Why Road to Vegas was a missed opportunity

I was watching a video by Shaun Cole for the Sim Pit YouTube channel, talking about the Vegas eRace. He raised a great point; given that it’s such a big deal, especially for the sim-racing community with the vast amounts of money at stake, why has this flown under the radar? Why were the qualifying rounds done in secret?

Well Shaun, the truth is they weren’t done in secret at all. I commentated on them, and not many people watched.

Well okay, in all honesty that’s not telling the full story. For the first qualifier in Long Beach, there was actually a pretty healthy amount of interest. The grid itself was oversubscribed (At least over 100 people set times on the server, probably more than that) and the final was watched live by just approximately 800 people; not amazing and a large percentage left dislikes on the video, but the number was still encouraging and about what you’d expect for a first round. But then look at the Paris final: 480 viewers. Berlin was a slight improvement with 600, but London was back down to 500; and keep in mind that’s just the total viewers on the broadcast date. Whenever I looked at the stream we were lucky after Long Beach to break the 200 barrier to be honest; at London the viewing count was consistently stuck at about 60. Not to mention that we went from having to turn away people who didn’t qualify in the top 80, to by the end in London barely scraping together 37 people and not bothering to even broadcast the semi finals due to the low turnout and the prospect of there just being 6 cars on track; granted by this point only 13 or so were realistically in the hunt for Vegas, but it’s still disappointing although it didn’t affect the finals all that much. It’s a far cry from the 200 Million people that CEO Alejandro Agag cites as watching the real life races.

So back to Shaun’s question: Why didn’t the Road to Vegas attract the attention that it perhaps should have?

1)   The fans didn’t like what they saw

This should be a great story and a boost to the sim-racing community, but from what I heard there was a lot of antipathy and dislike expressed towards the mod and to RFactor 2. It’s no secret that the mod had to be made quickly, but still the mod did what it needed to, including as many Formula E rules as possible; even the car swaps were done fairly well. The lack of slipstream made many races slow-burners, but there was still enough action somewhere in the field to keep things engaging. Naturally a lot of the drivers competing and the sim-racing fans watching were really into iRacing and some of them were a bit over-zealous about how inferior they feel RFactor 2 is by comparison. Not only is that a bit unfair, but it also ignores the fact that iRacing would have probably needed an exclusive license and a lot more time to model the car. The RFactor 2 mod I felt was impressive given the brief timescale that it had, and the Cloud Sport guys really took it seriously, staying up long into the night watching race replays and working out any incidents and penalties that needed to be resolved. Sometimes I felt there were communication issues between the Spanish Cloud Sport team and the largely English-speaking player base, but to their credit as the series went on most of these were resolved.

Finally on this first point, I think an age limit of 18 (enforced, perhaps quite sensibly given the reputation of Las Vegas, by Formula E’s lawyers) was perhaps a bit excluding of FE’s potential target audience; even 17 year old Lando Norris, who has had an extremely successful year in real life motor racing topped off by winning the McLaren Autosport Young Driver award, qualified for the semi-finals in Long Beach but was not allowed to take part on account of his age. Saying that, with a lot of money up for grabs I don’t think Cloud Sport/FE should push for a u-turn and invite pre-adolescents in. Personally I would go for 15/16 for the cut-off point as those are the ages at which kart racers in the UK are allowed to make the step into cars via categories like Formula 4.

(Incidentally this video doesn’t explain the sign up process at all; but at least it’s publicity)

2)   Formula E began their big promotional push too late

The first qualifier was on the 15/16th of October, a week after Hong Kong, but Formula E didn’t really start putting much emphasis on Road to Vegas until after the real life race in Marrakesh, by which time half the qualifying races were done with already.

To be fair, when Formula E finally started advertising and focusing on Road to Vegas and the Vegas eRace they did a very good job: They posted articles within a few days after the finals, they got Sian Welby to talk about it in Channel 5’s FE Magazine show Street Racers and they plugged it on social media, Road to Vegas points leader Graham Carroll got a run in the real life Formula E car in Marrakesh which generated a healthy few column inches, and finally their eSports Twitter account started tweeting more about it, which was good as it had been up to then very under-utilised. I appreciated the effort but at the same time, I can’t help escape the feeling that it was too little, too late and people would only have found out about it after Paris, by which time it would be pointless to enter as you’d already be too many points behind, even with the dropped score rule.

