Regular readers will know that racing games and motorsports are two of my favorite things. With the exception of some time in Elite: Dangerous, all of my gaming these days is done with pedals and a steering wheel. While I haven’t been able to do the real thing as often as I’d like, my team and I had a relatively good showing during a snowy weekend at Mid Ohio with the World Racing League earlier this year. But when it comes to the burgeoning sport of e-racing, I—like much of the motorsports fraternity—may be guilty of neglect.
When the likes of NPR and ESPN are routinely dissecting the topic, there’s no doubt that e-sports at large have officially become a thing. Today anyone can recognize the big names like League of Legends and Dota 2, with their huge prize purses and millions of online spectators. If you’re only a casual observer, however, racing and e-sports don’t seem to mesh in the same way.
All that’s beginning to change. Today, there are highly competitive e-racing series for a number of different games, contested by individuals as well as professional teams. And for added credence, e-racing is increasingly becoming a legitimate entry route into real-life motorsports, injecting some new life into a sport whose popularity is on the wane.
Personally, racing games absolutely helped teach me to race for real. So could real-world racing put me in good stead in an e-race? To find out, I spent the summer obsessively lapping the same track in the same car in Forza over and over again, and I spent even more hours poring over The Online Racing Association (TORA)’s regulations. TORA is the sanctioning body for the inaugural CJ Wilson Racing Cayman Cup championship, a new virtual racing competition created by a real racing team. While my calendar didn’t lend itself to competing in the full 10-round series, I could put this track-to-
touchpad-Thrustmaster experiment to the test during a single event at Watkins Glen.
Finding new fans IRL
If there’s a godfather of e-racing, it’s probably Darren Cox. Cox was working in Nissan’s marketing department in the UK when a co-promotion with Sony caused a lightbulb to go off. The promotion was a competition to win a new Nissan 350Z, with competitors facing off against each other in Gran Turismo as well as on a real track.
Cox told Ars:
After the event, one of the instructors mentioned to me that some of the guys were actually pretty good [at track driving]. Comparing their lap-times in real life versus the game showed a pretty good correlation between the two, and we started working on the idea of trying to take a good gamer and make them a racer.
By 2008, this idea matured into the Nissan Playstation GT Academy, a program that has since turned a number of gamers into professional racing drivers. Most recently, Mexican driver Johnny Guindi Hamui was crowned the 2016 GT Academy International Champion at the end of October.
Cox left Nissan in 2015. Earlier this year, he launched the first professional e-racing team, eSPORTS+CARS. That e-racing seed planted by GT Academy is bearing more and more fruit. iRacing, a PC sim with tens of thousands of subscribers, now runs several cash-paying championship series. Forza‘s first official online racing championship took place over the summer in partnership with Ford and gave away a new Focus RS to the winner; it’s now in its second season. Project CARS has its own official online leagues. Formula E has an official e-racing series (using rFactor 2) that will conclude at next year’s CES in a final race that pits 10 e-racers against all 20 Formula E drivers—with a $1 million prize purse. The upcoming installment in the Gran Turismo franchise will include online racing that’s officially sanctioned by the FIA (the governing body for world motorsports).
For car companies and racing series that back these events, the hope is these efforts will reach out to a new, younger audience that, by most accounts, is uninterested in the real sport. While series like Formula Drift and rallycross are making successful inroads into the always key youth demographic, the same can’t be said for most other forms of racing (Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, and endurance racing included). This was certainly the idea for CJ Wilson Racing with the Cayman Cup. The team’s strategic branding & PR Director Declan Brennan told me as much earlier this year:
Motorsport’s problem is that it’s struggling to develop the next generation of fans,” he said. “Ultimately we have a huge number of people out there who are of car-buying age who are fans of racing games but not racing. This is about creating a connection.
Cox feels similarly:
It’s about using a medium and set of content that people engage with to bring them back to the real world. Whether you look at F1 or NASCAR, fans are greying out, and they’re not being replaced at the back end. If you talk about the TV, that audience is declining as well.
Neither racing professional is wrong; despite billion-dollar broadcasting deals, ratings for NASCAR have been on the slide in recent years. Formula 1’s global audience is now two-thirds the size it was less than a decade ago. Here in the US, IndyCar’s past few seasons have been some of the best racing on the planet, but almost no one knows that. Its ratings may be improved on years-passed, but they’re still a rounding error compared to when the sport was in its heyday. (Worth noting, this pattern is not isolated to racing. Even the NFL is struggling to hold on to viewers these days.)
Thus far, the evidence suggests this interest-building approach will work. To coincide with this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi of America held the “Audi 24 Hours of Le Forza” in San Francisco. Twelve teams of drivers competed against each other for 24 hours, and people were decidedly interested: the race’s Twitch.tv stream got 950,000 views—three times as many as watched the start of the actual race and almost 20 times the number who watched that heartbreaking finish. (We know you can also watch the race—like we did—via the official FIAWEC streaming app; although no official ratings have been released by FIAWEC, we believe it’s unlikely that it would top 100,000.)
Ultimately sports, like plants, only grow when they have healthy roots. Fortunately, there is plenty of grassroots e-racing out there on top of these corporate efforts, presumably aided by the lower overhead of e-sports versus real-world racing. TORA is merely one example. The organization started back in 2008, and by 2010 it was officially recognized by the UK’s Motor Sport Association (the body that oversees racing in that country). Now, TORA has held competitions using a number of different racing platforms, including Forza Motorsport 6, iRacing, and Project CARS.