F1 Esports Series Semi-Final to be streamed live online

Formula 1’s first major foray into the world of Esports is to be streamed live online across a variety of platforms.

The inaugural F1 Esports Series is at the Semi-Final stage, which takes place takes place on Tuesday 10th October from the Gfinity Arena in London. The event features 40 competitors vying for a chance to head to the grand finale.

Live coverage will air from 18:00 to 22:30 UK time across via the Formula 1 eSports website, Facebook Live and Twitch. Sky Sports are also covering the event live on their Formula 1 television channel and their free-to-air Mix channel.

The Semi-Final features a series of heat races around the Silverstone and Interlagos tracks. The 20 drivers who accrue the most points over these races will qualify for the F1 Esports Grand Final, which forms part of the build-up to the 2017 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 24/25. – official website quote

Jack Nicholls, who is a familiar voice to motor racing fans through his Formula E and BBC Radio 5 Live F1 work, will provide commentary alongside Formula Two commentator Davide Valsecchi.

There are a variety of stars involved in the presentation line-up, which is led by Gfinity host Tom Deacon. WTF1’s Matt Gallgher and Channel 4’s F1 expert Karun Chandhok will be analysing the action, with Alexandra Legouix the pit reporter for the event.

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F1’s digital strategy unfolds as conflict with TV model takes centre stage

ESPN are to broadcast Formula 1 in America from 2018, it has been confirmed today, ending NBC’s existing partnership.

The reasoning behind the split between Formula One Group and NBC is clear, based on a press release issued by NBC today. The broadcaster says, “Although we take great pride in having grown Formula One’s visibility and viewership since we became its exclusive U.S. media rights holder in 2013, this will be our last season with the series.”

“In this case, we chose not to enter into a new agreement in which the rights holder itself competes with us and our distribution partners. We wish the new owners of F1 well.” The key phrase “competes with us” is ominous. Not specific to NBC, but an example of this may be interpreted as Formula 1 uploading full classic races to YouTube.

Formula 1’s digital strategy, which encompasses social media and a new over-the-top platform, has consequences for the more traditional broadcast deals that Liberty Media wish to sign with the likes of NBC. Clearly, if a new over-the-top platform is to launch in territories such as America, new broadcast contracts must align with the new approach.

Clearly, higher-up decision makes in the NBC chain were unwilling to buy into a situation whereby F1’s own over-the-top network would be screening the same live broadcast as NBC’s product. I have referenced in the past WWE’s over-the-top Network. The wrestling franchise also airs on the USA Network in America. USA, is also part of the NBC stable of channels, so there is a parallel situation.

The key difference? WWE’s weekly flagship shows ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown’, which air live on USA, are not added to the WWE Network until a month after the traditional transmission date. A simulcast was not an option for NBC: it dilutes the value of their contract significantly. However, WWE also has special events every four weeks, such as ‘SummerSlam’ and ‘WrestleMania’ (outside of the NBC deal), which justifies the existence of the network.

A new F1 Network, without live racing action, is not a viable product. For the Formula One Group, live action on their over-the-top network is an absolute must. But, as outlined above with the WWE situation, it is not in NBC’s interests, hence why F1 is heading elsewhere as FOG were keen to retain the over-the-top rights.

ESPN’s coverage will air across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, marking the first time that Formula 1 has aired on their portfolio of channels since 1997. ABC will air the US and Mexican rounds of the championship live, with the Monaco Grand Prix on tape-delay. The remaining races will air on ESPN or ESPN2.

According to SportsBusiness Journal, ESPN are not paying Formula One Group a fee for the deal, and there will be no supplementary coverage on ESPN outside of the World Feed, even if the network are airing practice, qualifying and the race itself.

Whenever a split like this happens, I always ask the question about who needs who more. Does F1 need NBC more than NBC needs F1? Personally, I think so. Viewing figures for NBC’s programming were on the rise. If ESPN is only providing World Feed coverage without wrap-around, it is fundamentally a step backwards for Formula 1 state side, even if audience figures do increase as a result.

Elsewhere, last week it became official that Formula 1 was heading to pay-TV exclusively with immediate effect in Australia. Because of financial difficulties for Channel Ten, FOX Sports’ new rights kicked in from the Malaysian Grand Prix onwards.

The future for NBC’s F1 team
If we are to assume that ESPN’s American coverage does not have an on-air team, and instead takes commentary from elsewhere (such as Sky), it leaves several highly-rated figures in the motor racing broadcasting world currently without roles for the 2018 season.

Leigh Diffey is NBC’s lead Formula 1 commentator currently, with David Hobbs and Steve Matchett alongside him. The two figures relevant to UK readers because of their past are Jason Swales and Will Buxton.

