the first time to take part in the Race of Champions earlier this year, and embarked on a training regime based on that of a typical driver to gear up for the Esports Series, to prove he’s not – in his words “just a finger waving sim racing champion!”
“Aligning recognisable F1 teams into the Esports sphere has helped to bring traction from the real F1 world to the game and the Esports Series,” added Tan.
“We’re lucky in that our game genre is so realistic. From a viewership perspective, it’s stimulating and visually compelling. We saw last year our Esports races attracted a lot of motor racing enthusiasts that weren’t just Esports fans and they really enjoyed it.
“It shows us the appetite is there and is continuing to grow. It’s a compelling industry and that mixed with the magic of F1 makes it a very special thing."
So what lies ahead for F1 and Esports?
With the very real possibility of joining the Olympics in 2024 or 2028, Esports could be about to make a dramatic entry into the mainstream with the potential for a knock-on effect across the sports industry.
Could we see a standalone F1 Esports Series run adjacent to the traditional motor sport competition?
“Our core product is what is on the grid. There’s no getting away from that,” said Tan.
“But what we’re doing with Esports is trying to grow the fandom and what we do in that area. We’re continually testing and it very may well grow into its own proposition in the future, but for now we’ll see how it continues to evolve in the coming years.
“It certainly hasn’t reached its maturity, and when it does, it will be interesting to see how the space looks, particularly if Esports makes it into the Olympics.
“There could be a world whereby the Esports league runs parallel to the core product with 21 F1 races running side-by-side with 21 Esports races with teams competing in each. In the long-term, that’s an interesting north star for me - we’ll see.”
A north star it may be. However, the sky really is the limit.