What was Vegas really about? — eRace Analysis

2016/2017 FIA Formula E Championship. Vegas eRace, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States of America. Saturday 7 January 2017. Photo: Zak Mauger/LAT ref: Digital Image _X0W7593

Over the last weekend, we have had a chance to witness something spectacular — after many years, sim racing finally made its debut in the world of eSports after Formula E had brought it right in to the spotlight. This series, known for pursuing new and innovative ways, made a gamble by entering this unknown territory and organised the Visa Vegas eRace — an unprecedented event with a $200,000 prize for the winner.

But the event left us with way too many questions, especially after a major blow when a software glitch was discovered in the original race winner’s car. It led to a great confusion amongst some other issues that hampered the event. Yet organisers didn’t hesitate much to call it a success.

So how can we judge something new, unprecedented? How can we make a connection between Motorsport that you can watch on TV and a live stream of a sim race? People were not given any explanations before so they obviously found it harder to understand what was really going on. After all this is not a typical Formula 1 or Formula E race.

With all these questions and topics surrounding it, I have decided to write this analysis which focuses on expectations, execution of the event, and most importantly some explanations for those who have been thrown into this virtual world without any prior knowledge.

Understandably you may ask what makes me qualified to do so. As a co-producer of the Virtual GP project, I’m very much part of this world as an organiser of professional virtual racing events. I’ve been involved in sim racing events for three years already and despite that we’ve never had any race in such a spotlight, our events are very similar to what we saw at eRace.

Build-up

In prior weeks to the event, I was pleased to see the eRace getting attention from many Motorsport journalists. There were many reports and tweets and not just from people working in Motorsport. For sim racing it was rather important to make a good impression and that was a good start.

While people in Motorsport can already see advantages in simulators, it is still not so widely recognised and especially not in the eSports industry. But sim racing is on the right track, like I mentioned in a short interview with Katy Fairman just before the event. And this was a great opportunity with the best virtual and real racing drivers competing against each other.

There comes the first tricky part — viewers. Although commonly sim racing events are accompanied by live streams, a target audience usually consists of other virtual racing drivers rather than casual viewers, such an audience is almost non-existent. I’m talking about professionally broadcasted live streams in a way we know from other eSports events or from a real Formula 1 television coverage.

Preparing anything so comprehensive without any guidance at all is difficult. You have to take the best of eSports and Formula 1 TV coverages and combine them on your own. And there are just as many variables in sim racing broadcasting as in a live TV production.

Luring people into watching something new is always hard. It was clear that fans of sim racing will be attracted, but the real question was — how many Motorsport fans will watch an eRace? What about casual fans, gaming fans or people interested just in technology rather than in racing cars?

First impression matters. Formula E uses rFactor 2 as their simulator of choice. It is probably the best simulation software with the most advanced physics available, yet it lacks in graphics representation. While in the hands of some very skilled and talented modding groups the content looks great, unfortunately eRace was not the case.

If you think about it, just like in the real world someone has to create Formula E cars and tracks from scratch. Maybe time pressure affected it, but it looked bad. The cartoonish feeling simply does not represent the modern sim racing. It does not matter how many good things you hear about it, but most people will not consider it serious. If you want to succeed with a wider audience, you also need to make it look good.

And obviously, if you make your own content, you need to test it. You need to make sure that your product works. In Virtual GP we have had the same experience and we know that you need to do really intensive testing and have someone on the development side, just like in real Motorsport. And it looks like Formula E also underestimated that.

The first cracks had appeared in qualifying already. One of our drivers, Jaroslav Honzík, tried to qualify but he bumped into a lot of issues including instability. And what put him out of his misery was an invisible tyre that he hit. Despite video evidence suggesting a bug, organisers didn’t agree there were any problems and that was the end for Honzík.

Race day

Following great momentum from the build-up it was surprising to find the race day pretty much quiet with only a few reports on free practice results. Sure, the race wasn’t until the late night hours for Europe, which is also questionable, but still, if it was not for teams and partners, we would have no idea about the race.

What was also annoying though, on social media Formula E was sharing only click-bait style links like “Find out how to watch the Visa #VegaseRace” without any information and on their website, there was just a simple table with the race schedule. But no information at all when the stream itself starts, that was omitted completely! How do you want to advertise your live stream without telling people when it starts?