Prior to joining NBC, Swales’ was BBC’s Radio 5 Live producer for their Formula 1 coverage, whilst Buxton was lead commentator for GP2 and GP3 before stepping down from the role at the end of 2014. Swales is NBC’s F1 producer, but also appears on-screen regularly as a double act alongside Buxton, who is NBC’s pit lane reporter.

Swales and Buxton are likely to be in high demand by other broadcasters covering motor racing given their experience and popularity with fans state side and in the UK. The problem that both have is that there are unlikely to be many vacancies for 2018.

A vacancy might appear if the BBC decide they are unhappy with Jack Nicholls only doing part-time duty as lead commentator for their 5 Live F1 coverage and look elsewhere, given his decision to commit to Formula E for their 2017-18 season.

A plausible opportunity for Swales might be to take up the role as Head of Sky Sports F1 following Martin Turner’s retirement. However, the latest on that from Charles Sale of the Daily Mail indicated that Matt Bishop, formerly of F1 Racing magazine and McLaren, may take up the post. Saying that, if Sky hired Bishop, he may decide to hire Swales and Buxton to the team.

The alternative is that the former NBC team ends up jumping to Formula One Group’s new over-the-top network, whichever format it ends up in. Whether we see a version of that for 2018, I do not know. But, clearly FOM are placing more emphasis on the overall World Feed product before and after the races, with Rosanna Tennant conducting the interviews.

If ESPN puts together a small team, they have personnel internally to hire from: the likes of Jennie Gow and Maurice Hamilton currently produce and record material for the ESPN website, so it will be intriguing to see where they fit into the wider picture.

There is a huge amount of talent around now, at the BBC, Channel 4, Sky Sports, NBC, and other broadcasters. I do worry slightly that, if Liberty’s strategy does alienate broadcasters, we might see a situation in some territories where the diverse opinions become replaced in favour of a standardised approach, at lower cost to those buying in.

Who knows what the future holds moving forward, but one thing is for certain: an over-the-top network is coming, and it might be sooner than we think…

Update on October 5th – ESPN have issued a statement exclusively to this site. “We will not air additional pre and post-race coverage on television. It’s been our experience that the overwhelming majority of motorsports viewers tune in for the race itself.”

“We want to attract new audiences for F1 by drawing ESPN fans from one program directly into race coverage. We will not have any ESPN announcers involved in the telecasts.”

Continuing their statement, ESPN note “The F1-produced world feed that we will use will have announcers (to be named). We feel that the television product produced by F1 is very good and will serve our viewers well.” ESPN’s statement certainly makes it a more realistic possibility that the over-the-top network for Formula 1 will launch next season.

News round-up: Harris to hang up his microphone; F1 heading back to FTA in France

In the news round-up, fans of MotoGP will hear a slightly different tone to broadcasting from 2018 onwards, whilst Formula 1 is making a return to free-to-air television in a key territory.

Formula 1 returning to free-to-air television in France
The return of the French Grand Prix in 2018 is not the only good news for Formula 1 fans in France. Earlier this month, it emerged that the sport would also be returning to free-to-air television, in the first major deal signed by the F1 Group under Liberty Media’s ownership.

For the past few years, Formula 1 has stagnated in France with the sport hidden behind a pay-wall, exclusively on Canal+. Now, Liberty have signed a deal with free-to-air broadcaster TF1 for three years from 2018. TF1 will air four Grand Prix live, including Monaco and the home race at Paul Ricard, with all other rounds covered in highlights form.

Some outlets interpreted the deal as a new direction for Formula 1. Not quite. Article L333-9 of the French Sporting Code states that “sporting events of major importance shall be retransmitted under the conditions laid down in Articles 20-2 and 20-3 of Law No 86-1067 of 30 September 1986 on freedom of communication.”

And Article 20-2, referenced above, explicitly says “Events of major importance can not be retransmitted exclusively in a way that deprives a significant portion of the public of the possibility of following them live or delayed on a free-to-air television service.” In other words, there was an obligation for the F1 Group under French law to offer the French Grand Prix to a free-to-air broadcaster, it was not by choice.

The other three races and the remaining highlights were by choice, although Liberty might have been in a weaker position here if TF1, or any other broadcaster, were unwilling to play the French Grand Prix without any other races alongside it. Either way, the narrative painted by the mainstream media has missed a significant fact.

However, the deal signed by the F1 Group and TF1 does align with quotes from F1’s Managing Director for Commercial Operations, Sean Bratches earlier this year, who suggested a 30-70 relationship where free-to-air and pay-TV were concerned.

