The Mercedes and the Toro Rosso pull up in ‘parc fermé’ after the race. The drivers piloting the two cars have just engaged in a last-race, last-lap, no holds barred battle for the title at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The Toro Rosso driver is victorious but seeing red at his rival’s optimistic attempt at defending the lead, he looks into the camera and wags his finger to express his disapproval. Then, adrenaline spent and championship won, he slips out from behind his gaming console.
Yes, you read that right. The Torro Rosso driver is Brendon Leigh. His rival in the Mercedes is Fabrizio Donoso Delgado and they’ve just engaged in a no-holds-barred battle – not for the Formula One title, but to be crowned the first champion of its virtual cousin, the F1 Esports Series. Brendon Leigh and Delgado may well be gamers but don’t mistake what they do for child’s play. As the beads of sweat on Leigh’s brow show, this is serious, high-stakes, wheel-to-wheel racing. Leigh and Delgado are just two among millions of gamers worldwide riding the wave of the Esports boom to turn what used to be hobbies into lucrative careers.
The F1 Esports Series is streamed live across social media channels, select TV networks and has its own panel of commentators and pundits.
According to gaming market intelligence firm Newzoo, Esports had a fan base of 385 million and generated $900 million in revenue as of the end of 2017. Keen to tap into that fruitful opportunity and broaden its appeal to a younger demographic, Formula One – under then-new commercial rights holders Liberty Media – trialled a first-ever Formula One Esports competition at the end of 2017. No more than a pilot initiative comprising just a single round and no official involvement from Formula One teams, it is now set for its third season, featuring four rounds, a prize pot of $500,000 and virtual versions of nine of Formula One’s ten teams. Renault Sport Team Vitality is one of them.
“To be perfectly honest we actually discovered the size of Esports when we started digging into this,” said Bastien Schupp, who is Vice President, Global Brand Strategy and Marketing Communications at Groupe Renault. “If you look at the Esports industry and that they fill stadiums of 80,000 people in Korea… you think you’re in a concert. And this is the part which I think the general public and the older general public is not aware of.”
There was a time when children and teenagers grew up with posters of cars on their walls. Car ownership was aspirational. But the aspirations of today’s generation of youngsters have shifted to technology and gadgets. Viewers who tuned into Formula One in 2018 were, on average, 40 years old, as revealed by the sport’s official viewership data.
Renault-backed F2 driver Jack Aitken tries his hand at the Esports simulator. The improving realism of the games is blurring the lines between real and virtual.
But 80 percent of the audience the F1 Esports Series drew in its first full season in 2018 were below the age of 35, with 56 percent younger than 25. Of those who tuned in to watch the final, 70 percent were less than 34 years old. Renault realised that if they want to grow awareness of their brand among this younger demographic, they would have to speak their language.
“There is new mobility, there is car-sharing, so selling cars might not be the primary objective and certainly not in the short term,”said Bastien Schupp. “So I don’t expect to sell cars because I’m a partner of an Esports team. But what I do expect is to grow the awareness of the Renault brand and also the positive opinion of the Renault brand with the younger audience. And then one day, whether they will buy cars or whether they will go into shared robocars or whatever, they will know Renault and they will remember that they saw us in the environment.”
Renault has tied-up with Team Vitality for its Esports push. Founded by hobby gamer and former TV and film editor, Fabien Devide, a.k.a ‘Neo’, Team Vitality is the top Esports squad in France and among the top-three in Europe. There are 25 people working full-time for the brand and around 50 players spanning 11 different games. Discussions between Renault and Team Vitality began towards the end of 2017 and the partnership was announced in February 2018.
Eracers may be racing in the virtual world but like real drivers they have a wealth of data they rely on to maximise performance.
The F1 Esports Series was not, in fact, the first championship they entered together, however. Renault Sport Team Vitality made its debut in Rocket League – a game that recorded over 6 million in sales and had 40 million players in early 2018 – essentially a football-inspired concept where gamers use rocket-powered cars instead of players to push a ball around and score goals.
When plans for a full-fledged F1 Esports series were firmed up, following the 2017 ‘soft-launch’in Abu Dhabi, it was only natural for Renault Sport Team Vitality to sign up for it. Now the outfit is gearing up for Season 3. It has signed Jarno Opmeer from Netherlands and Cédric Thomé from Germany to its Esports roster for 2019, with James Doherty signed up as the team’s official coach. As per the rules, they will be picking at least one of its racers from the official F1 Esports Pro Draft in July.
In this, Team Vitality’s knowledge of the Esports landscape has been invaluable. What Renault brings to the table is its expertise of working with top F1 drivers. As the Esports stakes grow ever higher and the battleground gets ever more competitive, Renault’s F1 experience can help Team Vitality cope with the growing demands placed on its roster of players.
F1 Esports Series racers are celebrities in their own rights.
