As we’re all settling into this new reality of working from home and social isolation, lots of people will be looking for distractions to take their minds off the most serious global public health crisis since the H1N1 pandemic more than a century ago. That’s made a little harder with the cancelation of just about every televised sporting event, but perhaps in the age of coronavirus, esports might step in and fill that gap. On Sunday, we got a taste of how that might work, as professional racers from F1, IndyCar, and other series took things digital, drawing big crowds on YouTube and Twitch in the process.

Sunday was supposed to be a big day in racing. If we weren’t experiencing a terrifying pandemic, my plan was to start off in the morning with Formula 1, which was supposed to kick off its 2020 season with the Australian Grand Prix. F1 had already postponed a race in China set to take place in April, while the Bahrain Grand Prix (scheduled for March 22) was going to take place with no spectators. Then, on the eve of the Australian event, the McLaren team announced one of its team members had tested positive for COVID-19. What followed was most undignified, as Formula 1, the race promoter, and the regional government all tried to hide from their responsibility to the public, before eventually bowing to the inevitable and canceling the event even as fans were lining up to get in.

Sunday afternoon was going to involve watching the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was supposed to be the start of IndyCar’s 2020 season. As coronavirus fears grew in the preceding weeks, IndyCar had decided to go ahead and run the event without spectators, but it too had to face reality, announcing last week that it would hold off on racing in March and April.

Esports to the rescue

And yet on Sunday we still got to see drivers like F1’s young phenom Max Verstappen and IndyCar champion (and very nice chap) Simon Pagenaud, among others, line up on the starting grid to do battle. It’s just that instead of doing it in real cars, they were racing in front of screens. That was down to the people at The Race, a new online motorsport publication, which organized the All-Star Esports Battle.

The event took place using rFactor 2 and featured three qualifying races, with the top eight from each moving on to the final. The first was for professional racing drivers from physical series like the aforementioned F1 and IndyCar, as well as Formula E, the World Endurance Championship, the British Touring Car Championship, and others. The second qualifying race was for professional esports racers like Rudy van Buren (who won McLaren’s World’s Fastest Gamer competition), Bono Huis (who won Formula E’s million-dollar Las Vegas eRace), and Brendon Leigh, winner of F1’s inaugural esports championship, while the third was filled with rFactor 2 expert players who made the cut in an open qualifying event held the day before.

rFactor 2 is a notoriously hard racing sim to master, and so it probably wasn’t surprising that the closest racing was in the third qualifying event and that the winner of the big race, Jernej Simončič, came from this group. So did second place driver Kevin Siggy, with van Buren finishing in third. The highest-placed pro racer was IndyCar’s Felix Rosenqvist, who also earned that distinction in Formula E’s big money event in 2017. “I feel honored to have taken part in the biggest sim racing event in the history. I’d known I had good chances for getting into the final with my open-wheel experience from the Formula Simracing series, but to be at the very top, it’s surreal,” Simončič told The Race. “Hopefully this is first of many such great events.”

Later in the day, Veloce Esports held Not the Australian GP, which used F1 2019 as its platform and featured F1 drivers Lando Norris, Esteban Gutierrez, and Stoffel Vandoorne racing alongside racers including many who compete in F1’s official esports series. Here, too, gamers led the way, with victory going to Daniel Bereznay, who was runner-up in F1’s 2018 esport championship.

Yes, that Dale Jr.

The day rounded out with the Replacements 100, a NASCAR race organized by Podium eSports that took place in iRacing. This event probably featured the biggest name of the weekend, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking part. Earnhardt Jr was joined by Chad Knaus, the crew chief behind Jimmy Johnson’s seven championships, as well as plenty of current NASCAR racers including Bubba Wallace, Justin Allgaier, Alex Bowman, and William Byron. That event was won by Josh Williams, whose day job is being the spotter for NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney.

The fact that dedicated esports racers dominated, particularly in the first two events, was not particularly surprising. After all, being good at a particular racing sim is a skill like any other, and there’s no substitute for experience at this level. What was perhaps more surprising was how popular the events were. The All-Star Esports Battle drew more than half a million viewers on YouTube, and Not the Australian GP racked up more than 350,000 views. Both claimed to be topping the charts of Twitch streams. The Replacements 100 doesn’t appear to have been shown on YouTube but garnered more than 71,000 viewers on Twitch.

With no physical racing events on the calendar for at least the next few weeks, more events are planned, and the success of these events will no doubt convince more stars from the sport to take place. Much of NASCAR’s national popularity is attributed to the 1979 Daytona 500, which aired when much of the East Coast was bored, trapped at home by a blizzard. Perhaps COVID-19 will prove to be a similar watershed for esports.

Listing image by The Race