Middle Eastern petrolheads hope eSports will take them to the track – Digital Journal


eSports offer an affordable and accessible alternative for young people passionate about racing – Copyright AFP Khalil MAZRAAWI

dani hanna

Virtual cars whiz by with engines roaring as 26 drivers compete for the top spot in an online tournament in Jordan, many dreaming of one day becoming real racers.

Professional racing requires not only talent, but also the support of well-established teams and sponsors that can help cover the high costs involved in acquiring and maintaining race cars.

Instead, young people in the Middle East and elsewhere who are passionate about sports have turned to a much more affordable and accessible alternative followed by millions of fans: eSports.

The dimly lit event hall in Jordan’s capital was abuzz with excitement this weekend, as Toyota Gazoo Middle East and North Africa eSports Cup racers took up positions behind the simulators, representing 13 countries in the region.

“It’s a great experience,” said the youngest competitor, Khaled Dashti, 16, from Kuwait, encouraging others to “try this kind of racing.”

Dashti said that she would love to trade computer games for the steering wheel.

“My dream is to participate in GT racing,” he said. “As these games evolve, there will be more opportunities,” she added.

– ‘Sport of the future’ –

One racer who has made the transition is Japan’s Yusuke Tomibayashi, a former eSports champion who now competes in Super GT300 races.

At the race in Amman, he said he was “surprised” to see how quickly virtual racing was taking hold in the Middle East.

There, as part of a marketing push to illustrate the link between virtual and real-life sports, he played against Karl Etyemezian of Lebanon, and lost.

Since the 1980s, virtual simulators have given gamers the chance to feel the thrill of driving a race car.

Today, Tomibayashi said the starkest difference is that virtual races can’t convey how gravity affects real-life drivers when they corner the track.

Accidents happen and teams must stop to change tires and refuel as they would in real life, except for the hazards and the smell of burning fuel and rubber.

“It’s not just the drivers who get an adrenaline rush, but also the crowd,” said Fawaz Dahdal, 28, who is watching the tournament for the second year in a row.

“It’s not just a game anymore,” he said. “It’s the sport of the future.”

The races were projected live on a big screen, accompanied by live commentary and cheers from a crowd of some 500 fans, with many more watching from home.

“eGames take up a lot of my kids’ time,” said Rana Alyan, who brought her 11-year-old son Bakr to watch the tournament. “But they only practice after they finish their homework.”

– Millions watching –

Racers in Amman were playing “Gran Turismo”, endorsed since 2018 and sponsored by the International Automobile Federation (FIA).

Nadim Haddad, head of Jordan Motorsport’s eSports department and a member of the FIA ​​eSports Commission, said the Covid lockdowns “contributed to the spread of digital gaming”.

After an organized national championship in 2020, the players moved on to a regional cup, he explained.

The first Middle Eastern cup last year drew around 13.8 million online viewers, around 70 per cent aged 18-34, according to figures shared by digital strategy firm APEX.

More than a million people watched the cup in the United Arab Emirates alone.

Applause rang out in the Amman hall as 34-year-old Omani Mohammed al-Barwani was declared the winner of this year’s tournament on Saturday, qualifying him for the world grand final.

“I didn’t expect this win,” said Barwani.

While some of his rivals had accidents, he also attributed his success to a strategy of conserving fuel and tires.

“We didn’t make any mistakes,” he said.

Barwani said his goal now is to start drifting, a motorsport that involves deliberately oversteering the car to skid, drift and spin.

“I started my journey on simulators,” he said. “If I get a change in real-life racing, I won’t miss it.”


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