Harris to retire from MotoGP duties at end of the season
The big broadcasting news from the Aragon MotoGP weekend is that their World Feed commentator Nick Harris will retire at the end of the year. Harris has been in and out of paddocks, pit lanes and various other fora for 36 years. The paddock came together on the Thursday prior to Aragon to celebrate Harris’ career at the Alpinestars motor home.

I have not spoken to Harris during my stints in the MotoGP paddock, however Harris seems respected and liked by just about anyone you speak to within the paddock. 36 years is an astounding career, I imagine he has many stories to tell post retirement, whatever the future may hold for him!

Harris currently commentates on MotoGP alongside Matt Birt and Dylan Gray in pit lane, with Steve Day leading on Moto2 and Moto3. I imagine Day will lead on MotoGP commentary as well from 2018, unless Dorna bring in someone from the outside to take on Harris’ duties.

Carrasco’s win generates headlines
Elsewhere on the motor cycling front, Ana Carrasco helped generate significant headlines for the Supersport 300 Championship, a feeder series to the Superbikes World Championship. Last weekend’s Supersport 300 race at Portimao saw Carrasco’s maiden victory at world motorcycle level, the first woman to achieve that feat.

Outlets in the United Kingdom and abroad reported on Carrasco’s victory. In the UK, The Guardian and the BBC reported Carrasco’s achievement, whilst aboard, outlets such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone covered her achievement.

Full-length classic F1 action heading to YouTube

For the first time ever, Formula 1 will upload a classic race to YouTube in full, in Liberty Media’s latest move to bolster the series’ social media presence.

To mark the nineteenth and final Malaysian Grand Prix, fans are being asked via the official Formula 1 website for their favourite Sepang race. Voting is open on both the website and Twitter, with 2001, 2003 and 2012 the three choices.

In a sign that Formula One Management (FOM) are testing the waters at this stage, a caveat is that the classic race will only be available for fans to watch for 19 days. Formula 1 follows in the footsteps of the IndyCar Series and MotoGP who have uploaded full-length races to social media for several years.

For UK fans, it is the first time that full-length races have appeared legally on a platform such as YouTube. From 2009 to 2011, the BBC uploaded a selection of their ‘Grand Prix’ highlights shows from 1982 to 1996 onto their website, again based on fan voting, with shorter edits for ITV races from 1997 onwards.

Since 2013, Sky Sports F1 have aired classic races during the season primarily in a 21:00 time slot, but the last classic race ‘new’ to the channel aired two years ago, with the same races on rotation since. Races after 1996 are covered in full, with the races from the original BBC era covered in highlights form. Of course, whilst the classic races help fill a lot of air-time for the channel, the audience for races behind a pay wall in that timeslot are minuscule.

There are two points of interest with the upload, depending on the chosen race: the feed and commentary used. For 2003 and 2012, the answer is simple, the UK commentary with the World Feed. In the case of the former, James Allen and Martin Brundle will be the voices fans hear, with David Croft and Brundle expected for the latter.

However, in 2001, FOM had two feeds: the F1 Digital feed and the local World Feed, which most viewers saw. In terms of commentary, there are three options: the ITV commentary with Murray Walker and Martin Brundle, a re-dubbed version of the race, or just the raw sounds. I hope we hear the ITV commentary, but that may be complicated if FOM want to use the F1 Digital feed, as the pictures will not match the commentary. Either FOM could splice the pictures together to create a hybrid feed, or re-dub the commentary.

From a strategy perspective, uploading a complete classic race to YouTube is a significant step from Liberty Media, as they continue to exploit Formula 1 on social media. There is no doubt that FOM will be chewing over the YouTube numbers as demand (or lack thereof) will dictate whether we see more of this content. Broadcasters’ such as Sky will have approved the latest change from FOM.

If numbers are strong, but those viewers are on average watching an hour of the race, truncated versions may appear in the future. It also helps Liberty plan their future over-the-top platform. Is there genuine demand for full classic races, or is the demand exaggerated in certain quarters? The viewing figures are key for FOM in many respects.

Formula 1 conducts successful live 360º video trial
Elsewhere, on the Formula 1 spectrum, a successful live 360º video experience was conducted during the Singapore Grand Prix weekend.

Historically for sport, the latency between 360º video and the television feed has been greater than 30 seconds. However, the prototype from Tata Communications and FOM during Singapore has reduced the latency to zero, with the 360º pictures completely in sync with the other feeds, something that the official F1 website is promoting as a world first in any sport.

Two 360-degree cameras were present during the race weekend, one in the paddock and one situated track side. The new development could allow fans to follow the action live in the future via 360º feeds on an over-the-top platform.