Why didn’t they push it earlier then? Perhaps because they felt they didn’t need to; after all, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s only really Vegas that matters, right? Well, personally it just seems like a missed opportunity to me; people will watch Vegas online (And I believe they will attract a decent audience, not as big as for an actual race but nothing near as bad as the qualifiers) and they will ask themselves who on earth these sim-racers are; if they had been building a narrative right from the start and giving it proper attention then Formula E fans might be more familiar with the likes of Graham Carroll, Greger Huttu, Olli Pahkala, etc. They do a great job building narratives for the real championship (I.E. Buemi vs. Di Grassi) so it baffles me that Formula E seemed not to think it was necessary here; and the tragedy is that those that made it through to Vegas are really interesting, highly motivated and passionate characters with some fascinating stories to tell, and I worry that not much of that will come across during the actual event itself. If they’re spending so much money on the prizes why not go all-out on promotion? What’s the point of broadcasting it if nobody beyond a small core of sim-racers is watching or at all invested?

Of course it didn’t really help that races were broadcast on Cloud Sport’s own YouTube channel rather than Formula E’s. Admittedly had they done this then I would never have been allowed to commentate on the action, but it would have been far better for the sport and would have helped to build up interest ahead of Vegas. And for those wondering, I don’t really mind that Formula E retroactively replaced my commentary with Jack Nichols’. Sure, it would have been nice to be an official part of Formula E history but it wasn’t a personal slight against me; it was just business and I understand and accept that. Plus, I actually find it flattering in a way that I got to do the same job as someone of Jack’s high calibre, even if hardly anyone heard it.

3)   Issues with the broadcast

A Screenshot of Olli Pahkala leading the field during the Berlin Road to Vegas final, showing the graphics used for the series.

I have to accept the possibility that maybe it was me or another commentator who people couldn’t stand; I’m extremely reluctant to apportion blame towards any other commentator who I brought in/worked with, because even at the London round when Jack Pickering’s microphone started feeding back and echoing on stream, that was my fault for not picking up the issue prior to broadcast. (We were in a hurry after I got back from Let’s Race) As for myself I did seek a lot of feedback from professionals, such as Motorsport radio commentator Tom Brooks, to help improve my commentary after Long Beach because I was clutching at straws as to why people were getting upset. I mention Tom because he gave me some great advice and feedback, and I did my best to take it to heart.

On the technical side, I heard a fair few people complaining about the presentation of the stream; cars would occasionally lag and in the last two rounds particularly there were a lot of frame drops. Unfortunately though that’s part and parcel of Sim Racing and of online broadcasting; yes, there’s the argument that maybe Cloud Sport could have sacrificed bitrate quality for smoothness, but that could have left them with a lower picture quality which is not what they or Formula E want either. I know for a fact that the guy from Cloud Sport who was hosting the stream for us worked incredibly hard in the limited time between Semi-finals trying to fix it. But the truth is that in an online race not everyone will have a perfect internet connection; it’s unavoidable.

Overall I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the lack of impact this series had so far, when I think it’s fair to say that I put a fair bit of effort in promoting this thing myself; (Admittedly my FE Addicts group has a limited range of influence though) I love the sport and I love sim-racing and I really wanted to help make it a success, but I don’t think there’s anything more that I alone could have done to encourage more people to watch. Although I wish it had been done sooner, I’m still grateful that Formula E did eventually put a lot more effort in because it still makes a difference; especially giving Graham the run in the FE car was inspired. So whilst there is a lot to learn from and improve for the qualifiers, Vegas on January 7th can still be a great triumph for FE and for Sim Racing. I’m crossing my fingers.

For those interested I’m working on some interviews I did with all 10 of the Vegas eRace finalists for Cloud Sport. As for this blog, now that he’s retired I think it’s high time I finished the Nico Rosberg evaluation piece I’ve been putting off almost for the whole year now.

Why Road to Vegas was a missed opportunity

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