Esports: Racing into the Future
Last November, 18-year-old Brandon Leigh won the first Formula 1 Esports Series championship. Over 1.8M viewers watched the racing final on Facebook. The impressive viewership stats belie the fact that digital racing games lag behind other genres in esports. Currently, esports competitions focus on audience favorites like League of Legends, CounterStrike, and Dota 2. Battle Royale style games also racing up the charts on Twitch with genre titles like Fortnite and PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS rapidly climbing the viewership charts. On the heels of Intel’s collaboration with ESL, IEM Katowice, it’s evident why these titles dominate: they draw large arena crowds, have high Twitch viewership, and appeal to their target gamer audience.
Digital motorsports, however, could hold the key to unlocking new audiences and spur the next phase of esports growth. Racing games are as old as video games, yet enjoy some of the biggest market gains of any genre; the category grew 68% from 2016-2017 and overall, racing game sales reported triple year-over-year growth. Racing games like Codemasters F1 series and Dirt series, or Sony’s well-established Gran Turismo series may help the trend grow beyond the current gamer niche; here’s a few reasons why:
Most esports are too hot to touch To the uninitiated, esports are alienating, and inscrutable. In order to expand to new markets esports must overcome this challenge. To the uninitiated, a League of Legends team fight is largely indecipherable. Races, however, are as old as time and the principle of “first over the line” is easy to grasp for all audiences. In addition the content of Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBAs) and First Person Shooters can be challenging for those that are more cautious about their brand associations—for many, a game like CounterStrike which features a 5 on 5 battle between terrorists and counter-terrorists with AK-47s and grenades is simply a non-starter. Racing, and digital motorsports specifically, could be the antidote to the challenging content of esports for brands that would more easily identify with digital motorsports.
Racing games are deeply convergent with traditional motorsport The world of digital games and motorsport are already deeply convergent, with many of the top racing teams, like Red Bull’s F1 team, utilizing complex simulators to help train their drivers. While the simulators are not games per se, they bear enough resemblance that motorsport teams are looking to the expertise of gamers to help them with their simulations. A young gamer, Yann Mardenborough, is even converting his love for racing videogames into a driving career in motorsports at McLaren. The convergence makes a lot of sense, the top racing videogames are played with a simulated cockpit, and with wheels, pedals and gear shifts just like a real race car. Indeed, the physicality required to drive a race car is accurately simulated with modern racing games to such a degree that it compensates for the common perception that esports athletes, the kind who play with a keyboard and mouse, are not, in fact, so athletic.
- Motorsport audiences are already huge According to F1, 352.3 million unique viewers tuned in to F1 races in 2017, and the cumulative viewing audience (the average audience for all programs across the year) rose 6.2% from 2016. By any measure, this is a large global sports phenomenon, and it represents an audience that esports would love to capture. There have been some attempts at professionalized esports racing events, including F1’s own Formula 1 Esports Series, and NASCAR seems to be getting into the mix with esports as well, but racing competitions are yet to catch on in any significant way. As we’ve suggested, this may have less to do with audience demand, and more to do with the cultural predispositions of the esports industry in its current state.
Takeaway: Audience sizes and Twitch viewership statistics may seem to suggest that market demand and preference steers away from digital motorsports. However, it’s still too immature of a professionalized sports industry to assume that the content path we’re currently on is the natural or only viable one. The current primary stakeholders and producers in esports are deeply invested in the present makeup of esports titles, as they themselves have emerged from a gaming culture entrenched in fantasy-themed and shooter titles. As esports continues to evolve, the very viability of the sport may depend on strategies to expand the audience beyond the niche focus of gamers. Digital motorsports, already deeply convergent with gaming and with a potential to open the door to non-endemic brands interested in esports, could offer a gateway to broader markets that are not yet paying attention to esports.
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