The current sporting desert has found its virtual oasis as E-sports emerges into the mainstream to occupy the space and satisfy the sparsity of the heavily interrupted calendar.
The 70th anniversary of the first Formula One season has yet to be able to be celebrated appropriately. The Bahrain Grand Prix was once again scheduled to be the second race of the 2020 F1 schedule but its cancellation in mid-March didn’t curtail the opportunity to see notable, recognisable racers speed around the International Circuit.
Nico Hulkenberg, and Johnny Herbert, Philipp Eng (racing for Red Bull), Esteban Gutiérrez, Nicholas Latifi, and Hamilton (Christopher, not Lewis) all lined up on the grid.
Following the success of the ‘Not The Australian GP’ held on the weekend the F1 curtain-raiser was supposed to proceed, electronic gaming one again provided the much needed nourishment during this sporting famine.
Recreating the Bahrain circuit meticulously to a fault, though heavily reduced to just 14 laps instead of the 57 fans could have expected to see on the real-life Persian Gulf, a salmagundi of competitors and celebutantes filed online to take to the track.
Even golfer Ian Poulter and Great Britain’s greatest ever Olympian Sir Chris Hoy got in on the act, with the win taken by F2 driver Guanyu Zhou. Liam Payne of One Direction fame finished last.
Across Formula One 2019 racing for McLaren, Lando Norris fell into the points on just over half the occasions within the World Drivers’ Championship, a respectful tally in a debut campaign for the young driver who only exited his teens with just one race of the campaign to compete.
His profile this year has exponentially increased without him actually being in the cockpit tearing at breakneck speeds, with the youthful Brit gradually becoming one of the most visible presences on the alternative virtual circuit. His attendance at virtual Melbourne helped posit record numbers for an event of its type, and he was once again driving at virtual Sakhir.
And the viewers are increasing, thanks in great part to the free to view opportunities on such platforms as YouTube, but also media giant Sky’s decision to broadcast the Virtual Bahrain GP on their dedicated Formula One channel, which had been recently existing in a purely purgatory state.
Whenever real-life sport does resume and we’re treated to all of the events, competitions, and tournaments we’ve been collectively pining for, one thing has already become increasingly evident, E-sports has downloaded itself into the public consciousness and its success can be measured by the interest of a particular audience.
Wily bookmakers whose businesses have suffered as a result of the major sports hiatus, with the top betting brands losing in upwards of £100million in the immediate aftermath of the halting of the sports world, have casted a more than interested eye, albeit not without controversy.
Following the postponement of the football season in the United Kingdom, League Two side Leyton Orient proposed an online competition uniting teams from across the country to play a mass FIFA 20 tournament, with the event ultimately attracting interest from Europe for a 128-strong club participation.
Though the purpose was to raise £50,000 for charity, the initial betting market saw Manchester City - a foresighted organisation with their own E-sports team already in operation - pipping Sheffield Wednesday at the top of the market in being placed at 8/1.
The capitalistic undertones behind an philanthropic venture isn’t ultimately going to deter interest in a tournament that has already seen fourth tier English side Walsall beat Italian giants Roma.
In an increasingly monetary-based sports market, when the monopoly of behemothic sporting institutions isolates rather than conjoins Joe Public, within electronic gaming the engagement between competitor and spectator seems closer and more transparent, the shared perspective from the common, both utilizing the same visual space. Particularly in something like Virtual F1, it’s almost the equivalent of sitting on the knee of your favourite driver in the cockpit.
The range of future possibilities is also intriguing. Will Roland Garros be the next venue to be exhibited virtually to a wide audience following the postponement of the French Open? Will top sports stars be recruiting professional online gamer representatives within their entourage in order to accurately adhere to their athletic prowess? Will the future Novak Djokovics and Rory McIlroys want to have a sufficient digital recreation on Top Spin and The Golf Club that supports their real-life successes?
Fundamentally, the uncertainty and sheer unpreparedness in the society of sport that has been illuminated by the pandemic, has contrasted with the reliability and efficiency of E-sports. Having emerged readily out of the shadows, it might be quite safe to assume that it may not be quite prepared to slink back into them.