Hyper-growth, licensed games, and esports: Chatting Formula E with Kieran Holmes-Darby
I caught up with Formula E's gaming director to learn all about the finale for the upcoming Accelerate sim-racing tournament, and also how the motorsport is tackling gaming and esports.
The 2022 Formula E season is coming to a close. But not only that, so is the accompanying 2022 Accelerate esports tournament. Known as Formula E's way of approaching a wider audience and tapping into the esports and gaming scene. As gaming director Kieran Holmes-Darby (formerly known as the co-founder of Excel Esports) puts it, "it's the way that we get people involved with Formula E as a sport through competitive gaming."
Lasting a total of six rounds, with the last set to take place in London over the coming days, the winner will be heading home with a share of the €100,000 prize pool, alongside VIP tickets to the 2022 Formula E finale set to be held in Seoul, South Korea on August 13-14, plus a chance to get in the cockpit of an actual Formula E race car.
With such a broad selection of prizes on offer, I've had the chance to chat with Holmes-Darby to learn all about the connection Accelerate shares with the real life Formula E circuit and how much it has grown over the years.
This is an ad:
Gamereactor: How has the Formula E: Accelerate competition been perceived by fans, and have you found new audiences coming to esports as part of the connection it shares to the real-life Formula E scene?
Holmes-Darby: I think the original goal with Accelerate, and I think if you look at the kind of trend throughout motorsports more generally through the pandemic, esports was the way that you could continue to put on competitions in motorsports, and the numbers on viewership of esports competitions at that time are going to be very difficult to replicate in the future because ultimately they were going after the viewers of the traditional sport and they are sort of filling gaps if you like.
The kind of side-goal of that as well was to try and find the next real-world driver through these esports activations and now coming into a world where our core media product is our real race, we have to completely alter the strategy and I'm not sure all motorsports have done that effectively. Hopefully at Formula E we can be leaders or thought leaders in this space and as to how we need to approach the esports and broader gaming world in a time where we do have our core racing product.
What led to the decision of opening up Formula E: Accelerate to everyone?
This is an ad:
Well this is the change in strategy. Whilst we 100% want to completely celebrate our heroes and the best drivers; we want to give them opportunities to go dive in a real Formula E car and test themselves in real-world driving and see if we can make that great Cinderella story and that crossover - that's still definitely part of what we're doing but I don't think it's the core focus anymore because when that's the core focus you are really fishing in quite a niche pond.
I mean if you think about the amount of sim-racing, esports professionals that there are in the world and how many of those could realistically even have a shot of jumping in a Formula E car and being any good, it's a very niche pool you're fishing in and as I said in a world where our core media product is our race, we've got to completely alter what we doing on the gaming/esports side to make sure that we are activating as wide an audience as possible and getting as many people involved with the sport. It's not just about being the best, it's about coming and competing and having an experience with the sport. So, in short this year we've had way more participants than we've ever had previously because we've obviously opened it up. So that for us is a good proof point as to the direction of travel at least.
Has the success and growth of the F1 Esports Series affected the way that you approach Formula E esports at all?
I think broadly, without talking about one motorsport series. Broadly I think that the way that other motorsport series have done it worked in a time when we didn't have racing. But now that we have racing, I think everyone is going to have to adapt their strategies, and I think that we are thought-leaders in the space and the way that we are going about it. I don't know whether other people will follow suit or will stick to their guns, but from our perspective, that's not the way to go because if you're trying to create another media product from your esport activations, you're essentially trying to directly compete with your current product, and I don't think there are many people out there that would rather watch the esports product than the main product. It's really just an ancillary product to what you've kind of already got.
The real goal for us is to get new people into the sport. To give people a first-ever experience of Formula E. We're a growing sport, we've only been around for eight seasons, the whole goal here is hyper-growth in our audience. Gaming is an avenue to just introduce people to the sport.
We're definitely going in a different route completely and very intentionally. It's been awesome this year, we've had participants from every corner of the world, a strong number of female participants as well, which is really cool. It's been awesome.
Some could say that Formula E is the most technologically progressive section of Formula racing, so with that being the case, how smoothly has the sport adapted to gaming and sim-racing?
That's a good question and I think that's where one of our key USPs (unique selling proposition) in the gaming space is. If you look at our product and things like Attack Mode and all of these different parts of our IP, we are very close to being a video game. You go off-line to get a boost - we've all played racing games where you go off-line to get a boost and zoom past people - that is kind of what we are creating, we're creating a sport that is almost ready-made for a video game.
