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  • Peter MacKay

Esports : Motor racing for all

In recent years, “E-sports” has sparked a revolution in the motor racing industry. Participation in virtual motor sport is growing rapidly and, as a result, a relative increase in respect from the old guard of the motorsport industry has been achieved. Top E sport personalities command huge adulation via their multi-million view YouTube channels and cash in six figure sums in the process. All ten Formula 1 teams have their own dedicated E Sports division, undoubtedly helped by the forward thinking of Liberty Media since their acquisition of the world’s premier motorsport.

In 2019, each Formula 1 team’s E-Sport division will select two drivers in a draft process to represent them in a virtual world championship. Last year, 5.5 million people logged in to watch the event with the chosen gamers competing for a prize fund of $200,000. In 2019, this prize fund will increase to $500,000. Back in the real world, a driver’s prize fund is a very alien concept indeed. For a gentleman driver, wishing to compete in any real life, International GT series, they won’t see much change from £1,000,000 for a year’s racing.

Although E-Sports has only recently sent such a shockwave through the motor racing world, competitive virtual motor racing has been around for generations and has played a very significant role in cultivating fan interest over the years. As a child, attending friend’s birthday parties at the local bowling alley, was a chore. Rescue only came in the form of the Sega Rally arcade machine, sitting unoccupied in the corner. Slotting in a £1 coin into the machine, selecting my favourite WRC steed and then driving flat out on the stages like a reincarnated virtual Ari Vatanen, cemented my love of rallying for ever. Leaving that arrogant class mate you never really liked for dust, at the wheel of a virtual Martini liveried, Lancia Delta Integrale, was the most tremendous feeling. Visits to the local swimming pool for my weekly lesson, were brightened up immeasurably by the short lived tenure of an arcade driving game where the Le Mans legend of the time, the Mclaren F1 GTR, could be pitched into never ending, heroic power slides.

Two of the foremost examples of motorsport going mainstream in the UK, via video games, were the British Touring Car Championship and Colin McRae in the WRC, all the way back in the 1990’s. When Colin McRae tragically died in 2007, many people around the world were not aware that he was in fact a human being, rather than a video game character. In many ways, Colin was the perfect subject for a video game, so superhuman were his exploits behind the wheel. World class developers, Codemasters, produced a series of games which played a starring role in creating the Colin McRae legend that lives on to this day.

TOCA touring cars, the official game of the BTCC, was launched in 1997. Release of the smash hit game coincided with the meteoric rise in popularity of the BTCC and undoubtedly help grow the sports fan base. Back in the late 90’s, families would marvel at the scenes of Jason Plato and Alain Menu bumping and barging each other in their Williams built Renault Lagunas, live on BBC Sunday Grandstand. Then, as the real life race concluded, the Playstation would be switched on, as Dad feebly attempted to stay on the same lap as his speedy offspring, on the TOCA touring cars game.

Even more light hearted forms of E-Sport motor racing, like Nintendo Wii wireless steering wheels for Mario Kart, have played their own part in young fans being bitten by the racing bug. Who wouldn’t get a kick out of stealing a win from an older sibling or Uncle Brian, with a well-timed deployment of a destructive red shell?

In 2008, Nissan and the developer of the all-time classic racing game series, Gran Turismo, laid the foundations for the significance and respect that E Sports now holds today. Championed by Darren Cox, gamers were invited to enter qualifying events, hosted online on the Gran Turismo 5 video game. Cox, with the backing of the Japanese giants, set out to prove that the world’s fastest virtual racers, would be able to progress to racing in the real world. Without a doubt, he succeeded. 2011 winner, Jann Mardenborough, competed at Le Mans in the LMP1 top category in 2015 and has raced at the top level, professionally, all over the world. In 2019, Mardenborough is racing in the highly competitive Super GT series in Japan. NISMO, the tuning division of the Japanese automotive giant, employ Mardenborough as one of their factory drivers. Following a troubled attempt to take a radical front wheel drive, Nissan LMP1 to Le Mans, Cox has gone on to be an ambassador for E-Sports and one of the most influential figures in this rapidly growing industry. Many of the old guard in motor racing will have scoffed at the ambitious project but unquestionably the GT Academy had proven the relevance of what we know today as “E-Sports”. Some may say that the GT Academy was simply a clever marketing exercise for both Nissan and Sony and nothing more. I see it much differently; GT Academy was the genesis of the E-Sports racing world. The legacy of this programme has opened up the opportunity for millions of people to become involved in motorsport. Cynically dismissing this participation as “only virtual”, would be missing the point entirely.

