The ebbs and flows of Formula E and racing esports

Visiting the Formula E: Accelerate 2022 final in London, we track the history of the electric championship’s relationship with racing esports.
The ebbs and flows of Formula E and racing esports

Recently, I attended the Formula E 2022 London E-Prix, though the double–header event wasn’t actually the reason I was there. The championship’s esports arm was my central focus and the Accelerate Grand Final, all around, was a brilliant watch.

Top production value, excellent commentary and two races that reminded everybody of (for the umpteenth time) sim racing’s value to the wider motorsport community. It should have been a success without question; and yet I found myself with questions to ask. 

Formula E Visa Vegas eRace 2017
Formula E Visa Vegas eRace 2017 – Motorsport Images

I wanted to take a look at the relationship between Formula E and gaming; one which at times appears strong and at others conservative. With insight from those in the know, there shall be one question, in particular, we shall look to answer. 

Is esports truly important to Formula E? 

Record Breaker

It bares reminding us, sometimes, of just how behind the curve sim racing was back at the turn of 2017. At a time when esports juggernaut League of Legends had just witnessed its fifth world championship with a $5,000,000 prize pool, the world of virtual racing was disparate.

iRacing drew closest to this gargantuan figure with $50,000 distributed across its World Championship, NASCAR and Blancpain GT series. 

Then came the Visa Vegas eRace, shattering all that came before it with a $1,000,000 fund which remains unmatched at the time of writing.

Not even the Formula 1 Esports Series Pro of the modern day touches seven digits. It cannot be understated just how much of a breakthrough moment this event was as, for the first time ever, spectators were treated to a LAN event with production value rivalling that of ‘the real thing’.

Despite technical difficulties leaving a bitter taste in the mouth, this was to be the dawn of an upward trajectory for bedroom-bound racers with a dream. 

20167 Visa Vegas eRace, FIA Formula E Championship, Boni Huis wins – Motorsport Images
2017 Visa Vegas eRace, FIA Formula E Championship, Bono Huis wins – Motorsport Images

The Esports World Touring Car Championship, Formula 1 Esports Series, Gran Turismo World Championships, Forza World Championships and more all made their debuts within eighteen months of this historic moment in racing esports.

It was a revolutionary time and yet Formula E did not remain among those names. After lighting the torch, it simply vanished from the esports landscape. 

Busy Ocean

Three straight years passed before, finally, Formula E re-emerged onto the sim racing map with its ‘Race At Home Challenge’.

Held during the first sixth months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea echoed what many other motorsport series did. The real-world drivers were placed into the virtual setting in tandem with full-time sim racers, offering great entertainment above all else. Race At Home was also notable for being a charitable series, raising money for UNICEF. 

Yet, despite its good intentions, a thought still lingered in the back of my mind. Why did it take this long? Why did it take an unprecedented, worldwide phenomenon, to bring Formula E back to esports?

The foundations had been laid for ‘Accelerate’, a six-round competitive season, to be greenlit for 2021. However, the landscape had changed drastically during the intervening time.

Formula E Accelerate 2022, Lewis McGlade battles Jack Nicholls
Formula E: Accelerate 2022 – Lewis McGlade battles Jack Nicholls

“Sim racing is a flooded market now. If you try and enter that market, you’re entering with a lot of noise,” said 2022 Formula E: Accelerate commentator Lewis McGlade.

“If you try and do your own thing and have a LAN event where you’re bringing people along, in partnership with an official series, that’s the angle to go for. Doing something different is better than the form book.”

Here, McGlade was referencing Accelerate’s 2022 edition and that brings us neatly back to the present day.

This London-based Grand Final did so many things right and, in having a one-day format, harkened back to that glorious day on 7th January 7th.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone was there to witness it. The Fan Village (where the stage was based) was a ghost town while 30,000 viewers tuned in online. For reference, Round 1 of Accelerate 2021 accrued almost double that number.

Fan Service

My first thought when looking around at the vacant space was concerning the lack of a multi-round season preceding the London E-Prix. It was something I put to McGlade who quite rightly pointed out the benefits of keeping things open with hot-lap qualifying. 

“It allows everyone to take part and try to get themselves involved rather than viewing twenty people that they have maybe heard of. I think that’s a cool aspect and the joy of attempting something a bit different.” 

Formula E Accelerate 2022, London, Frede Rasmussen vs Jarno Opmeer

These were certainly views shared by Edmund Trevelyan-Johnson, Formula E Gaming Product Manager. Immediately obvious sitting down with Accelerate 2022’s creator was his eye for the future, in spite of his infectious enthusiasm for what had already come together. 

“We’ve put a lot into this event. We got people here, they should be the fastest in the game. Personally, I want to create a platform upon which we can build every year. I hope this event goes down well, we’re going to be monitoring responses very closely. If we get good responses then we’ll build upon what we have here.”

Trevelyan-Johnson deserves plenty of praise for his drive to synergise Accelerate with its parent series. From team representation in the cockpits to cutting-edge cockpits to sharing the thrilling shootout qualifying format; everything had the mark of Formula E about it. Industry savvy was also on full display during our final minute together. 

Formula E Accelerate 2022, London, Jarno Opmeer Attack Mode

“Gaming, and especially sim racing, is still nascent. All these different brands are vying for space and market share.

“Formula E is definitely eager to get as much of that as possible. We want people to like the brand. We want people to be interested in the esports side. Hence, we have an event with this kind of budget that is this big.

“We hired a new gaming team at the beginning of this year. Lots of fresh ideas there!”

That was my question answered well and truly. As much as the evening’s show could have done with more promotion, the quality elements were there.

Formula E Accelerate 2022, Jarno Opmeer

I left the venue excited at the prospect of what Accelerate 2023 may look like. Whatever the truth as to how the Vegas eRace was never capitalised on, the future of Formula E’s esports endeavours appear to be in excellent hands going forward. 

If racing esports wasn’t important to Formula E, it certainly is now.

Images: Formula E and Motorsport Images

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