Let’s just get this one out of the way – I’m an Esports skeptic. I’m not against the idea; I’m just, let’s say ‘curiously cautious’ about the whole thing.
Another thing that ought to be said is that Esports aren’t here to replace motorsports either, nor are they trying to. Think of it this way: If your favorite show isn’t on TV, what do you do? You change the channel. Esports is exactly that. Real world motorsport isn’t really able to return at the moment, so we have this instead.
And yet in this world of lockdown and uncertainty, they’re framed as legitimate motorsports competitions filling the void left by the noisy, stinky events we all love. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly complicates matters.
Personally, a big appeal for motorsport is getting to watch hugely talented people do something massively out of my reach. It’s why DirtFish pays me to write about rallycross rather than drive one of their RX cars. One thing I can do (although not as well as I’d like to) is play videogames. In fact, once I’d finished writing this column, I wound down for another evening in lockdown by hopping online to race with my friends.
And herein lies the struggle. Watching gaming – with real drivers or otherwise – instead of racing isn’t always easy or fun.
Sure, the likes of IMG and iRacing have done an excellent job to bring high-quality professional championships to our screens, but despite the crystal-clear quality and big name talent both on and off track, there’s always going to be the odd niggle that makes this diehard motorsport fan struggle to stay engaged.
Sunday’s World Rallycross Esports event – set at the Abu Dhabi track which made its real-world rallycross debut last year – featured some, frankly, shocking driving standards. Without the consequences involved with real-world motorsport, drivers take certain liberties that leave you scratching your head. If that’s cool with the Esports crowd, fair enough, but as a motorsport fan left to watch this while we wait for the real thing to return, it’s hard to get on board with.
Silverstone 2018 comes to mind, watching on as the right rear quarter of Petter Solberg’s Volkswagen Polo was completely rebuilt in just two minutes during a red flag stoppage of his semi-final. But during Sunday’s World RX Esports event I lost count of the number of drivers who rolled and carried on as if nothing happened. Rallycross isn’t just about who finishes where, it’s about the story, the peril of missing out on the next round, and the plethora of external factors.
While certain key ingredients are missing, other new ones are added into the mix, both good and bad.
Like in real-world motorsport, drivers are at the mercy of the tools at their disposal, but seeing top drivers like Timo Scheider and Conner Martell sit out of races because of connection issues is another head scratcher. As is a second place finisher being declared the winner because of server lag, where the starting lights go green for some drivers in an asynchronous fashion – that, too, has happened.
But, slightly ironically, Esports also takes us back to a bygone era, one where drivers raced anything they could get their hands on. I’m not old enough to have seen Jim Clark switching seamlessly between Formula 1, the Indy 500, touring car racing and rallying, but what I can watch is Supercars star Shane van Gisbergen and Ferrari F1 driver Charles Leclerc in the official World RX Esports series, and people like champion drag racer Ron Capps and Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi race in iRX All Stars.
That is a huge plus point.
World RX’s decision to largely banish Esports professionals from its main series is another plus, allowing us to focus on our real world heroes and not have them dominated by the more experienced but relatively unknown pro gamers. Those sim-racing pros get their own dedicated competition that takes place as an undercard to the main event.
That final bit is something that could keep me engaged with the World RX Esports series in the coming weeks.
There’s the known quantities like Timmy and Kevin Hansen, and Andreas Bakkerud; and having last year’s three World RX title challengers reigniting that battle in the virtual world is something worth keeping an eye on, regardless of your stance on the whole Esports thing. But for rallycross fans at least, it’s something familiar to latch on to, and that’s before we get onto the big names from elsewhere as well. By-in-large, iRX All Stars was the same with regard to its driver lineup,
I, like many, struggled to get onboard the Esports hype train at first, and I guess I’m still standing on the platform deciding whether or not to get on. I’m still not fully convinced, but I’m closer now than I was at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
One thing I’m definitely certain of is that I can’t wait to be back in an actual paddock.