In the last 5 years, the gap between virtual racing and real world racing, has closed at a relentless pace. Creating a surprisingly realistic driving experience, via a video games console in your own home, has never been more accessible. A racing seat, on a supportive frame, with pedals and steering wheel, with the latest games console to plug into, can easily be acquired for under £1000. Favourite titles, Sony’s Gran Turismo and Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport, have been developed through various editions for nearly two decades and have massive online communities. Top motor racing video game titles boast endless selections of painstakingly modelled cars which look, sound and drive in a fashion that would convert most E Sport cynics. Has a Porsche 919 Hybrid ever been driven flat out at Laguna Seca? No but through the medium of E sport, this can be simulated at the touch of a button. For the e sport racer who wishes to create an even more immersive experience, a sophisticated, Fanatec “direct drive” steering wheel and a powerful PC, close the gap to reality even closer still. A set up of this standard, linked to simulator titles like iRacing and Assetto Corsa, deliver a level of authenticity endorsed by the very best racing drivers in the world. Motor racing stars like factory sports car drivers, Nick Tandy and Nicki Thiim and F1 superstars, Lando Norris and Max Verstappen all advocate simulator games like iracing. It is not unheard of to find yourself on track with drivers of this level while logged in. Just think of that reality for a second, the opportunity to race head to head, with world class professional drivers. In the real world, this really would be a money can’t buy experience. With e sports, the opportunity exists in your own home, all for less than the cost of attending an F1 weekend abroad.

For the more casual gamer, who doesn’t have 8 hours a day to shave milliseconds from their lap times, there is plentiful opportunity to take part in competitive virtual motor sport. Every day, hundreds of thousands of gamers, will race wheel to wheel in online competition. With such a wide pool of participants, it is not necessary to be confined to pre-arranged start times. Within 5 minutes of switching on their machine, virtual racers can be flat out down the conrod straight at Bathurst, at 180 miles per hour in a Rothmans Porsche 962, dicing wheel to wheel with an adversary on the other side of the world, in a Mazda 787B.

E sports racing technology will relentlessly develop, become more advanced and produce an even more authentic experience. As a result of this, the significance of E Sports to fan recruitment and engagement in real world motorsport, will continue to increase at the same pace. Real world racing series, circuits, teams and manufacturers all have bountiful opportunity to benefit from E Sports, if they jump on the express train in time. If this new wave of participation in virtual racing is embraced, real world motor racing can benefit significantly.

Organisers of the Le Mans 24hr, the ACO, partnered with popular title, Forza Motorsport, to create an officially sanctioned Le Mans E Sports series. In 2019, twenty thousand competitors entered a series of qualifiers, resulting in 36 finalists reaching the final at the Le Mans 24 hour race. E Sport team, Veloce, won the competition following a series of races across the entire running of the real world 24 hour race, that was unfolding outside the arena. Over one million people viewed video coverage of the event, many of which will have be engaged in the real world event for the first time, as a result of its virtual counterpart.

For 99% of motorsport fans, participating for real, rather than watching from the grandstand, will remain an unfathomable dream. E Sports motor racing, provides the next best thing. As ever more sophisticated and accessible equipment becomes available, the thought of never taking to a grid for real becomes a lot easier to stomach for die-hard fans of our sport. E sport in motor racing is no flash in the pan, it will remain a consistent thread in the tapestry of the rapidly changing motor racing industry.

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