RACING

The Formula 1 fandom is racing. F1 22 is in the game.

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Formula 1 Grands Prix attract an average of one million viewers per race in America. The FIA, the sport’s governing body, has just named a new course in Miami and plans to open another track in Las Vegas next year. My Twitter timeline, a constellation of parading gamers and journalists, rumbles to life on gloomy Sunday mornings as drivers make their mark in distant European hamlets. I became comfortable with all the sayings and memes in the culture; Max Verstappen is a pout, Charles Leclerc is an angel, Ferrari can’t get the job done when it counts. The verdict is unanimous: F1 is officially big business in the United States.

For Codemasters, the UK company that has been making F1 games for more than a decade – and launched ‘F1 22’ earlier this year – it means their niche racing series now reaches more people than it does. would have ever imagined.

Like so many other long-time F1 stalwarts, ‘F1 22’ lead creative director Lee Mather seems delightfully baffled by the US racing boom.

“When we started this series, we were always aimed at F1 fans, and F1 fans are a very defined audience,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But in recent years, it has completely exploded. [There’s] a new audience coming to the game via a completely different route. Namely: the Internet.

Mather’s diagnosis of the phenomenon is twofold: the FIA ​​has worked hard to organize live events for the sport across the Atlantic, and they’ve done a fantastic job of adapting to online culture and marketing their pilots all over the world. There’s no better example of that than the Netflix series “Formula One: Drive To Survive” – the wildly popular docuseries that glosses over the heady mechanical common sense of open-wheel racing in favor of headstrong drama, Real Housewives-esque. (The first season, where Daniel Ricciardo stabs Red Bull in the back, is one of the most compelling storylines ever told on television.)

But more importantly, the generation of drivers currently competing in F1 are extremely likeable and shockingly online when not behind the wheel. Lando Norris, who competes for McLaren, streams his “Fall Guys” matches live on Twitch on his days off. (Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc does the same, but he generally sticks to racing games). fill my feed. Here’s one titled “Max Verstappen being wild for nine minutes straight.”

Formula 1, powered by Netflix and ESPN, speeds up the courtship of American fans

“There was a time when Formula 1 didn’t have YouTube, Instagram or Twitch,” said Mather, detailing how the brand has grown in such a short time. F1 has always been a fascinating world, but as the sport has become more web literate, youngsters have been given the tools to experience it in their own way.

“The politics between the teams, the fact that the cars seem to be cardboard and glued together with chewing gum, the rivalries between the drivers – it all keeps me invested in the real sport, not just the dramatized version on Netflix,” said Simone de Rochefort, senior video producer at Polygon and new F1 fan, who fell in love with the sport in part because it looked like some of her favorite sports anime.

“The underlying strategy of all of this was also a pleasant surprise to me,” said de Rochefort. “The fact that the drivers are basically getting combat tactics over the radio from their engineers is very cool and exciting. I think from the outside, it’s easy to look at the cars going around in circles and think that it’s really cool and exciting. That’s all, but there’s so much more, both dramatic and tactical.

All of this means Mather is now in charge of a franchise that has a player base beyond those obsessed with tire pressure and air resistance. Codemasters hasn’t announced any specific sales figures for ‘F1 22’, but series publisher Electronic Arts said the previous game, ‘F1 2021’, performed ‘well above expectations’. .

Mather said his team had prioritized accessibility in titles for years, long before you could comment on the Mercedes-Red Bull rivalry in countless sports bars across the country. Still, it was an uphill battle.

“Every time we tried to do something outside the heart of Formula 1, it didn’t work out because the public wasn’t there. But now it’s crossed over,” Mather said. We have introduced steering assistance, to help people steer the car. We did an auto reset to keep up so instead of the frustration of getting out of the gravel that hardcore [players] want, you can go back. Off-road surfaces are streamlined, so if you got into gravel, you can just get out. This year we have an adaptive AI that adjusts its pace to keep you in the fight.

‘F1 22’ enters a new era with revamped cars and overhauled physics

These initiatives eventually paid off. Finally, the casual fans that Codemasters had always hoped to attract are materializing.

“It’s a journey we started in 2019 and 2020 to make the game easier to play,” Mather said. “And now there is this public that is hungry for Formula 1.”

Perhaps the biggest sign of F1’s growing appeal is the introduction of Breaking Point in ‘F1 2021’ – a story-driven single-player mode where you take control of a new driver, rubbing shoulders with the elite open wheels. With it, Codemasters tapped into the glamor and intrigue that sucked me and so many other Americans into sports – less worry about fuel charges, more angry outbursts with the team. stalls. Breaking Point didn’t return in “F1 22” (the mode is on a biannual release schedule) so Codemasters will soon be fleshing out a fantasy for Americans dreaming of Silverstone, rather than Lambeau or Fenway.

“The Formula 1 drivers were known in the community, but people outside of that didn’t know who they were. I’m not a footballer or a basketball player, but I know who the key people are in those sports, because they transcended the sport, and that wasn’t something F1 had achieved,” Mather said. “But now those drivers are big celebrities at the start of their careers. The lifestyle, the excitement of who these people are, has finally come out of the F1 fandom.”

De Rochefort is one of those F1 insiders eager to incorporate his latest fascination into his lifelong hobby. That being said, what she loves most about the sport — the characters, the grudges, the meta-narratives surrounding every hairpin turn — aren’t easily replicated in a racing series. She is most excited about Frontier Games’ upcoming “F1 Manager 2022”, a spiritual sequel to the 2000s “F1 Manager” and the first officially licensed F1 management sim to be released in over 20 years. It’s a game that allows players to refine their rosters of drivers, scientists, and engineers between seasons – perhaps by poaching a pitman from a cross-country automotive opponent. You know, the kind of quibbling that’s ripe for a “Drive To Survive” arc.

“I doubt he will have the precise drama of [the show,] but it’s definitely about approaching the sport from an angle that I find inherently interesting,” said de Rochefort. Andy Fletcher, game director on ‘F1 Manager 2022’, told The Post that the team has tried to keep its title sealed for hardcore consumers, while also “giving players [the option] to automate key events…so they can relax and enjoy the breathtaking race weekend broadcast experience. (As someone well versed in automotive physics, I’m intrigued.)

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This will likely be the challenge for anyone making F1 games for the foreseeable future. How do you tap into the market explosion and, more importantly, how do you reflect what excited people about this universe in the first place? The first thing you learn when you start following Formula 1 is that the races are just the tip of the iceberg; this philosophy has also taken hold at Codemasters.

“Just because someone wants to do 100 percent running distance without any assistance doesn’t mean they don’t want to relax with something more laid back or more fun,” Mather said.

He has a legion of freshly captivated Formula 1 fans in the palm of his hands. Frankly, that’s a good problem to have.

Luke Winkie is a journalist from San Diego, he has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vox and Rolling Stone. Follow him on Twitter @luke_winkie.

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