“In a sport like F1 where every millisecond matters, there are huge opportunities to empower fans to take control of key Grand Prix moments and create their unique, personalised race experiences through the powerful combination of live TV and 360º video,” said John Morrison, Chief Technical Officer, Formula 1.

“We want to unleash the full potential the F1 fan experience through the latest digital technologies,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations, Formula 1. “Through this proof of concept, we’ve explored how live 360º video, and next VR, could transport fans from across the globe to the middle of the thrilling world of F1 and enable them to immerse themselves in each Grand Prix like never before.”

News round-up: Channel 4 commissions new F1 documentary; F1 launches official eSports Series

In the round-up, a new Formula 1 documentary is heading to Channel 4, whilst the over-the-top strategy for the championship is slowly coming into place…

Channel 4 to air Guy Martin F1 special
Channel 4 is to air a documentary looking behind the scenes of the Williams Formula 1 team. The 60-minute documentary, produced by North One Television, will feature Guy Martin working as part of the Williams pit crew during this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix. The documentary, billed as Guy Martin’s Pit Stop, will cover the entirety of Martin’s weekend with Williams from preparation at the UK factory beforehand, all the way through to the post-race debrief and the transportation to the next race.

It is the second Formula 1 related documentary that North One Television have produced for Channel 4. The first documentary featured Martin as he raced against David Coulthard in a series of challenges. The programme, which aired prior to Channel 4’s first ever Formula 1 race, averaged a strong 2.80m (14.2%) in a primetime slot, according to overnight viewing figures.

Based on the quality of last year’s programme, this programme should live up to expectations. It is rare to get this level of insight into a Formula 1 team in the modern era. Okay, we have had plenty of behind the scenes features throughout the BBC, Channel 4, and Sky’s coverage, but we have not had a full, dedicated programme outside of the usual output in this area. Full credit to all parties for helping bring this programme together.

Elsewhere on the UK TV front, Sky Sports have added the weekly F1 show The Inside Line to their line-up on the F1 channel. For the first few weeks, it looks like the show is airing on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 19:30. The show airs on Sky’s and Fox’s stations overseas, so probably not a surprise to see it turn up on their UK station as well.

Hints of F1’s OTT strategy come to fruition
Discussion around Formula 1’s future over-the-top service was a key point of discussion at an industry event earlier this week, with some of the strategy also mooted. Speaking at the Black Book Motorsport Forum, Formula 1’s Global Head of Digital Frank Arthofer said that the over-the-top service is “likely to include original content from historic races, live feeds and additional race data for fans.”

The sentence alone does not tell us much, you would expect points two and three are a given for any new over-the-top service that Formula 1 launches. But, it is good to see that archive footage is likely to play a significant part in their offering. The indication from Arthofer’s comment is that we should expect some new documentaries and/or new footage centered around classic races, which should be the ambition in my opinion.

It is interesting to note that the WWE Network, which I have mentioned previously as something F1 should admire to be when it comes to over-the-top content, has struggled to build further past its initial peak. A range of documentaries or strands centred around superstars have struggled to get past their first series, because the cost outweighed the number of viewers the shows attracted. I should note that some of the axed WWE Network content did not feature archive footage, but was all stand-alone new material.

The question Liberty Media will need to ask, and this comes through a massive amount of user research, is whether original content from historical races is likely to bring more ‘hits’ than the raw classic race itself. If done correctly, I suspect the answer would be yes, if the documentaries genuinely offered something new and not rehashed.

Official F1 eSports Series launched
Following in the footsteps of Formula E and MotoGP, it is now Formula 1’s turn to launch its eSports Series. The series is a collaboration between Formula 1, Codemasters and Gfinity, allowing gamers from across the world to battle it out to become Formula 1 eSports Series Champion. The competition, which uses the F1 2017 video game, takes on three phases: qualification in September, live semi-final events in London on October 10th and 11th, before the top 20 head to the final on November 24th and 25th to coincide with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Although not mentioned in the press release, I would expect live streams of both the live semi-final events and the top 20 finals across Formula 1’s social media channels and television stations, in the same way that F1 Live London was. The launch of the series shows the “continued ambition to build a greater connection with wider audiences, especially younger fans.” The winner will attend a Formula 1 race in 2018, and become a character in the F1 2018 video game.

“This launch presents an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way, we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Formula 1’s Managing Director of Commercial Operations. “First, it’s a growing category with tremendous fan engagement that we’re entering in a big way; and we are proud to have Codemasters and Gfinity joining us on this ride. Of course, as we do in Formula 1, we’ll continue to evolve and innovate in the way we run this virtual counterpart to the F1 Championship to ensure we provide the most exciting and enjoyable experience we can for our fans.”