When eSports and the real world collide

How are traditional sports adapting to accept a growing eSports industry into their fold?
Bruno Senna prepares for a showdown against gamers
Bruno Senna prepares for a showdown against gamers © Formula E
By Chris Higgins

Last summer, a Bundesliga football team from a small German town in Lower Saxony made signing history. Among the other high profile signings to VfL Wolfsburg FC during a turbulent off-season transfer window, was a name completely unknown to pundits; Benedikt 'SaLz0r' Saltzer. Saltzer was not a rookie, fresh from the academies, nor was he scouted at a local park. For the first time in professional football, the team took on a player who would not kick a single ball in his career with the club.

The 23-year-old, instead, represents The Wolves on virtual soil, as the first player in their FIFA 16 eSports division. And, as of last week, Wolfsburg have also acquired David 'DaveBtw' Bytheway, runner-up at 2014’s FIFA Interactive World Cup. The runners-up of last year’s Bundesliga are the first to jump into a widening niche in the sports gaming sphere, one of combining the traditional competitions games are inspired by with tournaments of their own. The eSports-sports singularity is approaching.

Elsewhere last week, in a converted cinema screen in London’s Fulham Broadway, two racing legends were being lapped by a British teenager. The inaugural Formula E Race Off invited the public to try their hand in a showdown against Bruno Senna and Nico Prost in Forza 6, held at the Gfinity Arena. Despite having a combined 20 years of professional racing experience between them, the two were battling for last place in a field of six other young drivers.

© Formula E

Their jobs aren’t immediately at risk, though, as the skills required to drive a machine around these same tracks are slightly different to moving a joystick. Bruno, nephew of three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna, believes the sensory deprivation of on-screen simulator racing are good for some skills, but not others.

“What you are doing when you’re driving in the simulator is you are training your eye, and you can never react as fast through what your eye sees than what you feel with your body,” said Senna. “We are clearly getting to the point where you can learn a racetrack by playing a video game, but in terms of car, the cars are very difficult to simulate. It will need some more time in the virtual garage to tweak the setup and get the car feeling more like the real thing.”

The relative difference in this sort of training showed as Zak Scholes, an avid teenage fan of motorsports, took the top spot on the podium ahead of Senna and Prost. He also managed to hold off Nissan GT Academy alumnus Jann Mardenborough, who has gone onto a successful early career in motorsports after winning a similar eSports competition on Gran Turismo in 2011.

As a route into professional racing, there isn’t much better experience than this sort of competition. The accuracy of simulation racers to their real-world tracks makes them powerful tools for testing the theoretical skills of new drivers.

‘’Definitely track knowledge makes a difference, if you know how the flow of the track works you can really understand how to do it faster,” Senna said. “Of course in the game, some of the limits are different and you can try different things, but you can get to at least 85 percent [required knowledge] easily. Similar to when we come out of the simulators before going on the track.”

Benedikt ‘SaLz0r’ Saltzer in his team’s jersey
Benedikt ‘SaLz0r’ Saltzer in his team’s jersey © Wolfsburg FC

Taking lessons learned from one form of competition out of the virtual world into physical pursuits isn’t unique to racing, though is extremely welcome in a sport as fraught with safety concerns. Saltzer believes his time playing and studying movement off-pitch in the FIFA games will help him with his on-pitch endeavours as a striker in the German seventh division.

“A computer’s artificial intelligence makes practically no mistakes if you set it up correctly,” he said to FIFA.com. “Defenders move phenomenally well and really close down the space. With this in mind, real footballers could analyse a FIFA match to see how its defensive players move.”

These possibilities blur the line between two traditionally opposite past-times. Whether it’s offering new career routes to players, or another way for the growing Formula E fan-base or the two million who entered FIFA’s FIWC qualifiers to get involved in their sports, eSports is spanning that gap.

“FIFA is getting more realistic with each passing year and is also very popular with our fans,” the club’s general manager Klaus Allofs told FIFA.com. “We’re reaching young supporters in particular with eSports, and we’re delighted about that. We want to use our ever increasing commitment in this area to bring these two worlds even closer together in future.”

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