As stopgap content, sim racing’s similarity to the real thing has been a blessing for motorsport rights-holders, racing teams, car manufacturers and drivers, all of whom have been able to remain active and engaged with broadcast partners and young fans as coronavirus laid waste to live events.
Plenty of motor racing championships, teams and manufacturers have shown themselves willing to navigate the space – with some success – yet most of this activity is geared toward increasing interest in their ‘real life’ operations with very few motorsport brands comfortable creating purely digital assets.
But not all. Supercar manufacturer and Formula 1 team McLaren has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to sim racing and esports and recent deals with Veloce and Logitech stand to turn its gaming arm into a direct fan engagement tool all on its own.
Pushing the envelope
McLaren was the first real-world team to compete in F1’s esports series and in 2017 partnered with Millennial Esports (now Torque Esports) to create the World’s Fastest Gamer competition.
That competition, based on the most true-to-life driving simulator, iRacing, was conceived as a reality show-esque talent search intent on finding an official McLaren sim racer who could be converted into a real-world racing driver.
World’s Fastest Gamer quickly morphed into the McLaren Shadow Project, a talent identification competition that opened applications to the public. The competition expanded to include driving simulator RFactor2, as well as more casual driving games Forza Motorsport and Project Cars.
While these efforts thrust McLaren into the gaming world, the strategy behind the Shadow Project competitions in 2018 and 2019 was focused on real-world racing. The competitions required sim racers to participate in virtual and real-world racing challenges as McLaren sought to legitimise their skills to real-life motorsport fans while also doing their best to appeal to the gaming community.
Mark Waller, managing director of sales and marketing at McLaren Racing, inherited the project on his arrival at the company in May 2019 and quickly realised that despite the company’s pioneering efforts in the sector, the Shadow Project’s potential was unfulfilled.
“I very much come from a fan-generation background,” Waller tells SportBusiness – he spent 13 years at the NFL in roles geared toward creating and nurturing new fans around the world – “and to me, all things begin and end with the fanbase you could build. It fuels everything. Your ability to develop drivers – and anything else – comes from the size and scale of your fanbase.
“When I sat down and looked at the [Shadow Project] programme, my challenge and desire was to make this a much broader fan engagement platform; retaining the ability to develop talent but putting the fan first.”
Breaking down the barriers
Like many others in motorsport, McLaren has focused much of its efforts on ‘sim racing’ – a niche, expensive part of the gaming space that values purity over accessibility – rather than video games that offer a lower barrier to entry and an easier learning curve.
Waller is incredibly keen to correct that course and has used partnerships with leading e-racing organisation Veloce Esports and gaming equipment manufacturer Logitech to begin the process.
The deal with Veloce, signed in May, will be key to McLaren’s future efforts in the space. Veloce has assumed almost total control of McLaren’s sim racing, esports and video game operations, as well as producing and distributing all of McLaren’s video-game related content.
“I think both of the partnerships are recognition that there are other people who are better at certain things than we are, and that we should lean on their expertise,” Waller says. “We’re really good at live racing and I think we’re pretty good at building a fanbase and a brand. But Veloce and Logitech have deep-rooted expertise in their areas. Veloce are going to help us build an esports team, which is not our core skill set.
“One of the great successes any entity can have is to recognise what you’re good at and recognise where other people can help you.”
Veloce Esports was founded in November 2017 by two ex-racing drivers – Jack Clarke and Rupert Svendsen-Cook – and a former football agent, Jamie MacLaurin. Despite its founders’ more traditional backgrounds, Veloce has found success by understanding the inherent drawbacks of real-life motorsport and hardcore sim racing, particularly the cost of participation.
Clarke, commercial director at Veloce, tells SportBusiness: “Coming from the world of real-life motorsport, the antidote video games provide is a lack of barrier to entry.
“To own a sim racing setup and to compete in sim racing, you’ve got quite a long way to go. You have a few thousand pounds worth of equipment to get together and then you have to get your head around games that aren’t necessarily mass-market-focused, like a PlayStation or Xbox game. It’s all just barrier to entry.”
