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Motorsports Simulation: The Closest Esports Get to the Real Thing?

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By Mark Janas, Ed.D. |

Make no mistake, esports, now a multi-billion dollar business, are here to stay. ESPN.com has a dedicated esports section. Games and matches are live streamed on various platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. There is even a pay television channel dedicated to esports.

What constitutes an “esport” is somewhat up for debate.  In the simplest terms, an esport is a video game competition that draws both participants and spectators.  Competitions may be managed solely online, or they may take place at centralized locations.

According to Newzoo, 380 million people worldwide will watch esports in 2019, the bulk of which are more than casual fans.  Most of these fans are from Asia and North America currently, but their numbers are growing across the globe.  

Esports players compete in games such as Fortnite, Overwatch, Madden football, FIFA soccer, NBA 2K basketball, and many more.The EA Madden football game franchise has earned more than $4 billion in revenue on its own over the last thirty years, selling more than 130 million copies.

There are professional esports leagues, professional gamers, and big money to be made.  Some tournaments offer millions of dollars in prize money.  Some professional gamers earn $1 million+ per year.  A teenager from Pennsylvania recently earned $3 million by winning a Fortnite tournament in New York.  

Gamers can earn money just like other professional athletes, through cash prizes, endorsement deals, sponsorships, and salaries.  Brands put up close to $700 million dollars last year to support and attach their names to esports.

There were over 500 major esports events last year alone.   Event organizers can earn millions in ticket sales, just as they did for the League of Legends tournament in 2017.  That same tournament drew more than 80 million viewers, not far from the 98 million people that watched the top media event in the United States in 2019, the Super Bowl.  

The networks are taking notice. Disney/ESPN recently announced that it would begin broadcasting matches in the Overwatch League.  (Overwatch is a popular first-person shooter game.)

Job growth in the esports market has been strong as well, with job opportunities up 185% in first half of 2019.  If that growth continues over the next two to three years, there will be more jobs in esports than high school athletic director positions in the United States.

There are even colleges now that offer minors, majors, and certificates in esports-related subjects (though very few are in the U.S. currently), and there have been efforts to organize a central governing body for esports from groups such as the World Esports Association (WESA), founded in 2016.  From WESA website:

WESA’s vision is to create an authentic framework to support and amplify sustainable growth of esports, based on the shared values of fairness, transparency, and integrity and sharing that growth between the players, teams and leagues. 

Esports that Simulate the Real Thing

In addition to the game titles mentioned earlier, esports can include simulation games that, just as the words imply, “simulate” other sports such as cycling, rowing, running, golf, or motorsports racing.

Cycling simulation, more commonly known as “virtual riding” is accomplished using a smart bike, smart trainer, or power meter pedals that transfer and translate speed data via BlueTooth or other protocol to a computer or mobile device.  Speed is calculated based on the riders entered weight, elevation changes, and other course variables.   The cyclist (along with his or her bike) is typically presented riding the virtual terrain in the game from a “chase cam” view. The harder the cyclist pedals, the faster they move in the game. 

Zwift is among the most popular of the virtual cycling platforms, boasting hundreds of miles of courses all over the world, including routes in London, New York, Innsbruck, Richmond, and other locations.  Cyclists can ride the chosen route on demand or can participate in any of the many races hosted throughout the day.  The Zwift platform even allows drafting and will soon offer the ability to steer in a pending update. 

Zwift can also support “virtual running,” typically done on a treadmill with the pace calculated using a wireless, calibrated foot pod or directly by treadmill data.   Zwift charges a $15 per month a subscription fee.  The required hardware costs anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, excluding the computer and/or mobile device. Similar platforms exist for indoor rowing machines (also known as erogometers), such as those supported by Concept2 and WaterRower.

There are also a variety of golf simulator programs that can take input from peripheral hardware and sensors and translate that input into the ball speed, direction, and trajectory of a shot inside the game.   These games can be played on a console or pc and can cost a few hundred dollars to over twenty thousand dollars.

The rowing, cycling, running, and golf simulator platforms, however, might fall short of what many consider to be esports simply because these platforms do not draw spectators like the other games, at least not yet.   And, although some do offer competitions with live streams, they are often positioned as training or fitness platforms rather than as esports games.

Sim Racing

Motorsport simulation games (also known as “sim racing”), however, might be the exception.  Unlike the other simulation games, sim racing is often done on the same platforms as the most popular esports.

In terms of numbers of users and unit sales, sim racing games are by far the most widely played sports simulation games.  And, assuming a steering wheel and pedal set are used (rather than a standard game controller), sim racing games come much closer to replicating the real sporting experience.  

