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The esports vision of Lando Norris and McLaren Racing

(The Washington Post illustration; Christian Bruna/Getty Images)

Formula One’s McLaren Racing announced a new step into esports and gaming last Thursday with a dedicated studio space at their McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England. The move is an attempt to, “pivot from simulation racing to becoming more of a lifestyle and gaming brand,” according to Lindsey Eckhouse, director of licensing, e-commerce and esports for McLaren.

McLaren, which has the second most F1 championships and wins, after Ferrari, launched an esports team in 2017, called McLaren Shadow. Eckhouse said that while the gaming team has no plans to field a “League of Legends” squad, they will be looking at non-racing games to compete in. Creators who are invited to the studio will not be compensated by McLaren, she said, citing the company’s desire to have “authentic connection” with fans.

Lando Norris, 21, is an F1 driver for McLaren’s real-life team who has also found success on the virtual track, having amassed more than one million followers on Twitch. Most of them found him during the pandemic, when he had a chance to game more often, along with just about everyone else, and became the “unofficial face of F1 and esports,” according to ESPN. Norris spoke with The Washington Post about how racing simulations compare to the real thing, whether or not games could one day replace the sounds, noise, and smell of the track, and what it’s like to race (online) while trying to come up with a quip in front of a live audience of 100,000 people.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Launcher: How would you assess your time as a video game streamer last year, during quarantine?

Lando Norris: I never thought, when I started streaming, I would get to the level I have done, especially with almost hitting a million followers on [Twitch]. It’s never been a focus, it’s always been something I enjoy, like a side project I’ve done. It’s definitely grown more than I thought.

A hundred thousand people were watching your stream simultaneously, but you can’t see them. When you’re racing, obviously, you can hear the fans, you can see the fans. Can you compare those two experiences?

Norris: [At Silverstone Circuit from July 16-18] it was 140,000 people or something. And when you physically see them, that’s a hell of a lot of people. And there it’s different a little bit because you feel the whole atmosphere of it all. You can hear them and you see them like you said. So you get a bit of a different feeling. But there, I’m also just doing what I’m very good at, just driving a Formula One car and doing my job and racing. That’s what I’m there to do. And at the same time, as a bonus, you get all the fans that are cheering you on and things like that. But I feel very calm and relaxed in that environment. And you just get this extra buzz from having all the fans there.

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With streaming, it’s something I’m definitely not as good at with the communication side of it and always talking and things, because I’m not a big talker. I like keeping to myself a lot of the time. So when I have, whatever it is, 50,000, 60,000, 100,000 people in and there’s like a lot of people talking, sometimes, I just don’t know what to say. I’m not very good, and I’m just thinking of what to say in that scenario. And it’s not necessarily always fun. I’ve just been playing a driving game. You know, I play a different variety of games. … It is weird because, you know, you’re communicating with them by just talking to a screen, like we are now, rather than face to face. And you miss a lot of a normal interaction via a camera.

But, the thing that I love about it is, which is the same with the actual fans on the racetrack, is the comments you get from them. Normally the nice ones rather than the bad ones. But that kind of support, and the nice comments, you get the same thing in both, and that makes me smile and that makes me happy.

Do you think racing video games are at a level where kids could train up on them and then go out and compete professionally?

Norris: Well, there’s already been people who have done that, some which have won the Logitech [McLaren G] Challenge and have gone on to be racing British G.T., in Formula 3, and do extremely well and win races in those categories, which are very tough categories to win.

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So there’s already been a decent amount of cases of people that have come through from never driving a car before, only driving on a simulator at home or wherever they are, and winning an award of this championship and then getting the opportunity to go into an actual car and show their talent. And a lot of it can translate; if they’re very good in the simulator, they can be very good in an actual race car.