Initially one of the biggest complains appeared to be around not streaming a free practice live. But that was actually the correct decision. It simply is not as interesting as you may think, most people want to see action, so you aim to start your live stream as late as possible, just before the important things happen. On the other hand, a live timing would have helped but from some reactions it apparently did not work as expected.

Finally, the live stream started around midnight (CET) with a studio programme. Formula E did a great job by bringing their own presenters Dario Franchitti, Nicki Shields and Jack Nicholls on scene. As well as seeing all drivers, even sim drivers, representing real life teams and wearing team’s overalls.

Studio segments and all VTs (videos, montages) were enjoyable, professional and informative. And it surely had to be a great show also for all visitors of CES. The beginning of the show also had great viewing figures. Obviously, the fact it was broadcasted on Twitch and on a channel known for big eSports events helped as well.

When we finally got to driving, there were some issues with a missing car. To be honest, to have 19 out of 20 cars on a grid is a huge success. The more computers you have, the more issues you can expect. Simply technology can be unpredictable sometimes, but don’t forget that even in real racing there are not all cars on the grid every time.

Apparently, there were also some connection problems due to a special software used by technical organisers Cloud Sport. Of course, I do not know the software, but from what some drivers said, it was the reason behind many of the issues.

The race start itself was weird. First there was a delay and then suddenly out of nothing we were literally less than a second away from the start and before you could realise what’s going on, cars were already in Turn 2.

Waking up from that sudden shock, we actually had a good race going on. Some nice battles, even accidents, and the best of it was knowing that one mistake could end the race for any one of them. Thanks to some late pit stops there was still something going on until the chequered flag. Very enjoyable. After all we had the best of the best drivers behind the wheels.

Anyway, one important thing was missing. Something we are so much used to have now as it helps us understand the race. There were no information on gaps, lap times or anything regarding Fan Boost. Or at least some name tags over each car so we know who is in the shot. A very simple and basic graphic and trust me, sim racing is capable of showing these data. Unfortunately, that all left Nicholls pretty much helpless.

Regarding directing and cameras it went quite well. There were no big hiccups. And camera showed us some cool pictures from inside the cockpit or it was rotating around cars. Well, you can choose between keeping shots real or you can use an advantage of it being a video game, there is nothing wrong about any of the approaches. And good job on showing drivers’ faces during the race!

Like I mentioned before, the eRace also featured Fan Boost. It was a great idea to put it to 2nd cars. But it would have to be executed perfectly and not to later find out about a new race winner because the original winner had Fan Boost for 6 laps, thus he was lapping two seconds faster than anyone else. Testing, anyone?

If you are not familiar with sim racing, don’t worry, Safety Cars are present and they are even driven by real people. But I guess organisers just wanted the eRace to go smoothly and without any distractions, so they did not use it.

Also, Formula E did really well on social media during the race by posting a plenty of videos from the eRace. So there had to be some pretty good logistics in their ‘mission control’ as that is not an easy thing to do.

Aftermath

Right after the race it was clear that something is not right. Reactions of the drivers, severe delays, lengthy podium and no celebrations. But we had no idea until much later after the stream finished. Weirdly without hearing anything from the drivers. Honestly, interviews should be a part of the coverage. Especially after such an important event like this, when the world is waiting for reactions.

The day later, I went through many tweets and discussions. People have mostly agreed on poor execution, unnecessary hiccups and confusing moments that made sim racing look more like a fun thing to do rather than something serious. But the positive thing is that people approve this concept and they can imagine a future for it. This event maybe was not breath-taking, but it was ground-breaking. In that way, it was a success.

It is possible to build an audience around it, people can see similarities between both worlds and they can feel the same thrills. Even if there is no smell of a burning rubber. The sim racing world now has to adapt to this new strategy and focus on approaching eSports. It is actually quite a rare example in eSports as most disciplines are not based on making things as real as possible. And here it is necessary.

But all in all, the largest portion of problems was caused by organisers and their lack of experience. Not by anything wrong in sim racing. Let’s not forget though, that it was their first event and they will learn from it. Just a shame it had to go such a hard way. It worries me that an event with $200,000 as a prize money for winner, apparently had no real testing before. Just like in real Formula 1, when it comes to reliability, you need testing.

Execute it correctly and then it can succeed. And it really can.

More about eRace

Big thanks to everyone on Twitter who shared their views and thoughts with me and also to Aaron Irwin for his help with this post. Images provided by FIA Formula E.

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