Gaming

Here’s how the world has been shifting to virtual sports: 8 big moments

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Millions of viewers, unlikely pairings and unbelievable drama – here's the best action you may have missed from the sudden rise of virtual sports.
Written by Joe EllisonPublished on
Virtual sports are having a moment. With a raft of cancellations and postponements to the sporting calendar of late, the worlds of esports and traditional sports are colliding more than ever as traditional audiences find new platforms.
This shift towards virtual sports is also breaking records: many esports streamers are recording their biggest ever months, while NASCAR’s virtual racing series just pulled in 1.3 million viewers across TV in the US to become the highest-rated televised esports event ever.
Here are the biggest milestones so far...

Motorsport

Legends unite for All-Star Esport Battle

On board with Max Verstappen
The All-Star Battle welcomed drivers from F1, Indy 500 and Formula E
After the forced postponement of the F1 season along with other races, esport events have quickly filled their place. Torque Esports’ All-Star Esport Battle in late March featured some of the world’s best racers across a variety of different motorsports, from Red Bull’s F1 hotshot Max Verstappen to Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud. No stranger to esports, Verstappen, who recently came out on top of Redline’s Real Racers Never Quit series, won the first of three qualifiers before ducking out of the final race because of prior commitments. Aptly enough, the race was won by his fellow Dutchman and 'World's Fastest Gamer 2017' Rudy Van Buren.
Highlighting the thirst for these sorts of events, the All-Star Battle clocked up a combined total of 12.1 million minutes of viewing, with over 30,000 comments left by fans on the race's YouTube channel, despite only coming to fruition in a matter of days. “In 48-hours we’ve turned around what was nothing into something that looks like one of the races of the year,” said race organiser Darren Cox. “We thought some of the real drivers would fancy a go, but the reaction has been absolutely massive. It’s snowballed."

Ben Stokes joins the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix

Gaming · 3 min
Virtual Grand Prix - Race Highlights Melbourne
Keen to prove he truly is the world’s best all-rounder, Ben Stokes just drove for Red Bull at his first ever E1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix, qualifying 16th in a 19-car field for what was another blockbuster esports race. Fighting doggedly at the back against former F1 star Johnny Herbert, the cricket player didn’t get much joy on the track, valiantly finishing in last place, but still held his own against some of the most experienced drivers in the sport. Current Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who eventually captured the pixelated flag, later admitted he was surprised at how mentally draining the encounter was: “It was unbelievably hard. The muscles are not hurting but the concentration and everything, I’ve been sweating a lot and it’s very hard."

Millions watch the MotoGP Virtual Race

The inaugural MotoGP Virtual Race wasn’t only streamed online, it was also shown on TV stations across the world. Race organisers claim that over two million people tuned into the race, while seven million minutes of VR race content were consumed overall. Marc Marquez competed with real verve but the racing whizz narrowly missed out on the podium with a fifth-place finish. So you can bet he’ll be looking to set that right when the second edition of the race on 12 April takes place at the virtual Red Bull Ring in Austria. Bring it on.

Football

Red Bull Salzburg take on Europe on FIFA

They may be out of the Champions League but that didn’t stop Red Bull Salzburg from taking on some of the continent’s biggest sides in a special charity event. 128 teams entered FIFA’s ‘Ultimate Quaranteam’ tournament, and while many real life footballers took control of their respective teams, Salzburg enlisted the skills of their resident esports star, Sercan Gold, as the Austrian champions brushed aside England’s Derby Country and the Netherlands’ RKC Waalwijk on their way into the last 32, where they narrowly lost to England’s Leyton Orient. The competition finished on April 6, with Premier League outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers crowned champions.
Meanwhile, in an all-Spanish FIFA contest which brought together players and teams in La Liga, Real Madrid midfielder Marco Asensio guided his team to glory while watched on by 170,000 viewers.

Ryan Pessoa and Trent Alexander Arnold go head-to-head

Ryan Pessoa takes on Trent Alexander-Arnold in FIFA 20, tonight on Twitch
Ryan Pessoa takes on Trent Alexander-Arnold in FIFA 20, tonight on Twitch
With Europe’s biggest leagues currently suspended, elite footballers have been streaming their FIFA matchups live for fans to enjoy across Twitch and beyond – though few have been more blockbuster than the recent encounter between Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold and FIFA pro Ryan Pessosa. A 2--2 draw in the first game was a sign that the gulf in class wasn't as big as most expected, but the class eventually told as the esports pro comfortably swept his rival aside in the next two games. Throughout the stream, Alexander-Arnold answered questions on a whole range of topics from the chat comments, which even led to the defender even giving his two cents on the Messi v Ronaldo debate. Find out who he plumped for by reading this match report...

Triathlon

Something unbelievable happens at Ironman VR Pro

Bringing the triathlon community together like never before, multiple Ironman world champ Mirinda Carfrae was one of the many pros who lined up for the inaugural Ironman VR Pro race on 5 April, which wasn’t exactly short on drama. Midway through the race, and well placed in second spot, Carfrae’s day almost came to an abrupt halt when her husband – fellow tri athlete Tim O’Donnell, who’d gone out of the room to fetch some trophies in the hope they would spur her on – tripped over a cord, cutting the power from the bike. The tri icon carried on regardless but slipped well down the rankings due to the fault, while O’Donnell stood alongside her holding a sign saying ‘My bad'.

Cycling

Greg van Avermaet wins the Virtual Tour of Flanders

Greg van Avermaet racing the Virtual Tour of Flanders
Home favourite Greg van Avermaet impressed in the virtual arena
First held in 1913, the Tour of Flanders is as much a Belgian institution as waffles, fries and Jean Claude Van-Damme. When this year’s edition of the race was postponed, 13 professional riders saddled up on their training bikes at home and competed on a virtual 30km course, taking in three climbs of the real-life 267.2km route. Streamed on YouTube complete with live footage of each of the riders, it was a huge success. And given the winner was none other than Belgian Olympic road race champion Greg van Avermaet, perhaps it also proved that skill behind the handlebars in real life does translate to esports.

Tennis

ATP announce a virtual Madrid Open

A promo for the Madrid Open Virtual Pro event
The Madrid Open Virtual Pro could be a pivotal event for tennis esports
Save for Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal’s bitter battles of old on Pro Evolution Soccer, for such a globally successful sport, tennis has curiously never had much of an esports presence. But this looks (game) set (and match) to change with news that the Madrid Open will instead contested online from home, with players swapping their rackets for PS4 controllers and entering the Malolo Sanatana Stadium via the Tennis World Tour video game. Both the men’s and women’s draw will feature a purse of 150,000 euros, all to be donated to the charity of the winner's choice. Not that elite athletes like Dominic Thiem ever need a reason to get competitive....