With sport on pause, athletes press play

Written by Gaurav Bhatt

Updated: March 22, 2020 9:10:56 am

In 2018, Max Verstappen had lamented that “F1 had been a bit behind in with esports.” (File Photo/AP)

Imagine landing a job as the media manager for a football club, a week before all football is called off. That’s the quandary Luke Lambourne found himself in this month. After being the head of media for semi-professional club AFC Fylde, Lambourne earned a promotion of his own with a move to League Two club Leyton Orient. Then the pandemic struck.

“When we got that message that football’s going to be off for three or four weeks, everyone just looked around and kind of panicked in terms of what we were going to do,” Lambourne told SportsPro. “We just tried to keep a bit of a clear head and think, ‘well we knew this was coming, so what can we do if our hands are tied behind our backs, what are the trends we’re seeing these days?’”

On the now-cancelled match day against Bradford City, the London-based club went ahead with the away trip, only it was on the make-believe pitch of Football Manager — the acclaimed, ultra-realistic simulation video game that has helped many IRL (in real life) managers to test strategies and scout talent.

“It’s Bradford City v Leyton Orient at Valley Parade, in a distant world where Corona is still just a Mexican beer,” posted the club’s Twitter handle, along with the live stream. Polls were created for followers to vote on substitutions and tactics, prompting ironic cacophony. Leyton lost the ‘match’ 1-0, but Lambourne had a winner of an idea.

“We had a conversation and thought, ‘OK, clearly there’s a desire for clubs to interact with each other here, there’s obviously a desire from fans in terms of getting engaged as well, so how can we kind of bring all that together?’”

Leyton Orient then shot out a tweet asking clubs to sign up for a 64-team invitational tournament on the FIFA 20 video game. Within 48 hours, they had to increase the entry list to 128, as clubs from Europe, Oceania, North America and Africa expressed their interest, including Manchester City, Ajax and AS Roma. Thus, the cheekily-named Ultimate Quaran-Team tournament was born. A draw was completed on Wednesday, the schedule drawn up a day later. The tournament kicks off this Sunday and will go on till April 3.

The matches will be six minutes per half, clubs will select a single representative to play for them, whether a professional player, a member of the staff or a fan and the competitors will have to figure out streaming logistics between themselves.

Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch has offered to broadcast the matches. UK bookmakers have already set the odds (William Hill reckons Sheffield Wednesday are the favourites at 8/1).

England international Andros Townsend volunteered to helm the controller for Crystal Palace, and has since been bombarded by fans who have put money on him going all the way. “Bring it home” read a tweet, along with a picture of a £5 bet on Townsend. The winger replied: “Maaaaaate…. yesterday was the first time I’d picked up a controller in over 4 months….. I’ll probs get charged now for giving inside info.”

While Leyton Orient will be represented by goalkeeper and academy graduate Sam Sargeant, Manchester City, who run an esports team of their own, have chosen to go ahead with a professional gamer.

Another detail being ironed out is whether to bring all the teams to a level playing field on FIFA 20.

In the game, ratings are assigned to the teams based on their real-world counterparts. For example, a first-round match is between Wallsall (14th in the English fourth-tier League 2) and AS Roma (fifth in the Serie A); the former is rated 61 in the game while the latter is 79. Better ratings means faster, stronger, more accurate virtual players.

Townsend on Twitter advocated for the possibility of upsets, giant killings and dominant teams by keeping the status quo intact: “Has to be normal ratings else it’ll ruin the magic of the cup and make the pros/esports players even more impossible to beat #SecondReferendum”

“One of the bigger ties is Walsall hosting AS Roma at home – another tie you’d probably never see in real life but one the Walsall fans will be happy about,” Lambourne told Radio One. “Of course I’m excited about our (Orient’s) match as well, which is away to Lokomotiv Moscow – we’ll be the big underdogs!”

Funds have been set aside for the English Football League (EFL) to help teams who have been hit the worst. “EFL clubs are going to struggle during a time of match postponements,” Lambourne said. “It’s been well documented in the last 12 months with some clubs going into administration. This could really send them over the edge, so anything we can do to help support those clubs is fantastic,” says Lambourne.

eLa Liga

Sevilla defender Sergio Reguilon and Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias too decided to put on a FIFA 20 iteration of the now-cancelled Seville derby. The match was watched by 62,000 people on the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. Spain’s biggest esports commentator Ibai Llanos, who broadcasted the match, decided to go a step further: a virtual La Liga tournament with a professional player representing his club.

Sergi Roberto (Barcelona), Marcos Llorente (Atletico Madrid) and Carlos Soler (Valencia) were among the first to sign up. Real Madrid had several volunteers, and Marco Asensio had to beat Thibaut Courtois and Dani Carvajal to make the cut. The tournament concludes on Sunday.

