The cancellation of sporting events worldwide in the face of COVID-19 has been a source of disappointment for fans of all kinds of competitions, teams and athletes. For myself, it was the Australian Grand Prix being called off which was the biggest blow. As the opening race of the season, the Australian race has always been the moment that the constructors pull down their pants and everyone sees what they’ve got, to paraphrase Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner. After the excitement that was building after testing, it is tantalising to not be able to find out how fast each car really is.
Furthermore, sporting competition has always served as a welcome distraction from the negative aspects of fans’ lives, be they as simple as boredom or far more serious. As COVID-19 presents such a serious threat to our way of life and many find themselves isolated at home with little to keep themselves occupied, the loss of sport hits harder than ever.
However, many organisations and athletes around the world have been turning to alternatives in order to provide their supporters with a show. Professional NBA teams have been playing one another online, through the medium of the namesake game franchise the NBA 2K series. Fans of racing have been indulged in a similar manner.
Formula 1 drivers past and present, as well as drivers from other racing categories, participated last weekend in two online events. The first of these was simple called ‘The Race’, a short competition held on the sim racing game rFactor2 in which real world superstars such as Max Verstappen and Juan-Pablo Montoya competed against dedicated sim racers from the world of esports. After a series of heats to determine qualification for the final, it was the sim racers who won the day on their own turf. Jernej Simoncic claimed the cash prize, as well as the substantial bragging rights.
The second event to take place on the 15th in lieu of the Australian Grand Prix was appropriately dubbed ‘Not the Aus GP’. This event was a more casual take on this new medium, though with a nevertheless competitive line-up featuring McLaren’s Lando Norris up against F1 esports mainstay Daniel Bereznay as well as many other real-world drivers and also, rather unexpectedly, Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian proved himself to be something of a renaissance sportsman, managing a highly respectable 11th place (out of 20 drivers). Meanwhile, the esports drivers’ familiarity with the game allowed them to come out on top, with Bereznay winning the day.
During the event, Lando Norris’ twitch stream had the most live viewers on the platform with upwards of 70,000 people watching his perspective alone. The peak viewership of the event across all streams was just over twice that amount, which displays the appetite for solutions like these to the present situation. The organisers of each event have taken note of this, and both will be returning on the 22nd and likely for several more weekends into the future.
Hopefully, the success of these events will encourage athletes or organisations from other sports to follow suit. For myself and many others, the ability to watch Thibaut Courtois battle it out on track with the likes of Lando Norris has provided a welcome ray of sunshine and a much-needed distraction in an otherwise dark and concerning time.