Can E-SPORTS ever be considered ‘proper’ racing?
With Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown bringing motorsport in the metal to a screeching halt earlier this year, online gaming experienced an awakening of epic proportions in 2020. Okay, E-SPORTS tournaments have been a multi-million-dollar industry for more than a decade now, and professional online gaming and motorsport had been venturing hand-in-hand down that digital road for even longer: Spain’s Lucas Ordóñez for instance won the inaugural ‘can gamers really cut it on-track?’ GT Academy in 2008, and is now a two-time Le Mans class podium finisher. Prior to 2020 though, rarely had fans and naysayers of e-racing been so heavily invested in the product.
Back in May for example, Penske’s Simon Pagenaud caused quite the online storm when he deliberately wrecked Lando Norris in the closing stages of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge finale at Indianapolis, costing the McLaren F1 driver almost certain victory in the process. To some, that was okay: “it’s just a video game, lighten up.” To others though, Norris very much included, last year’s “salty” Indy 500 winner had not only slighted his fellow iRacers with his actions but had blemished his career as well.
The floodgates had barely creaked open though. One month later, Richard Petty’s Bubba Wallace lost real world sponsorship ties with Blue-Emu after rage-quitting a NASCAR iRace at Bristol Motor Speedway. In May, Audi came under similar fire for dropping Daniel Abt after it emerged the two-time Formula E race winner had brought in a ringer for an e-race. Once again, comments poured in from across the globe, decrying Wallace and Abt’s apparent unprofessionalism or shaming Blue-Emu and Audi for threatening a driver’s career over “just a video game.”
Like never before, E-SPORTS has been a polarizing subject for motorsport fans in 2020. And it was against this backdrop that CREVENTIC hosted its first-ever virtual race, the 12H MONZA E-SPORTS, in May. No pressure then!
Fortunately, any potential pokes of the proverbial wasp’s nest flew wide of the mark, with many 24H SERIES competitors – in whose honour the e-race had been organized – lauding CREVENTIC’s inaugural virtual event a success. Indeed, Tom Onslow-Cole and Adam Christodoulou, both fan favourites of the 24H SERIES in real life and teammates for the 12H MONZA E-SPORTS, are full of praise when CREVENTIC speaks with them remotely, post-race.
“I thought it went very well,” Adam begins. “I’m still very new to E-SPORTS and have been spending a lot of my newfound spare time working on improving my form. It’s great to be in a Mercedes-AMG GT3, like real life, and it’s really good to be up against some of the guys I see out on-track. We finished 7th in the end which we felt was a solid start for our first [24H SERIES Virtual] race.”
“I have had a simulator for, probably, five years, and used to do a lot of sim work but had never really competed online before Monza,” Tom continues. “It’s interesting because they” – i.e. E-SPORTS and real life racing – “are so similar and so different at the same time. The circuits, the race craft, the strategy and the teamwork… all of these things are so similar to real life, so it’s a great platform to fill the void of real life racing. There’s a divide to the real world – I guess a lack of feeling and fear are the two biggest things – but Monza also helped me stay sharp and practice my technique in the car. So it was really, really cool!”
In an already strong entry list for the virtual 12H MONZA, one that boasted 55 cars, more than 40 teams and close to 250 drivers, Adam and Tom’s partnership at Team ABBA Racing was one of the most intriguing. Both after all are long-time 24H SERIES competitors in the real world, both are multi-time class winners with CREVENTIC, and both are former series champions to-boot (Tom took the A6 Drivers’ crown in 2015, Adam the Overall Drivers ‘Continents’ title in 2018). On top of that, for Monza, the two PROs are teamed with British GT prodigy Sam Neary, also a 24H SERIES class winner. At any ‘real life’ endurance event, ABBA’s line-up is a potential show stealer.
But how well would such a strong line-up translate into the virtual realm of endurance racing? Indeed, how do these professional drivers – the youngest of which, ironically, is the most experienced of the iRacing discipline – even manage to work together, remotely? How do they prepare?
