By Alvin Mak
The COVID-19 alternative from Formula 1 has proved itself yet another win for esports.
The world of sports was hit hard by COVID-19. Cancellations of sporting events were witnessed across the board–most notably with the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but also scheduled competitions in everything from basketball to archery being put off until the crisis has abated. Formula 1 was no different.
The global outbreak of the virus coincided perfectly with the opening weekend of the 2020 Formula 1 season in Melbourne, Australia. All 10 teams were prepared to kickstart the year of racing just a day before the first practice session. That is, until McLaren announced their withdrawal from the race as a result of one of its team members testing positive.
F1, the FIA (F1’s governing body), and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation were quick to evaluate the threat posed by COVID-19 and promptly pulled the plug, canceling the race indefinitely.
As the pandemic worsened, other race cancellations followed, until F1 fans were left with no races to enjoy for months on end. Drivers and teams were staying indoors to observe social distancing orders. This prompted a desperate search for alternate forms of F1 content.
The ultimate result of this tumult was the Virtual Grand Prix Series: a simulated championship that took place on F1’s flagship video game, F1 2019. Players competed on famous tracks from around the world, all without having to leave the safety of their own homes.
Participants in the virtual series included F1 stars themselves, with the likes of Scuderia Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, RedBull Racing’s Alex Albon, and Williams’ George Russell. Other globally-recognized celebrities were also invited on occasion, such as singer Luis Fonsi, Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibault Cortois, and professional golfer Ian Poulter.
Yet the 8-game series drew headlines not just for its wide range of big-name participants – the event was streamed across 100 different countries. By the end of the virtual championship, a record-breaking 30 million views in total were recorded across all F1’s streaming platforms, which included Twitch and YouTube, as well as Weibo and Huya in China.
The second event, the Virtual Vietnamese GP, was the top trending video in the UK after its conclusion. Personal Twitch streams of the event from F1 drivers themselves also garnered an additional 2.7 million viewers.
This pattern continued as online video content of each of the eight races frequented YouTube’s Trending page. The fact that these videos racked up a total 85 million views across platforms thus comes as no surprise.
These numbers are a testament to F1’s creed and reputation, with an ability to draw fans in even with just a simulation of its real life races. The Codemasters-developed game did very well at keeping an eager fan base entertained during times of distress and uncertainty.
Ultimately, if there’s any takeaway from the Virtual GP Series, it’s that it has yet again demonstrated that esports has the potential to compete with physical sports as a legitimate alternative. The event’s viewership has shown that it can actively engage with content-hungry sporting fans. Hopefully, the world of esports will continue proving itself as the centerpiece of a future defined by virtual and augmented reality.