Rather than using a standard controller to initiate player movements, sim racing utilizes the same wheel and pedal motions that are used in real cars.  The reaction times required to navigate turns, obstacles, and other cars are the equivalent to those required in a real car and on a real track at the equivalent speed.  It can be very close approximation to the real thing, minus the danger of crashing.

Contrast that with other sports games such as Madden, NBA 2K, or FIFA where a controller is used to move players and initiate actions on the screen.  For example, shooting the basketball in the NBA 2K game doesn’t require a real shooting motion, but rather just a press of the square button.

Sim racers can invest in more expensive equipment if they want an even more realistic feel.  Most sim racers use a “force feedback” wheel that, through the use of electric motors, allows the driver to feel bumps, turns, and contact with other cars.  Makers of these wheels include companies like Logitech, Thrustmaster, Fanatec, and SimCube.   The wheels range in price from $300 to $2000 or more.

Full “motion simulation” can also be added that will move the entire seat or driving platform consistent with the motion of real car being driven under game scenarios.  Motion simulators can cost anywhere from a few thousand to $20,000 or more.  That sounds expensive, but it might only be a small fraction of what an amateur racecar driver spends to support his or her driving habit.

Sim racing titles include:  GT Sport, Project CARS, Assetta Corsa, Dirt Rally, iRacing, Forza, F1, NASCAR, Need for Speed, and more.   These games can be played on consoles such as Xbox or PlayStation or on a gaming pc.  The graphics are so realistic with most of the games that it can be difficult to tell the difference between a real camera view inside a car vs. the game display.

How Real is Sim Racing?

How realistic is the sim racing experience?   The evidence suggests that the answer is very realistic.  Many amateur weekend racers are parking or selling their cars and diving full force into sim racing.  The reasons are a simple.  Even with top end equipment sim racing is a much cheaper hobby.  It’s a lot safer and can be done anytime the driver has a few free minutes.  

But that’s not to say a driver has to choose between real racing and sim racing. Professional drivers today often spend more time in simulators than on the track.  It saves fuel, as well as wear and tear on cars.  Track time can be expensive too.   Spending some time in a simulator can help a driver learn every nook and cranny on a track before any real rubber hits the pavement.

Many, if not most, sim racetracks are based on real tracks, typically some of the most famous tracks in the world.  The most popular sim platforms utilize 3D laser-scanned tracks.  That technology measures reflected laser light with a sensor that can create digital 3D representations of tracks, some down to the resolution of just a few millimeters.

Drivers can configure everything imaginable on their cars on many sim platforms, from tire compounds, ride heights, gear ratios, to the most intricate suspension settings.  It’s a gearhead’s dream, even if completely virtual.

Drivers often take pains to match their “field of view” or FOV to that of a real racecar, and they make the detailed measurements to match the internal seating geometry to that of the type of car being driven. If a virtual reality (VR) headset, such Oculus Rift, is added to the mix the experience becomes even more immersive.

Some drivers even change their steering wheels based on their chosen virtual car.  For example, a traditional round wheel is used for GT cars, whereas the “airplane-style” steering wheel might be used when driving formula cars.

Crossing Over from Sim Racing to the Track

Still not convinced sim racing is that close to the real thing? Here’s a recent headline from Futurism.com:

A Guy Trained on Video Games Just Beat a Formula 1 Driver on a Real Track

Virtual racing can teach you how to race just as well as in the real-world.

From the article:

Video games and simulators are getting pretty realistic — a video game pro beat a former Formula 1 driver in a race this weekend, without decades of real-world racing experience.  In a shocking victory that left commentators speechless, 23-year-old Enzo Bonito beat Lucas di Grassi, a Formula E and ex-Formula 1 driver on a winding race track in Mexico on Jan. 19. Why does it matter? Because Bonito cut his teeth in esports, the nascent world of competitors who play video games for prizes.

Need more evidence? Contracts to drive real racecars have been awarded to gamers that have come through the sim racing ranks.  From Ringer.com:

How ‘Gran Turismo’ Became a Gateway to Real-Life Racing

Twenty years after its initial release, the franchise billed as “the real driving simulator” is helping gamers move to the driver’s seat.  Jann Mardenborough won the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy competition in 2011, earning the chance to take part in professional racing. Backed by Nissan, he has since competed extensively in sports car racing and completed one season in single seaters; he’s finished with a class podium at the Le Mans 24 Hours and as runner-up in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.