“It’s a lot different from real life,” Adam continues. “In real life, I have a team of the best engineers and mechanics in the industry preparing the car and planning strategies. In an e-race, it’s just the drivers. I’ve actually been really lucky to meet some more experienced gamers that have helped us along the way.
“Between drivers we have to compromise a little bit on set up too. Luckily, Tom, Sam and I have similar driving styles, but there is a lot of adjustments that can be made to make the car more driver-friendly. The virtual car is surprisingly versatile, way more than I expected when I first started out.
“Also, all three of us have worked together either as teammates or when racing with Team ABBA, and we use a software called Discord. So we were talking to each other almost constantly, like a phone call. Each time one of the other drivers was ‘in’ the car, we took it in turns to spot each other, and that really helped whilst overtaking. You can also select ‘push to talk’ if you need to concentrate too, which came in handy during qualifying.”
“The teamwork is really important,” Tom explains. “You’re devoid of an engineer, a team manager, the coordinator, etc, and you’re effectively managing the team between the drivers. So there’s a little more responsibility in that sense.
“Fortunately we know each other really well, and that was a big bonus. We were meeting up online in the evenings leading up to the event to setup the car and also test with each other to see if there is anything else we can find, driving-wise.
“It’s quite funny actually, because Adam and I are PRO drivers in motorsport, and Sam is coming up but is still quite new to GT racing. In the real world, we’d be doing most of the coaching for Sam. But he’s actually very experienced when it comes to racing online, so the roles were almost reversed! That was a slight change for us but one we welcomed.”
Wait, hang on. Preparing? For “a video game”, some of you might well be scoffing? Absolutely!
iRacing developer Motorsport Simulations makes no bones about the level of detail involved with its biggest cash cow, nor has it since the game first arrived in 2008. Every available circuit on ‘the world’s premier motorsport racing simulation’ has been laser scanned for pinpoint accuracy, the 5.793km temple of speed very much included. Feel the track dip away on the entry to the second Lesmo in the game? That’s there in real life too. Ditto the bumps and the elevation under the bridge on the approach to Variante Ascari. Even Monza’s changeable weather conditions are an accurate simulation.
The cars are no different. Months of development work goes into determining the exact mass and dimensions of each individual component, be it via laser scanning, computer-aided design (CAD), or, in extremis, physically disassembling the car itself in real life. And that’s before the truly complex matter of replicating dynamic forces can begin!
Simply put, the Mercedes-AMG GT3 with which Tom, Adam and Sam compete at the 12H MONZA E-SPORTS is as close an approximation to AMG’s 550(ish)hp, front engined, 300+kph weapon as one can digitally get.
“It’s incredible how far sim racing has come.” – Adam – “In my opinion, the Assetto Corsa software is closer to the real thing, but iRacing has the best multi-player platform. To be totally honest, if someone had told me a couple of years ago I’d soon be able to buy a piece of kit for my living room that I’d need gloves and my race boots to use, I’d never have believed it. That’s how good it is!”
“The cars and the dynamics… I’d say they’re 95 percent there.” – Tom – “I think it’s difficult, and almost harsh, to judge the software against the real thing because without the movement and the forces, the feeling is never going to be the same. But the general characteristics of the Mercedes are correct: the dashboard and the interior are spot on, so you can almost fool yourself into feeling like you’re in the car. The car behaves as you would expect from an engineering point of view too, so it’s quite fun to get stuck into setup changes.”
Ironically, though driver safety is less of a concern compared with the real world (we’ve all got our braking point wrong at the Laguna Seca corkscrew on the Playstation and lived to tell the tale), any damage inflicted on the car, and the severity thereof, is also digitally replicated in iRacing. When an iRacing Mercedes-AMG makes heavy contact at Monza, as unfortunately Team ABBA experiences first-hand in the very early going, the performance of the car will inevitably suffer, no matter how good the crew is with its digital duct tape. Like every 24H SERIES event before it, staying out of (simulated) trouble for 12 hours at Monza is critical for a good result. Especially if, according to Adam, you value your thumbs…
“Unfortunately I damaged the rear wing at the start of the first stint, costing us at least two or three seconds a lap.” – Adam – “So we had to suffer the rest of the race with a slight lack of straight line speed. You can come into the pits for repairs during a pitstop, which put us back on pace, but not everything can be repaired.
