How sports being cancelled worldwide finally helped me understand eSports

The fateful moment | source: Jimmy Broadbent

How sports being cancelled worldwide finally helped me understand eSports


I used to work with this guy who was really big into eSports. Every day Luke would come in, sit down at his desk next to mine and set up a tablet, second monitor, or maybe - if the boss wasn’t in - the big office TV, and tuned into some DotA 2 stream. Sometimes it was a big player in the scene practicing, or perhaps some Korean tournament but it didn't matter to him.

I fucking hated it, and I tried to keep my mind open and “get it”, I did. However for me, just the same as for those guys you see complaining on Twitter every year when the Evo fighting game tournament gets aired on ESPN, it all seemed kinda pointless.

How I got hooked

Here I am five or so years down the line.

I'm joining 400,000 other motorsports fans to watch the 2020 Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix, an event being streamed on the official Formula 1 YouTube channel, Sky’s F1 and Main Event channels. It features current and former F1 drivers, eSports athletes, content creators, and a host of other VIPs taking part in a 25% distance race in the F1 2019 game. A race taking place around the very track that, had the world not ground to halt because of coronavirus, the actual cars would be taking to at that very moment.

I’m immediately captivated.

Like many others in the stream chat I would never have said that I could get the same excitement from eSports as the real thing. Yet when real life F1 driver Lando Norris chases down and spends the last lap of the race battling for 4th position with Jimmy Broadbent (a prominent F1 Youtuber), I'm screaming at my laptop. The other pros had crashed in a huge pileup on the opening lap. Broadbent, whose medium tyres are quickly getting to the end of their life, is battling hard. Suddenly Norris, defending his line at the last corner of the race, slams into the side of Broadbent and spins off. It's a masterpiece. I'm gripping my laptop, eyes glued to the screen. I can't believe what I'm seeing. JIMMER, as Broadbent is affectionately known to his viewers, is trending on twitter. The stream chat is a shitshow.

I think I finally get it.

So here we all are locked inside together as the world shuts down. We're desperate for any tiny hit of sports that we can get in our veins and maybe that’s the opening eSports needed to really capture a whole new audience. An audience that otherwise wouldn't have given it a second glance. Now F1 is planning to continue with regular Virtual GP’s, alongside showing old reruns online. MotoGP is getting in on the game, using the same strategy by showing old races alongside their first eSports event in their own game and Premier League teams are replacing games with FIFA. NBA teams and even the NHL is getting in on the action. Everyone is seeking out something to do while real world events get cancelled one after the other and this seems to be an answer.

Where others failed

The increase in viewership must be situational. Desperation has led to eSports becoming our collective prison boyfriend.

Yet I wonder, what if the demand was always there?

Let’s face it, the bros and the boomers that go into a performative jock rage when eSports are on TV, probably ain’t the ones watching. The Younger F1 drivers coming in like Lando Norris, already had Twitch channels and were streaming F1 2019 and iRacing to thousands of fans, even before he found himself with nothing to do on race weekend. So, if the audience is already there and willing to watch, then it must just a marketing issue. Right?

I used to be a huge MotoGP fan. I’d get up at 4am for the Chinese GP. I'd record every race to watch back a second and third time. I'd watch each race over and over, buy the season review DVD for both the senior class and the support races, and then watch again while sipping tea from my MotoGP mug.

But, at some point MotoGP became less and less accessible to me as the TV rights got sold off to a channel even more paywalled than the one I was paying for already. They didn’t put highlights or even interviews online, 5 seconds clips on twitter would get DMCA’d into oblivion, and slowly, I drifted away.

A few years later I caught a streamer, the aforementioned Jimmy Broadbent, playing Gran Turismo on YouTube. Inevitably with him having a F1 game series on his channel the algorithm started pushing me videos from the official Formula 1 channel. Tons of them! Highlights for each track session within hours of them finishing, top 10 moments from each track, constructor, even best radio chatter from the race weekend. It was exactly what I had missed from MotoGP, and just what I needed to get hooked.

What's missing

Now Formula 1 runs an official eSports league and the races streams go on the same channel as the real thing. They’re well produced with a good video package and professional commentary, but looking at the special virtual GP’s they’ve been running makes me realise that the thing eSports has been missing was never professionalism. eSports events have been doing their best to present their athletes as polished professionals for years, but they lack a certain showmanship, a spectacle. If I want to see professionals at the top of their game then the real thing already fills that hole.

Give me Youtubers playing dodgems with pro drivers. Make a league where one race is in a sim and the next is in Mario Kart. Do qualifying by seeing who can survive the longest in a Wreckfest destruction derby. Give me the Sunderland vs Newcastle derby match in FIFA 98’s indoor mode! Throw in the odd appearance by a professional athlete and a few other special guests, and let gaming be the escapist fantasy that it can be.

This might be sacrilege to fans and organisers who have strove to frame eSports as a serious endeavour, though I can't help but think that an opportunity is being missed to have something a little more fun.

But, maybe that's more of a reflection of my desire for a something more light-hearted to look forward to in this serious time.