Not everyone, though. I don’t believe everyone is capable of doing that because you don’t have this fear when you drive on a simulator. Here, at my desk, there’s no fear of crashing. There’s no huge amount of costs knowing that if you crash, you’ve got to pay a lot of money, things like that. Physically, it’s nowhere near as tough. You don’t feel any of the strains on the body. So there is a lot of differences still which are just so incredibly difficult to replicate on a game or a program compared to real life, and that’s just the difference you’re always going to have.

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But in terms of the talent, you need to naturally just flow with the steering wheel and on your pedals and know how to drive a race car fast. A lot of those things can translate very easily from a simulator to a race car. So there’s been cases and I think there’ll be more and more cases with all this equipment becoming more accurate, tracks and cars becoming more accurate [in simulators].

This is a strange question because even five years ago I wouldn’t ask it. If you can get to the point where these simulators are basically like the real thing, just in a digital world, what would the argument be for keeping the real version, when there’s the risk of physical harm, environmental concerns, the costs of the car and so on?

Norris: Well some people love that feeling, though, of being on the edge and risking their lives in some ways, like, that’s what a lot of people love, is that buzz. From an environmental side of things, that’s something Formula One are working on massively now. And I know Formula One teams are out to try and make it as good for the environment as possible and for it to hopefully be the same as racing electric series and things like that.

So I don’t think that that’s too much of a worry, because I think eventually we’ll get to a place where we, you know, there’s nothing wrong with doing what we do.

But, yeah, that buzz of fear and physically feeling these things is just something, and even noise and sound and smell. All these small things can just add up and make a big difference. And although they can be quite small and you wouldn’t think they make a difference, they can.

One thing that makes a big difference is having a VR headset. That’s a big change in terms of your depth perception, of feeling like you’re driving a real car. And I love it. It feels like you’re really driving a car a lot more. But, you know, you just don’t get that feeling through your body or driving a race car when you’re driving on a simulator. And that’s something that maybe in 20, 30 years, they’ll be able to replicate much better. And maybe my answer will change. But for now, I don’t think it’s anywhere near a level that gives you just that feeling, that raw feeling of driving a race car.

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I’m curious about your role in this new [esports and content creation] initiative from McLaren. Obviously you’re at the forefront of streaming video games and racing. So what part did you have in them making this decision?

Norris: Well, before I even came into McLaren, it was something I did a lot of and I shared a lot of my opinions. I was always very willing to help and give my honest feedback on what’s good, what’s bad and so on.

Yeah, it’s more because it’s just a passion of mine, it’s something I really enjoy doing, and when, whatever it is in the world, if it’s something I enjoy doing, I want to do better on it. And I want to make it better. I want to help whoever’s doing it. And that case is the same with the sim racing, and just altogether with esports that we have now in McLaren. You know, it’s not just about racing on a simulator. It can be about playing “FIFA” or “Rocket League” or all these different games.

So, yeah, it’s just because it’s a passion of mine since I’ve been a kid and I want to help make it bigger and help make it bigger for McLaren because I want to, simply, and I enjoy doing it.

It’s difficult because, still, Formula One is my focus and that’s all I focus on. But when I do have some time off and so on, then I have the guys and girls in McLaren put these championships together, these competitions and so on and maybe I’ll get involved. I don’t know.

Can you explain a bit about your goals and vision going forward with [Norris’s esports squad] Team Quadrant, whether it’s going to be F1-focused or more broad?

Norris: So, I mean, my vision is quite big for it. At this moment, we’re still relatively small, but we’re growing quite quickly. And our numbers are looking very competitive compared to a lot of people, which is great.

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I think certainly the focus is with racing and I think that will be a decent focus for it, but I don’t want it to be just about racing. I want it to be an esports team and an organization that expands much further into all different types of games. You have a Faze Clan or 100 Thieves and things like that; eventually, I want it to be on that kind of level. …

And we’ve already grown quite quickly in the time that we’ve had building it all. It’s something I do alongside McLaren and we kind of worked together with some things. So it’s great and we help each other to try and do better altogether.

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