On virtual track, a home race for Verstappen

Formula 1 drivers are preparing to jump from one set of boards and circuits to another. Last week’s opener in Melbourne was called off 90 minutes from practice, and races in Bahrain, Vietnam, China, Holland, Spain and Monaco have all been postponed. In a bid to fill up time and generate content, Formula 1 announced an Esports Virtual GP series.

Starting this Sunday, in a virtual Bahrain, drivers will join gamers and celebs to take the wheel on the official F1 2019 video game, developed by Codemasters. The ‘races’ will be half the race length, 28 laps over 90 minutes, and will take place on the corresponding dates of postponed GPs.

“We are very pleased to be able to bring some light relief in the form of the F1 Esports Virtual GP, in these unpredictable times, as we hope to entertain fans missing the regular sporting action,” said Julian Tan, Formula 1’s head of esports. “With every major sports league in the world unable to compete, it is a great time to highlight the benefits of esports and the incredible skill that’s on show.”

The F1 game is a complete 180 from the pick-up-and-play arcade style racing games such as the NFS series. With its dizzying number of menus and sub-menus, painstakingly replicated tracks and realistic control, it won’t be easy on the first-time gamers. As a result, all the cars will be of the same performance and vehicle damage will be reduced. Newbies will also assisted by traction control and anti-lock brakes.

But for one driver, it will be a home race.

When asked about the coronavirus-prompted limbo, and his off-season training, Max Verstappen told his official website: “Simulator racing is keeping me sharp. What else can you do at this moment, you have to stay inside. and it’s fun, I really enjoy sim racing anyway. Over the winter I did it a lot and I try to practice my skills and make it even better. That’s why I love doing it.”

The 22-year-old Red Bull racer enjoys the image of being the great unifier. The upcoming esports events won’t be his first for the season. After reaching Australia and learning about the race postponement, the eight-time GP winner competed in an ‘All-star Esports battle’. 24 hours later, he was back behind the wheel-controller racing around the virtual Nurburgring circuit to contest the GT Pro Series.

In 2018, Verstappen had lamented that “F1 had been a bit behind in with esports… I know a lot of esports drivers, they are very, very quick. At one point they can also support us, doing simulator work a lot more instead of us going to the factory all the time to do the simulator.”

The two years since has seen the esports wing of Formula 1 grow rapidly, and last season was the first time that all ten teams were represented on the virtual circuit.

“Max and Lando Norris, for example, are two very avid gamers themselves and they regularly get involved in sim racing and gaming. They and many other F1 drivers like Jolyon Palmer, Pierre Gasly etc. have also featured in our live shows,” Tan tells The Indian Express. “Norris was at the desk at our F1 Esports Pro Draft where Mclaren picked their driver. When asked if he could learn a thing or two from Lando in sim racing, the driver replied ‘maybe I can teach Lando a thing or two’.”

Norris’ passion for sim racing however hasn’t reached Verstappen’s maddening levels. The Dutchman has already earned an image as a sim racer prone to road rage. Gamers too keep tabs on Verstappen’s playing activity, and ruin his laps whenever they’re on the same server: all for brag about the time they went toe-to-toe with a Formula 1 driver. Verstappen often responds in kind, bumping others off the track.

Atze Kerkhof, who trains Formula drivers in simulators, told Motorsport: “Sometimes you do a lap and you think it’s perfect, but then Max enters the track and goes another three tenths faster. Where he finds that time, is a mystery to everyone. It’s about very small details. The steering angle, the slip angle of the car, the way of trail braking or downshifting. It’s very small things where he makes the difference.”

It’s not a 1:1 experience, and the sim-racing experience does not perfectly correspond with reality, but the process of tailoring the car to specific needs and using telemetry is a valid form of training for Verstappen.

“Many drivers utilise sim racing as a way of sharpening their racing skills and also to get familiar with a track. That’s the beauty of our esports property – there is massive overlap and parallels between our real life and virtual worlds,” says Tan. “The same cannot be said about many other sports. For example, you could be the best FIFA player in the world but there are limits to how these skills can translate to real life on the football pitch. Whereas in F1, the racing is very real even when it is virtual.”

eNascar Invitational

NASCAR and iRacing too announced a Pro Invitational Series to give fans an alternative, with the season on hold till at least May 3. Many NASCAR drivers already use iRacing’s PC-based game for their training routines. The virtual racing events are not just perfectly safe and viewer-friendly (because there are negligible differences presentation-wise), but are also a godsend for broadcasters looking for live sport content. The multi-week NASCAR series, which begins this Sunday, will be live telecast on Fox Sports and veteran commentators will call the action.

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