How Formula E is blurring the line between eSports and reality

The difference between real racing and sim racing is smaller than ever. Titles such as Assetto Corsa use complex code to accurately map out everything from tyre wear and G-force to fuel consumption and downforce, and that means the skills and techniques you learn playing more realistic driving games apply to real driving. At this year’s CES gamers went up against real Formula E drivers in a sim race with a $1 million prize fund. And the winner might surprise you.

The event saw all 20 “real” Formula E drivers go against ten sim racers, and it was eventually won by Bono Huis, a sim racer taking part on behalf of the Faraday Future Formula E team. Huis walked away with $225,000 in total, after winning $200,000 for the race win, and a further $25,000 for qualifying on pole.

After the race, Huis told Alphr: “The start was the most important part, and I pretty much nailed that. I had quite a big lead after the first lap, and after that the pace was looking good so I knew that if nothing crazy happened, I would win.”

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Because the race was only virtual, organisers were able to create an accurately modelled “dream track” for the event, but it also meant it was impossible to practise beforehand. “We didn’t know the track until the day before the race so we could not practice at home,” Huis said. “It had good overtaking opportunities, really wide corners in some places and tight, twisty bits as well. It was a nice mix, and it had a good flow to it as well, so it was fun to drive for sure!”

The event wasn’t totally dominated by sim racers, though, with four Formula E drivers – including Britain’s Sam Bird – finishing in the top ten.

Gaining new fans

Formula E is one of the newest motorsports around right now, and it’s innovated not only in its tech, but in the way it interacts and attracts fans, too. Unlike Formula 1, Formula E is prepared to aggressively court fans – by slightly cringe-worthy social-media-fuelled things such as the #FanBoost or events like these, and whatever you think of its methods, it’s a step in the right direction. There’s no way Formula 1 would ever be able to negotiate all its drivers into an event like this, and that’s a shame._x0w7363

Unlike FanBoost – which I’m still not totally sure about – it’s clear that sim racing is not a fad. Unlike other eSports such as Dota or League of Legends, sim racing teaches you skills that are actually transferable into real life, to an extent. For example, after hours on Assetto Corsa, I’m better at driving a car around a track than I would be otherwise.

“eSports are certainly getting bigger and bigger, and looking at the amount of attention and exposure the Visa Vegas eRace got, there are certainly possibilities for this,” says Huis. “Sim racing is also the only eSport that can combine the real and virtual world, which is a massive thing for events like this.”

Whatever you think of Formula E as a sport, it’s being positioned in an extremely clever way. It engages with fans in ways we’ve not really seen from other motorsports; it’s electric, which is great for manufacturers; and now it’s tapped into one of the most exciting areas of both gaming and racing. Formula E is certainly looking ahead, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so appealing to carmakers right now.

At first it sounds ridiculous, but the result of the Vegas race is a testament to that fact. In addition to fitness, racing is about car control and reactions, and much of that can be learnt in a simulator. That’s why Formula 1 drivers train on simulators before they even turn a wheel on a new track, and it’s also why carmakers such as Nissan use the GT Academy, actively recruiting racing drivers based on their video-gaming skills.

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When I ask if Huis would like to race one day, he says: “Of course, that’s the dream! I love racing, I’ve been following it all my life, and to do some real-life racing would be something amazing for me – if it’s ever going to happen? I don’t know, but I sure hope so.”

However, it’s possible that thinking of eSports as a feeder series to real-life motorsport is pretty old fashioned.  For example, when it’s released later this year. GT Sport will include an FIA-backed online racing leagues, and even offer gamers eSports certified accessories to play the game. With the FIA getting involved in a big way, prize funds increasing, and more races clearly on the way, there’s no reason why a racing career in eSports won’t be as viable as one in real motorsports.

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