When I'm having conversations with game developers, it's exciting, because for them it's something completely new for them to potentially introduce to their game, and there's IP there that they can't get from other motorsports. That's super exciting for me and makes my job a lot easier.
What does using rFactor 2 as the host game allow you to do that other titles don't, and considering the history Formula E shares with Forza Motorsport, can we expect anything similar when the next Forza Motorsport launches in early 2023?
Without divulging my entire business development plan to you, we're always open to working with the biggest and best game developers in the space of brilliant motorsport titles. Like I said, we're looking for those game developers that can leverage our IP in exciting ways and create exciting activation opportunities for new fans and to bring new fans into the sport, but also providing their current players exciting IP that's different to something they've had before. We're always looking at those.
We're using rFactor at the moment. It's the most realistic simulator that I've at least experienced or had experience with, and I think that it offers very realistic gameplay for those sim-racers. But as I said, potentially a slightly nicher market than some of the titles you were mentioning. We're open to exploring options.
Have you thought about an officially licensed Formula E game?
It's definitely always an ongoing conversation. It was one of the first things put on my desk when I joined, you know "let's make our own game!" It's definitely always in the works is what I'd say, but there's a timing piece, when actually makes sense to do that, and I think at the moment going back to being in a hyper-growth state and really trying to engage a new audience, is releasing your own game the best way to do that, or is ultimately licensing your IP into existing game titles that have big audiences a better play for Formula E right now? Strategically, I would go with the latter right now, but I would never write off us doing our own game because there is definitely potential for that in the future.
With this being the final for the 2022 Accelerate tournament, how will you be expanding it when it returns for its next season?
It will definitely return for the 2023 season, I think the bigger question is there anything we can achieve in the gap between that. That's the conversations we're having at the moment. Accelerate is a great way to drum up excitement for the actual E-Prix, which is why we link them quite closely. But, there is the question mark of could these activations fill the gap between our season? There are no specific plans about that at the moment, but there is a lot of theorising around what we should be doing in the gap between Season 8 and Season 9.
How are you expecting the Gen3 cars to change up the Formula E: Accelerate tournament?
The Gen3-era is super exciting. As I understand it, [the cars] are lighter, quicker, and smaller, which is only a good thing for motorsports. That's going to make the racing, whether it's in real-life or in a video game way more exciting. Then also the Gen3-era, we've got a load more races, a load of more locations, loads more tracks, so you're just creating more opportunities for IP and exciting tracks for people to go and race on.
With your experience at Excel Esports in mind, do you think we'll start seeing more esports organisations making the jump into the sim-racing scene, and likewise signing sim-racers?
I suppose it depends on their objectives and what they're trying to achieve. If you go the franchise route, in terms of your Formula 1 or something like that, that's very much focussed on the traditional Formula 1 teams, and there's not that much room for traditional esports teams to operate.
If you look at what we're doing with Accelerate, we're very much focused on the individuals and getting new people into our sport. If you've ever looked at what Fortnite is doing in the esports world, they get a lot of stick about not being a proper esport because they don't cater very well for teams, but what they do is create exciting events for the individuals, and that is where our focus is initially: trying to create exciting events for individuals to be able to participate.
If there's an opportunity for us to put on a series that makes sense for esports teams to get involved, you might see that a bit more. But, it's all about what their objectives are, the opportunities we create, and it's got to make sense.
As a final question, as the gaming director at Formula E, which drivers should we be keeping an eye on at the London finals this weekend?
It's an absolutely stacked grid actually. I'm pleasantly surprised that all of the 'hero' names in the sim-racing world are going to be competing, because that's always great for our product. You've got Jarno Opmeer, you've got Frede Rasmussen, you've got your Bono [Huis], you've got the best people in the community on the grid.
What's exciting, and what definitely hasn't gone public yet but I'm happy to share is we've been working on a new track, we've been working on actually getting the London track into the game, and for the Accelerate final, we want to race on the London track. Now, no one will have had access to that, which means you drop that on drivers on a Thursday and they've essentially got a day and a half to practice. That could be interesting from a podium perspective, we don't really know.
In terms of everything else, it's pretty standard. We're going to follow the Formula E format of qualifying into races, so the best people will win, but who is going to be best on that track? I don't know.
A massive thanks to Kieran Holmes-Darby for speaking with us. The Formula E: Accelerate finals take place at the London E-Prix this weekend, so be sure to check them out right here.