Life without sport is becoming a new reality for people across the globe, with one high profile event after another put on hold.

The Olympics, the Premier League, every sport from archery to yachting, and all in between, wiped out. All an increasingly distant memory with no resumption date in sight.

However, amid the cancellations and postponements there is one sport that is thriving, attracting participants like never before.

ESports is the new activity for our new isolated world. Sitting in solitary confinement in front of a computer screen, projecting your real world sporting skills into a virtual environment.

It is a realm that Jon Armstrong has mastered. The Kesh rally driver used his eSports talent to win the 2018 eSports World Rally Championship title, and that has opened up a new world of opportunity for him with the former Kesh resident now working as a computer game developer as part of the Codemasters team that created Dirt Rally.

With real world sport shutting down around us, the virtual world has attracted a brand new audience with motorsport stars switching their car seats for computer screens.

Formula 1 have announced they are hosting an eSports Virtual Grand Prix series, with some current F1 drivers competing alongside a number of other celebrities, NASCAR has launched the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series and Jon got in on the act by entering last weekend’s Azores Virtual Rallye which replaced the real life version of the event that was scheduled to be a round of the European Rally Championship.

Jon was one of over 1,400 participants in the event which features 12 special stages on the Dirt Rally 2.0 game, each stage selected for their similarity to the roads on the volcanic island off the coast of Portugal.

After over an hour’s driving Jon finished second overall, just 13 seconds off the overall winner. It was his second top five finish of the week, having earlier participated in an eSports event hosted by former world rally champion Petter Solberg and his son Oliver.

“It’s the only sport that is going on now and it’s great for the growth of eSports,” Jon admitted. “With the coronavirus going on, you are seeing a lot of real life drivers playing on sim racing. Max Verstappen and Lando Norris were doing streams online, and there is a lot of rally drivers on Dirt Rally now and we have set up a couple of clubs for real drivers to rally against each other.”

Jon’s employment in the games industry is the continuation of a lifelong relationship with rallying games. He got his first Colin McRae Rally game for the PlayStation when he was just five years old, and a few years later upgraded from a controller to a steering wheel as he branched into a variety of simulation and track racing games.

At 13 years of age Jon got behind the wheel of a real car for the first time to compete in specially designed off road rally sprints and gaming took a back seat as he tried to forge a path for himself in real life rallying. As he rose through the ranks the spiralling costs of competing forced him back towards the virtual world, eventually leading to a career in gaming.

“Whenever I was coming to the end of school in sixth year I did consider going to university for game development or graphic design or something along those lines, so it was something I was considering and interested in doing,” he revealed.

“I didn’t go to university in the end and went and did my own thing and did rallying. Whenever the budget dried up for that I turned my attention back to sim racing and I was playing a lot just for enjoyment. I was self-employed at home doing window tinting. I had four or five contracts for used car dealerships and did some private work as well, but it was a bit repetitive and I was looking to do something different.”

Jon had already built up some useful connections in the gaming industry and their desire to get feedback from real life rally drivers opened more doors for him.

“I got the opportunity to come in and help the physics guys as a trial run for a few days,” he revealed. “That went nowhere at that stage but at the start of 2018 a guy from Codemasters was leaving the company and they wanted to fill the gap he was leaving behind because he had a good knowledge of rallying. That is where it all started. He was challenged with finding individuals to replace him, so he approached me to come in and bring my sim racing and real life rally knowledge to the studio.

“There really isn’t anyone in there that is a diehard rally fan. They become interested when they take the job, but they are normal people from all walks of life, and they have studied coding or 3D design and have moved into the game industry. That’s why it’s important to have someone in there that has a lot of motorsport knowledge and when we all work together we put some good ideas together.”

The move involved leaving Fermanagh to live in England, and Jon had to think hard before accepting their offer.

“I went over for a formal interview but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to take it. I had never really been away from home before and I had a girlfriend in Ireland and it was a big step to go and live somewhere else. I was 50-50 if I was going to go but my mum said to go and try it for a year as I would regret it if I turned it down.”

Jon made the decision to take the leap into the unknown, and since accepting the post he has loved every minute of his new career.

“Every day is different,” he said. “Now my role is a games designer so basically my team’s job is to design what cars are going to be in the game, what tracks, what features, what game modes. It is a lot of design work and writing up what we want to see in the game. We work with all the other departments to make sure what we design all comes together. I work with the software they have for placing the co-driver calls throughout the tracks. I do some of the work with placing the logos on the cars, some days I will do demo runs of me going flat out through a stage and they can use that then to make their promotional videos. I could be setting benchmark lap times so they can set up the artificial competitors for Dirt Rally.

“I drive as quickly as I can and they use that data and times to determine how fast the computers are going to be. If you are driving on the hardest level in the game then you are probably driving against me. There is not two days that are the same for me. I am always doing something different and learning something new.”

Given Jon’s influence behind the scenes of Dirt Rally local rally fans were hoping to see some Irish stages like Knockalla or Molls Gap make an appearance in future releases of the game, and Jon admits that is something he would love to introduce into future projects.

“I was pushing to try to get something like that into this game but the development is nearly completed now with that game,” he said. “We do base our stages on real life locations and we will send a team to go and drive the stage. They will take as many references as they can, take a video, take photographs of hot spots we want to detail like buildings or an environmental asset like a type of tree. We also use satellite data to reference what they are making and we have level designers who make the stage and everything physical like the road, the sides of the road, the surrounding terrain, and then we have the environment team who plant all the trees.

“We have a lighting department as well looking at giving it different weather conditions and different times of the day. It takes a lot of human resources to put it all together and get to what we come out with. For example it takes three months to make one car so it is a lengthy process. It is one of the things I was surprised about when I started working in the company.”

In the real world, Jon still has hopes of completing the Junior World Rally Championship this season, although even if the series is resumed Jon is aware that the financial situation and the willingness of sponsors to back his title charge may be a casualty of current circumstances.

At least he knows that if his rallying dreams do not come true, he always his dream job as a back-up.

“Sometimes I just check myself and realise how lucky I am to be in this position. I really enjoy it and I’m looking to continue working on games and make the best games possible.”


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