Formula One has announced it is launching an official eSport series to run in conjunction with the on-track world championship. The series is the first time the sport has entered the eSport arena and is to be run in conjunction with the official F1 video game and the eSport group Gfinity. The inaugural season, which will run from September to the season finale at Abu Dhabi, will be open to all-comers and represents a further move by owners the Formula One Group to embrace digital media.
The series will be held on the new F1 video game, published by Codemasters due for release on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC platforms on Friday. A qualification period will be held in September and from it the 40 fastest drivers will attend the semi-finals to be held at the Gfinity London Arena in October. The top 20 drivers from the semi-finals will reach the finals, a three-race event to be held at F1’s season finale in Abu Dhabi in November.
At this stage the series remains largely a marketing exercise for both F1 and the video game but the Formula One Group will be more than aware of the possibilities in reaching a new audience the medium offers as well as the potential financial return in the future.
The interest in and return from eSports has been growing exponentially in recent years. A survey by Nielsen revealed that 14% of Americans over the age of 13 are fans of professional gaming. The gaming market research company Newzoo’s latest report placed the global eSport audience at 385m and worth $696m, a figure they are predicting will reach $1.5bn in annual revenue by 2020.
Equally, F1 is following a route in to gaming that has already proved successful elsewhere. PlayStation and Nissan have successfully colluded in their Academy project in turning gamers into racing drivers, with Jann Mardenbrough proving a notable success in recent years. The Xbox Forza racing championship is now in its third season, the largest eSport of event of its kind and hosted its final at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. Moto GP launched their eSport series, backed by Red Bull and Michelin in May.
McLaren announced earlier this year their World’s Fastest Gamer programme – an annual competition in which video gamers will compete to win a job as a simulator driver for the team. The team’s executive director, Zak Brown, noted the importance of eSport in appealing to a younger demographic. “The F1 audience is getting older and this is part of how we capture the younger generation,” he said. “This is how that generation will grow up learning about the sport.”
In January the British driver Graham Carrol, who had moved on to driving sims due to a lack of funding, raced at the Formula E Championship eRace in Las Vegas for a $1m prize. He has been unequivocal on the importance of F1 entering the sport. “It would just add to the show if there was a Formula One sim race,” he said. “It is just getting bigger and bigger. If someone is signed to a proper racing team there will be knock-on effect and lots of people will be signed up.”
The Formula One group’s commercial managing director, Sean Bratches, believed it would continue to further the organisation’s attempts to connect with a new audience. “This launch presents an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” he said.
“First, it’s a growing category with tremendous fan engagement that we’re entering in a big way; and we are proud to have Codemasters and Gfinity joining us on this ride. Of course as we do in Formula 1, we’ll continue to evolve and innovate in the way we run this virtual counterpart to the F1 championship to ensure we provide the most exciting and enjoyable experience we can for our fans.”
Since the Formula One group took over F1 and dispensed with the services of Bernie Ecclestone it has made fan engagement and embracing digital media a priority. They relaxed the rules around teams using social media at the Spanish Grand Prix and have been active in using social media as an organisation. They have also made a concerted effort to increase the involvement and entertainment at the fan village at races and been pro-active in allowing promoters to put on events at races. The sport’s chief executive, Chase Carey, has been dismissive of Ecclestone’s reign, saying the sport had become used to saying “no” to new ideas too often.