“The strength and details that go into these [steering] wheels now though is incredible. My wheel goes up to 25Nm [of torque] which sends a more precise feeling through the wheel. That’s also strong enough to break your thumbs, and I’ve learnt to let go if I’m about to hit the barriers, similar to real life! Thankfully I haven’t had to do that for many years.”
In saying that, Adam raises another good point. In any real life 24H SERIES event, debris on-track or a car beached in the gravel requires a Code 60 caution period for clean-up and/or recovery, during which competitors can drive no faster than 60kph. But an e-race makes both the Code 60 and any strategic roll of the dice redundant. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing though is something the ABBA teammates can’t agree on…
“Having no Code 60s actually makes it easier to work out your strategy.” – Adam – “If you crash in iRacing, you can either limp back to the pits or press ‘Towing’, which puts you in the pit lane. But it’s calculated how long it would have roughly taken for the car to return, so there’s no advantage to that.”
“The Code 60 in CREVENTIC is a great opportunity.” – Tom – “Taking that away, you are taking something away from the strategy and you’re also taking that element of luck out of the race. Sometimes these [Code 60] breaks give you opportunities, sometimes not. But the roulette wheel spins for everybody. That’s how it works!”
Despite their early bad luck, Team ABBA Racing’s pace with the ‘race weathered’ Mercedes at Monza is nevertheless good enough to secure the British team 7th at the flag, a solid result on Tom and Adam’s competitive iRacing debut.
Their e-racing journey doesn’t end there though. Just over one month later, Tom, Adam and Sam team up once again for the 12H SPA E-SPORTS, the inaugural round of CREVENTIC’s brand new 24H SERIES Virtual championship. Unfortunately, another shunt, this time with a back marker and whilst in contention for the overall podium, leads to another character-building event for the trio around the 7.004km, fully laser-scanned Spa-Francorchamps, and an impressive 6th place finish. Neither event seems to have dampened their spirits, so don’t be too surprised to find Team ABBA Racing lining up for the 24H SERIES Virtual finale at Sebring on 7 November too.
“We’re already talking about Sebring to make sure we can fit it in.” – Tom – “But not just the event itself. We want to make sure we have enough prep time to get a good setup and know our strategy beforehand. We’re very keen to come back.”
With lockdown now lifting across Europe, and with round three of this year’s 24H SERIES Europe just around the corner (complete with health and safety protocols), it surely won’t be long before Tom Onslow-Cole and Adam Christodoulou are back ‘in the metal’ with CREVENTIC. The question remains though. Given their newfound online experience, and with their interest piqued by more 24H SERIES e-races to come, what are Tom and Adam’s thoughts on one of the most polarizing debates of 2020’s extended post-season?
Can E-SPORTS truly be considered ‘proper’ racing?
“If you look up the definition of racing then this is what you find: ‘compete with another or others to see who is fastest at covering a set course or achieving an objective’.” – Adam – “So to me, it is racing. It’s just a different category. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I want to be as competitive as I can be, whether it’s motorsport, running or racing online. It’s the competition that I’m in it for.”
“To me, E-SPORT is completely justified as a real sport.” – Tom – “We look at e-racing as a simulation of real life, and I always assumed that everyone does this because they want to do it in real life. But that’s not necessarily the case. Not all sim racers have the desire to wear a racesuit and jump into a car in real life. That’s a projection we put on the sport because it’s so close to what we are used to. You’ve got to treat this discipline independently.
“It’s a whole other world, but it’s been really good. I’m definitely going to carry on.”
*Our thanks to Tom Onslow-Cole and Adam Christodoulou for their remote interviews during lockdown. Images courtesy of in.Sim Photography and Petr Fryba.