Let’s be clear: There is already an esports league dedicated to Formula One. As noted in a previous article, the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix is not to be confused with the preexisting Esports Pro Series. A result of COVID-19 shutting down the paddocks, the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix is a collective of Formula racing drivers moving into an online space to compete. The Esports Pro Series is an event created by Formula racing in 2017 for gamers to race and compete.
The first Esports Virtual Grand Prix took place last April, when COVID-19 halted all Formula One activities. Unable to enter the paddock yet itching to drive, F1 drivers found ways to occupy their free time. Drivers like Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes-AMG and Daniel Ricciardo previously of Renault spent their time on social media. Others took to the online world.
It is well known that the younger members of F1 are avid gamers. Of the 20 drivers in the paddock, five have their own Twitch accounts and post on various social media platforms their current game standings.
Currently, the two of the youngest drivers in Formula One are McLaren’s Lando Norris and George Russell. At 21 and 22 years old, respectively, the two were the first F1 names on the 2020 roster as well as the 2021 roster. Their Twitch accounts have garnered hundreds of thousands of followers, and fans flock for their content. While some, like Scuderia Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc created Twitch accounts solely to stream the Virtual Grand Prix, Lando Norris is known to stream Call of Duty and racing sims on his off time.
Unlike other sports that have been made into video games, Formula One teams own their esports teams. The drivers that are signed to Esports Pro Series team Mercedes-AMG Petronas Esports Team are employed by the same Mercedes-AMG Petronas that the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas drive for. Each of the ten F1 teams is host to a corresponding esport team, and the recruitment process is open to all.
The Virtual Grand Prix takes Formula drivers, who have trained to withstand g-force from childhood and had the financial backing to even attempt the rigorous training required, and pits them against each other in the virtual world. Formula drivers begin their physical journey as young as eight years old by enlisting in go-kart races. The barrier to entry is obscenely high, which leads to most drivers being from affluent families.
On the other hand, the Esports Pro Series opens its recruiting process to anyone who owns the most recent iteration of the F1 game on Xbox, PS4, or PC. Using the same game and (at the pro level) the same simulation machines as Formula drivers, the Esports Pro Series is as close to Formula racing as the average gamer can get. And in true gamer fashion, the selection process resembles a battle royale.
In 2020, 237,000 candidates entered the first level of recruitment.
The initial trial begins with an eight month series of races in simulated versions of real race courses. Beginning in September, players from around the world are encouraged to take part in the Weekly Events. The fastest racers from events are then selected to take part in an invitation-only Time Trial that will then lead to the uppermost few being selected for the Challenger Series.
After months of gruelling competition, the final handful of drivers take part in the Challenger Series. Fewer than 20 competitors per platform reach the final, ten-week stretch of driving. From those that succeed, only six per platform will be given the chance to sign with a team and become one of their drivers.
After months of trial by fire, the final few selected and signed are now drivers for the very companies that build the cars they run in sim. While F1 teams have two drivers in the paddock, their corresponding esports teams host three players. The Esports Pro Series begins with the newly recruited and previously signed racers all gathering to compete. Ten weeks of trials and tribulation will yield the final, fastest driver.
Of course, due to COVID, none of these events are held in person. While F1 has returned with strict regulations and fewer people in the paddock, the Pro Series is taking none of those risks. Each driver competes from the safety of their own home.
The prize pool for these events are nothing to sneeze at. In 2020, the Esports Pro Series featured a prize pool of $750k split among the winning team.