Ben Payne, Head of eSports at McLaren, shares his views at RISE on how eSports could revolutionise the motor racing industry – and uncover F1 racing talent along the way.
We all know the story of how a small-town boy makes it big after being discovered by a scout. Now, imagine that, but without ever having to leave your bedroom. In the growing world of eSports, motor racing giant McLaren is exploring just that with a global gaming competition that aims to find the next big F1 talent. Ben Payne, Head of eSports at McLaren and the architect behind the programme, told Hive Life how one of the most famous teams on the track sees a future built off the eSports industry.
Photo Credit: Harry Murphy/RISE via Sportsfile
eSports is a hugely growing business – and one that has attracted more than 380 million viewers globally in 2018. So, it’s no wonder that traditional sporting giants are coming up with inventive ways to get in on the game. For McLaren, this comes in the shape of their Shadow Project, a global gaming tournament now in its second season (there were 500,000 entries to last year’s competition) that aims to find the best of the best at racing in a simulated environment. “We think we can cheat the system of how you get into motorsport. Karting is expensive and gaming can democratise a sport that is sometimes difficult to get into,” explained Ben as he sat down with us at Hong Kong’s RISE Conference. “With racing, there is a transference from the virtual to the real world which you can see because of the wheels and pedals. You can fulfil your dreams of being a racing car driver by being great in a gaming space and that’s pretty tantalising. We just can’t do that with soccer, rugby, cricket, skiing or any of those sports.”
Players enter online qualifiers for the Shadow Project on a variety of gaming platforms including mobile, PC and console and via their respective titles, “Real Racing 3,” “rfactor 2” and “Forza Motorsport 7.” This year, McLaren is also partnering with the Singapore Tourism Board and MET Events in Asia to create the event ‘Race to Singapore,’ the competition’s first live qualifying event in Asia happening on 19 September. Gamers will be able to battle it out, with the eight best fighting for the honour of being crowned ‘Race to Singapore’ Champion and the chance to participate in the Shadow Finals taking place at the McLaren Technology Centre in the UK this December.
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Whilst eSports players may not share the same limelight as their F1 counterparts, Ben is adamant that the gap between the two isn’t as large as you’d imagine. Virtual driver Enzo Bonito recently stunned the world by beating former F1 driver Lucia Di Grassi on the actual racetrack earlier this year, proving simulated racing skills are transferable to real life and that eSports players are no less skilled. “There is a bunch of stigma to eSports athletes. People think they are male, young, adverse to going out, and that’s just not true,” says Ben. “What’s exciting about our current F1 drivers, Carlos and Lando, is their gaming as well – they play Fifa to keep their spirits high. Our drivers have day jobs, are supremely fit and I think one of our challenges is dealing with preconceptions about gamers.”
Photo Credit: mclaren.com
For Mclaren, the incentive behind this project is twofold: “As well as scouting for racing talent, eSports is also a way of attracting a younger demographic,” says Ben. “We want to find talent, but also bring and keep a younger demographic to the brand as well.” Having been around since the 1960s, it might not be a quick process for the company to pivot, but, with a background in the gaming sphere at SEGA and Microsoft, Ben has developed the eSports department at McLaren from the ground up. “McLaren isn’t built to run an eSports programme, so it was about tweaking what the KPIs are,” he explains, having paved the road for the first F1 team to go into eSports. “Creativity is central to what we do. We have never perfected it, and never will. It’s all about pushing boundaries.”
With the impending release of 5G technology, Ben sees the eSports field as only set to explode further, allowing for the democratisation of the scene through more frequent online tournaments. “Being able to run eSports events pretty much anywhere takes a lot of barriers to entry away from competitive venues. eSports events are expensive to run and I think 5G will allow people to compete.” To anyone else looking to get in on the game, Ben has a few words of wisdom. “Come to things like eSports conferences. Speak to experts. Try to glean what you can before you make your bet. Budgets are finite; justification of ROI has to be there. Find the data that works with your products and the demographic of customers. Be transparent and trust in the partner you choose. Reach out accordingly, pick wisely and enjoy the ride.”
Banner Photo Credit: Harry Murphy/RISE via Sportsfile