“We need to mix our knowledge to make sure we have the best project,” said Team Vitality founder ‘Neo’. “On our side, we have the knowledge of video games. But what we need to improve and what we need to learn from Renault is, for example, what they’ve done with their academy drivers… the way they train, the way they are doing a lot of analysis. We want to create a synergy, have the best of both worlds… and this is what we focus on this year,” he went on to say.
For instance, as part of its vetting process while recruiting its 2019 F1 Esports squad, Renault put candidates through a series of rigorous tests, evaluating not just reaction time and mental conditioning but also physical fitness. They have an intensive programme of preparation mapped out for their 2019 drivers.
“We tested some five different drivers from all over Europe,” said Guillaume Vergnas, part of Renault Sport Racing’s marketing division. “They went to the team’s headquarters in Enstone in the UK. There we had one day of testing in the gym with our physio – physical testing, reaction testing on the batak. On the second day, there were two special tests on the simulator at our facilities — not the big simulator we have for Formula One — but simulators we have on the PC, exactly the same that are used for the competitions.”
“So, we decided to recruit one coach and two players. Every year, there is a new Formula One game and it changes a bit from the game that came out last year. So as soon as the game is available, the two players will live next to Enstone and come to Enstone every day and will train at the factory on a special simulator with full access to the gym and support from the physio,” Vernas continued.
Renault see Esports as an opportunity to engage with a younger audience.
“Our IT department will help them with telemetry because within the game you’ve got different settings you an use to adapt the settings of the car to the track and there is also important data on getting the tyres (ready) as well and strategy.”
Quick reflexes and lightning fast reactions are a required part of a gamer’s skillsets. But fitness? Renault Sport Team Vitality’s racers may display the same level of dedication and commitment behind their consoles as Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hülkenberg do in the cockpit of their cars. But where Ricciardo and Hülkenberg have to be fit to withstand the G-Forces buffeting their bodies, there are no such physical demands on Esports racers.
“To stay competitive and to keep his emotions stable, a driver has to be in good health condition,” said Guillaume Vergnas. “If you’ve got someone who is not sleeping a lot, who is not practicing sports, who is not healthy, he will have a competitive disadvantage to another player. We had one of the drivers who came for the tryouts and between last summer and February this year he lost around 25kg, just to train for this. It’s just crazy how it can change and how it can impact performance at the end.”
It may be a game but Esports are just as competitive as the real thing.
Esports today has grown to a point where it has its own ecosystem of fans, competitors and celebrities, like the finger-wagging Leigh, who now drives for Mercedes’ Esports team.
Countries have their own Esports federations, while the discipline debuted at the Asian Games last year as a demonstration sport. But can it usurp the real thing and could it lead to a blurring of boundaries between the virtual and the real? Could a racer perhaps one day be the reigning champion of both Esports and real-world racing at the same time?
Bastien Schupp thinks the virtual and the real will coexist and that each will help the other grow. “I think Esports still has tremendous growth ahead of it, so I think it’s just the beginning,” he said. “I don’t think it will outgrow the real sports. But the two will grow together.”
Road to the F1 Esports title
The F1 Esports Series is open to any gamer who has a copy of the official Codemaster F1 2018 game across PC and console – specifically, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
It will be held in three knockout stages – Qualifying, the Pro Draft and then the Pro Series.
1. The 2019 season of the F1 Esports Series will kick off with three qualifying events, each open for two weeks. The first event went Live on April 8.
2. The top six drivers from each qualifying event will be invited to an online race-off in May. A total of 18 racers per platform will battle it out in this all-important final stage of online qualification.
1. The top ten drivers from each of these three races will then progress to the Pro Draft segment of the series
2. There will also be two wild card entries per platform, meaning a fresh batch of 36 drivers will be in with a shot.
3. The Pro Draft will be held across two days.
4. The first day will see a series of high stakes knockout races, with only the very fastest drivers making it to the Live Draft Show on day 2.
5. The nine official F1 Esports teams will, as per the rules, select at least one of their drivers from those left at the end of the Pro Draft
6. At the end of all this, the final roster of drivers will be in place, after which the Pro Series stage can finally begin.
1. The Pro Series will comprise four live events between September and December.
2.This is the stage where teams and their drivers will battle it out to be crowned F1 Esports Champions and win a mouth-watering prize pot of $500,000.
Renault Sport Team Vitality F1 Esports 2019
English, 26 years old (22/08/1992)
Driver for RS-VIT in 2018
Champion X7 League Racing
51k subs on Youtube
Driver No. 1
Dutch, 19 years old (11/04/2000)
X-driver Renault Academy
Three-time Dutch karting champion (2009-11)
Vice-Champion F4 NEZ in 2016
Most GP wins in Apex Online Racing PS4
Driver No. 2
German, 21 years old (26/02/1998)
Champion Apex Online Racing Xbox
F1 Esports finalist in 2017
Renault Sport Team Vitality
Renault Sport Team Vitality takes part in the Rocket League and F1 Esports Series. This team, although still new, has already tasted victory. The team were crowned RLCS Europe vice-champions in 2018 and were triumphant in the third season of the Gfinity Elite Series.