Motorsport and Marketing are uneasy bedfellows. The motorsport people think the marketers only exist in the paddock to see how much money they can milk out of the whole set-up, while the marketers think the motorsport people are clueless boffins so obsessed with set-ups they can’t see that it’s money that keeps the wheels turning. Of course, the truth lies somewhere in-between, but recently Formula 1’s marketing folk have tried the traditionalists’ patience a little too much with their latest obsession: eSports.
eSports is a fancy marketing term for computer games. Children, teenagers and young adults, mostly male, playing racing games competitively, online, against like-minded people around the world. Until recently, this was just for fun. But with marketing has come money and now it’s big business: new technology brings more realistic graphics, and kids want the latest games and consoles. The money floods in. As it has become more popular, marketers have realised that some people will even pay to watch gamers. TV rights are now being sold so blokes at home can watch other blokes in a studio competing. This self-funding loop sums up everything that can be seen as being wrong with the whole concept of eSports – that it’s fundamentally unhealthy for young people to sit in front of screens for hours on end. It’s hard to tell what’s worse: parents who’ve let their kids spend so much time on their devices that the kids consider it a career, or the marketing people exploiting them for profit. Yet for the marketing folk it’s such an easy target, and for sports like F1, a straightforward boardroom discussion.
Q: How do we make more money?
A: Attract new consumers.
Q: OK, our research shows young people aren’t into F1 as much as old people, so what do young people like doing?
A: Playing computer games.
Q: Bingo! How quickly can we get into computer games?
It’s that simple. Rather than trusting that kids will come to your product when they’re older, like red wine, or the Daily Mail, sports like F1 are actively chasing younger viewers. But there is one justification for motorsport marketers to jump on the eSports bandwagon, and that is because, unlike football, basketball or tank warfare, motor racing is the only sport where the gamer can replicate exactly what the driver does, minus the physical sensations. Simply plumb your PlayStation up to a steering wheel and pedals. And that has lent F1 gaming some legitimacy. Then there’s the issue of cost. If you play FIFA or a golf or basketball game, it’s also relatively cheap to buy the equipment and find a venue to practise the real thing. Motor racing is so expensive that eSports does have a valid role in teaching young drivers about racing lines and braking points. But gaming is far off producing the next Max Verstappen. F1 held an eSports championship recently that was won by Brendon Leigh, a lad who’d never been out of Britain. He’s clearly talented, but isn’t in the physical shape required for the actual thing. Interestingly, it’s the post-Ron Dennis McLaren team that has come closest. It started its own ‘world’s fastest gamer’ competition and came up with a novelty winner: a racing driver.
“F1 held an eSports championship recently that was won by Brendon Leigh, a lad who’d never been out of Britain.”
Rudy van Buren started karting aged eight and won the Dutch Junior Championship in 2003. A contemporary of Nico Hülkenberg, Van Buren ran out of money and eventually found employment as a photocopier salesman. Thirteen years later, thanks to McLaren’s competition, he was able to show that he still had the racing lines, if not the credit lines, and was given a job as a simulator driver. Van Buren essentially drives a computer game all day – his hobby – while McLaren engineers change the game’s settings (wing levels, suspension settings, etc) for Rudy to advise if they make the car faster. McLaren’s approach makes more sense than simply holding a competition to see who’s the best gamer. Van Buren knows what driving quickly feels like in a game and in real life, and his work translates into real-world data the team can actually use. As a concept, though, eSports feels like a premature race to the future. Combustion-engined motorsport might not have too long to live. In a few decades the only racing youngsters will be able to do will be electric or virtual – so, pull their heads out of their devices and get them down to your local kart track.