By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – There is no need to ask Formula One’s first virtual world champion Brendon Leigh about the transformative power of esports, you have only to look at him.
“Since last year, I’ve lost over 20kg in weight,” the 19-year-old told Reuters as he geared up to defend his title in the new F1 Esports Pro Series starting at London’s Gfinity Arena on Wednesday.
Last November, the Briton turned up at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as a podgy kitchen porter who had never driven a car before, or even been abroad.
He emerged as a finger-wagging online equivalent of Lewis Hamilton.
Now part of the Mercedes esports team, making him officially a colleague of his four times world champion compatriot, Leigh has still to take a driving test — although he’s working on it — but is now the man everyone wants to beat.
And he also looks much more like a professional racing driver after working out with experienced F1 trainer Simon Fitchett.
“He (Fitchett) knows what it takes to be a real Formula One driver and I’m trying to get up to those standards to prove that esports does need physical and mental health to have the ability to drive at that level,” said Leigh.
Part of last year’s winner’s prize was also to be included in the Formula One 2018 game, published by Codemasters, as a ‘driveable character’.
“Anyone can go and drive as me,” said Leigh. “It’s just amazing when you see the support on Twitter and social media of how people are sending you a tweet or instagram saying they are using you as a character.
“It’s quite a weird thought to have maybe Lewis driving as my character in the F1 game while I’m driving as his … and when I’ve been playing online against people, they’ve taken me out and then there’s been three Brendons on the podium.”
The new series, which no longer ends in Abu Dhabi, involves a total of 10 races with most broadcast live on Formula One’s official Facebook page and a number of television networks around the world.
Nine of the 10 real Formula One teams, all except Ferrari, are involved.
The other rounds are in London on Oct. 31 and Nov. 17, with driver and constructor titles awarded and a prize pool of $200,000.
Races are preceded by practice and qualifying. The 25 eligible drivers have been whittled down from a field of 66,000 hopefuls who entered online earlier in the year.
Julian Tan, head of growth and F1 esports at Formula One, said the new series built on the momentum of 2017 but was also very different.
“It was very much an individual competition (last year),” he said.
“This year the series has evolved tremendously and the drivers are no longer just driving for themselves. They are driving for the teams.
“It will be the first time we have a professional championship.”
McLaren’s head of esports Ben Payne said the growth in interest was also noticeable at team level.
The team’s “World’s Fastest Gamer’ competition in 2017 drew some 31,000 entries. A new ‘Shadow’ programme to recruit gamers to next year’s virtual team on the Real Racing3 platform had attracted more than half a million.
The virtual racers were also becoming known as personalities.
“This time a year ago no-one knew who Brendon was,” said Payne. “And then he became an internet meme with his finger-wagging in Abu Dhabi and its changed his life.
“Those guys are superstars in the sim racing community right now and when we announce who is driving versus who isn’t, that causes ripples in that community much like traditional motorsport.
“I think the skies the limit in terms of where they can go.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)