As the fifth season of F1 Esports approaches, the series looks set to have its biggest year yet.
There are many reasons for this, from the Virtual GPs during 2020 bringing new eyes to F1 gaming, to the growth in interest around Codemasters' F1 game series. Perhaps the biggest reason though, is down to the F1 Esports drivers themselves.
F1 Esports used to be full of laser-focused and somewhat camera-shy drivers, now a group of racers is breaking that stereotype and helping to fuel the growth of F1 Esports and sim racing, just as the "Twitch Quartet" and Drive To Survive has done for the real sport.
100k & rising
Since claiming the F1 Esports crown in 2020, Jarno Opmeer has put a lot of time into growing a personal audience. His YouTube channel is full of useful tips, ridiculous challenges, and elite racing. At over 100k subs on both YouTube and Twitch, Opmeer has a personal following that he will carry into the 2021 F1 Esports season.
"Me, Marcel Kiefer (Red Bull), and Lucas Blakeley (Aston Martin) are the only ones really pushing it." Said Opmeer when we spoke to him. "I think that's very much necessary for ourselves, but also if F1 Esports wants to grow even more and become something special."
With the drivers once again competing remotely due to covid, they will have limited exposure to the fans watching at home. As a result opportunities to get across their personality will be few and far between, which is why Opmeer along with Kiefer and Blakeley, have been so keen to get themselves out there in between seasons.
Drivers, then the sport
F1 Esports has a big advantage when it comes to capturing real-world Formula 1 fans, as the races are broadcast on the official Formula 1 Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube channels. But just because someone loves F1 doesn't necessarily mean they will watch F1 Esports.
The same goes for the regional explosions in interest we see with the sport. F1 became huge in Germany thanks to Michael Schumacher, we now have a Dutch Grand Prix again thanks to Max Verstappen. Fans latch onto personalities and individuals when it comes to motorsport long before they latch onto the sport itself.
"We see that in real life racing a lot, where fans are interested in the drivers and automatically they start watching the sport." Said Opmeer, "I think that's a very important aspect if F1 Esports wants to keep growing."
This has been born out by the new fans, especially in the US, that have been created by Drive To Survive. Giving fans a more human and personable version of the drivers than you might see on a race weekend has created an explosion in fans, especially for those who have had a "character arc" like Pierre Gasly, Lando Norris, and Daniel Ricciardo.
Esports Drive to Survive?
So if DTS has been such a success for Formula 1, what about doing something similar for F1 Esports?
"I think that would be very cool." Said Opmeer when we floated the idea to him. "I think it's too early for that. F1 Esports needs to grow a lot more before we could do that."
The series is growing, especially with teams becoming more and more invested in the series. Williams, Red Bull, and Mercedes are among the teams that have esports facilities at their main factory. Romain Grosjean's R8G Esports is now involved with the Haas team, while McLaren Shadow is investing in young sim drivers.
In the end though, the limit for F1 Esports is whatever Formula 1 wants it to be. If they are just looking to engage a younger audience to try and turn them into F1 fans it can only grow so far. But with other major sports somewhat lagging behind when it comes to the virtual world, F1 has the chance to become the premier esport, far outstripping what football, the NFL, or NBA can do. It just needs to encourage the personalities and talents of its drivers to shine through.
You can watch the first round of F1 Esports action live on Wednesday, 13 October. The racing begins at 7:30pm BST and will be shown across the official Formula 1 Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube channels.
For more articles like this, take a look at our Esports page.