He continues: “From a business point of view, it can only grow in accordance with the level of scalability. The more obstacles you put in the way of participation and the more pound coins you put in the way of a user, the more likely it is that people will find better things to do.”
It is understood that under Veloce’s guidance, the Shadow Project will become a competition geared toward gaming rather than a sim racing competition with ties to real-world driving.
“We’re not exclusively looking for someone that has parallel skills,” explains Clarke. “We don’t necessarily need them to be using a steering wheel and pedals…but I’m talking with the Veloce Esports hat on. With McLaren, it’s about achieving a hybrid – a harmony and connection between esports and real-world motorsport excellence.”
A helping hand
Veloce’s philosophy and expertise should make McLaren’s esports and gaming presence less about purity and more about accessibility and sector-specific credibility. At the very least, it will improve McLaren’s reach on Twitch and YouTube, as Veloce has a fantastic record for producing innovative content that appeals to young people aged between 15-23.
In May, Veloce attracted 70 million views across its wholly-owned and partner channels on Twitch and YouTube, not least due to its lightning-fast reaction to the booming interest in video games, esports and sim racing.
The organisation actually beat F1 to the punch in launching its ‘Not the GP’ series, which included professional racing drivers, esports stars, influencers and stars from other sports competing on the F1 2019 video game, even if it was later eclipsed by the official Virtual Grands Prix.
Clarke has plenty of common ground with Waller and McLaren Racing chief executive Zak Brown, both of whom understand that the motorsport must open itself up to fans in order to stay relevant.
Elite motorsport marketing has tended to play on the mystique surrounding drivers and cars, keeping fans firmly on the outside. This is starting to change – F1’s Drive to Survive series is a prime example of the shift – and Waller says the industry is starting to wake up to the possibilities.
“I don’t think it’s that we fell behind [other sports]. I think it’s more that we didn’t appreciate just how accessible the platform could be to bring in new fans, most of whom will never drive an F1 car or a supercar,” Waller says.
Clarke adds: “Watching traditional sports is so passive these days compared to how young people interact with esports and gaming content. They talk to [F1 driver] Lando Norris on Twitch, they vote on what track we’re going to do next for Not the GP series. It’s so interactive; it’s a totally different way to consume sport.”
Waller and Brown’s decision to sign partnerships with Veloce and Logitech have made sure McLaren are facing in the right direction, but it’s the rise of its real-world F1 driver Lando Norris that has no doubt filled the company with the confidence to embrace gaming.
Alongside his career as a McLaren F1 driver, Norris is a committed sim racer and gamer, streaming live on Twitch at every opportunity. His natural interest in video games and affable nature has turned him into a cult hero among young fans and McLaren have seized on an opportunity to make the team stand out among the F1 pack.
The team has signed fellow fan favourite Daniel Ricciardo, known for his media-friendly attitude and near-permanent smile, to drive alongside Norris in the 2021 F1 season. The move has further expanded McLaren’s appeal to more casual fans of motorsport.
“It’s a very deliberate approach that Zak, myself and others have taken,” Waller says. “We want to be that exciting, engaging, fun platform. Yes, we want to win – everyone wants to win – but underneath that there’s behaviour, culture and values that we want to present, and I think Daniel and Lando, in that respect, is the dream team.”
From its efforts with Veloce to its efforts on a real-life F1 race day, Waller is pushing McLaren to leave behind old-school principles of motorsport marketing, which often sought to shroud its assets in mystery and emphasised the sense of elitism and exclusivity attached to drivers and cars.
“When I grew up – and sadly that was a long time ago – drivers were remote. It was a distant aspiration just to be a part of F1, even on the periphery of it all, and the drivers played a role in that,” Waller adds.
“Now, if you look at the likes of Lando, Carlos (Sainz Jr., who raced for McLaren last season), Daniel and Charles Leclerc, the fact they are so active in the digital world makes them – and our world – so much more accessible. For young kids, it makes it much more real.”
McLaren’s is ready to take its digital presence to the next level, and Clarkes believes Veloce are the perfect partners to do so: “We want to build a hybrid brand that’s recognisable from outside esports and for old bastards like me, but also for the young, up and coming consumers of the world. Ultimately, that’s what we’re here to do.”