Amanda Lawson, global head of content at esports company Gfinity on the thrill of the game.
Having spent 20 years working in sport, from football through combat sports and more recently in esports, I thought I had seen everything.
I am sitting in our broadcast gallery in Fulham, sitting in a different room to my director, himself in a different room to our producer. Five-time Ryder Cup winner Ian Poulter is about to go head to head against Maclaren driver and F1 young gun Lando Norris in a five-lap virtual racing challenge around the iconic Silverstone circuit. Although sitting on different continents, they are poised and ready for action in their simulators, the banter flowing between them, with their in-built competitiveness synonymous with pro sportspeople clear to see.
The lights go green, the race is on. Poults has a 20 second head start and Lando sets about catching him. We’re live from Lando’s gaming room, Ian is screaming with excitement down an audio line. Cruising to what looks like an easy win, Poulter pulls up as he crosses the line of lap 4 thinking the race is over, showboating, only to see Lando fly past him and go on to win the race. The show, watched by millions, is pure sports entertainment.
In the last six weeks Gfinity, the UK’s leading esports media business, have produced a further two Virtual Grand Prix with Formula 1. We’ve had six current F1 drivers on the grid, veterans including Jonny Herbert, former world champion Jenson Button a multi gold medallist in Chris Hoy, our 2019 sporting hero in Ben Stokes and multi- platinum artist Liam Payne race on simulators from all corners of the globe.
Across these three shows we’ve generated record viewing numbers on both F1’s digital channels and across the 50 plus broadcast networks who chose to show the race live. The most interesting thing about this is not the millions of viewers watching, but the shift in sentiment from our audiences – they are grateful for this digital sport but they are now appreciative of the skill and acumen that goes into it.
From an industry perspective though, it’s not just this audience sentiment that is a great shift but the technological strides we’ve made that creates a new, compelling space in the sports and entertainment market. By broadcasting from their own homes, connected by audio and video to their rivals, we are seeing sports stars personalities shine through, their humour, their rivalries laid bare – no more Z row seats, no more dry analysis – this is as raw, connected and fun as any sports broadcast I’ve been part of.
For some time the sports sector has talked about ‘the other side’ of players, the idea they are ‘more than an athlete’. We are seeing and broadcasting this through our Formula 1 content and have a host of new shows in the pipeline.
Of course, it is easy to see the connection with sports and digital sports in the Covid-19 crisis, but it would be wrong to think that this is gaming’s limitation – if anything, this crisis just exposes mass media to the potential of gaming entertainment. More people watch gaming video content than the combined audiences of Netflix, HBO, ESPN and Hulu. The majority under the age of 30, consuming content created by streamers and people just like them. It still amazes me how the term “esports’ sends everyone into such a spin. In reality, it’s just another form of entertainment and broadcasters are going to need to embrace and tap into it or they will miss a significant commercial opportunity.
The most exciting thing for me, as a programme maker, is that competitive gaming is fun. Producing virtual sport allows you to throw off the shackles, rip up the rule book and experiment because you’re no longer constrained by the traditional rules of sport or the way it’s presented. Creativity, imagination and innovation can run riot. From racing to football to cricket to any other sport currently suffering from cancelled schedules, leagues or tournament, the virtual world is thriving because it can continue to bring sport to our screens. It connects us to our sporting idols like never before and they can all participate without having to leave their homes.
The last two months have been some of the busiest yet for Gfinity. Three years ago we built the Gfinity Arena – a large-scale, high-end TV studio located in Fulham that has hosted global tournaments, live TV shows and virtual sports. Our schedule of multi-player events took a big hit, but in response to the Covid19 pandemic, we re-built our production gallery and studio space to strictly adhere to the 2 meter social distancing guidelines. Independently verified as fit for broadcasting, it has enabled us to produce all the Virtual F1 shows from the Arena and to distribute to audiences around the world via our link to BT Tower.
It has also afforded us many more opportunities with games publishers, sports federations and broadcasters who are all looking for ways to stay front and centre amidst a global shutdown. In itself this also shows the value of gaming to the broadcast sector – we have been able to be agile and deliver a new product within weeks, sometimes days, after being approached by our partners.
Our goal, as we fight through this current crisis is that sport-based gaming entertainment shows are not just filling a gap in broadcasters schedules. They are here to stay. They are creating their own space and they are delivering impressive viewership numbers and unique and original programming. For those broadcasters who up to now have been reticent to dabble in the virtual world, never has there been a better time to test and learn. Audience appreciation is growing and with it the commercial upside.
With that in mind, let the games begin!