The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile or FIA, the international governing body for world motor sport, has taken notice.  Founded in 1904, FIA brings together 240 national motoring and sporting organizations from 144 countries on five continents.  FIA now has its own digital motorsport section, attempting to stake some claim as a governing body for sim racing.  FIA recently sponsored and partnered with Gran Turismo for its “GT world tour” in Paris in 2019.

Formula E, FIA’s electric racecar circuit, has even promoted its own virtual race game that gives fans the opportunity to race in real time against professional drivers during a real race.  From the Formula E website:

FORMULA E LIVE GHOST RACING

Real-time virtual racing from Formula E and Virtually Live, which pitches you against the entire ABB FIA Formula E Championship grid

Sim Racing: Growth Potential as an Esport

Sim racing as an esport might not yet be drawing the numbers of spectators that Fortnite or Overwatch competitions have, but the potential is there.  FIA support, the existing racing fan base, and the shear numbers of sim racers provide that potential.

Claiming over 10 million users, Gran Turismo is among the most popular platforms.   The subscription-based racing simulator, iRacing.com, caters to the most hardcore enthusiasts and boasts over 50,000 active subscriptions.  Per Fandom.com, total franchise sales for sim racing games exceed 500 million units, creating a huge base from which to build. 

Many of the sim racing platforms offer online races against other real drivers nearly on demand.  Some drivers provide their own live streams of events, if they are not streamed by another channel.

There are race teams, point series, and competitions for all types of SIM racing. 

There are official international rankings that include teams from Mercedes, Lexus, McLaren, and other motorsport brands.  The prize money in sim racing is growing. iRacing announced plans to pay out $300,000 in cash prizes in 2019 over six professional racing divisions comprised of the world’s best sim racers.

In a recent interview published at racingnews.co, Dave Kaemmer, founder of iRacing.com said:

This is exactly what we envisioned we would be doing when we launched iRacing in 2008 – create the most competitive and authentic racing simulation. We have serious prize money for all of these World Championship series now. eSports are here to stay and the commitment from iRacing and our amazing partners shows we are in it for the long haul.

Other sim racing platforms, such as Project CARS 2 and Forza, are also getting in on the esports action.  Earlier this year Project CARS 2 offered competitions in North America, Europe, and Asia.  The drivers were given the chance to join McLaren’s official esports team, as well as the chance to earn other cash prizes and awards.  Microsoft recently provided $250,000 in prize money for a competition based on the Forza sim racing platform.

One recent event in Las Vegas even pitted professional Formula E drivers against some of the world’s best sim racers for a share of a $1 million prize pool. The winner earned himself $225,000 and a chance to drive a real Formula E car. 

Professional racecar drivers are beginning to get into the literal game too.  Recently, two-time Formula One champion, Fernando Alonso, formed a new sim racing team, FA Racing G2, with the existing G2 esports team.

Motorsport + Esport = Sense

It makes sense for motorsport to embrace esports. Race organizers and team managers, as well as the governing bodies can use sim racing platforms to test new formats, rules, and safety features.  And, because of the similarities to real driving, sim racing can provide a fertile recruiting ground for professional racecar drivers.  Perhaps most importantly for the sport of racing, tens of millions of sim racers equals an opportunity to increase the overall interest in motorsport. 

So, does all of this mean that sim racing is the closest that an esport gets to the real thing?  If the criteria include the need for the same motor skills and reaction times, interest by a large number of players, the ability (or potential ability) to attract spectators and sponsors, and support from the real sport community, then the answer is most certainly yes, with perhaps no close seconds.

Links:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/27/us/esports-what-is-video-game-professional-league-madden-trnd/index.html

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-28/teen-wins-3-million-prize-in-first-fortnite-world-cup-tourney

https://www.su.edu/esports/esports-management/

https://www.Zwift.com

https://www.concept2.com

https://www.waterrower.com

https://esportsinsider.com/2019/07/esports-jobs-growth-2019/

https://futurism.com/sim-racing-virtual-motorsport-beat-formula1

HTTPS://WWW.THERINGER.COM/2018/7/11/17560256/GRAN-TURISMO-ACADEMY-PLAYSTATION-98-VIDEO-GAMES

https://arstechnica.com/cars/2017/11/the-mclaren-formula-1-team-just-hired-the-worlds-fastest-gamer/

https://ginx.tv/esports/is-sim-racing-an-esport/

https://www.autosport.com/esports/feature/8774/how-fia-esports-interest-could-change-motorsport

Mark Janas, BS, MBA, EdD is an amateur endurance athlete and founder of In3 Investments, LLC, a technology and business development firm based in Raleigh, N.C. with holdings in several sport-related businesses. Dr. Janas also teaches in the Sport Management program at Saint Augustine’s University. He earned his doctorate in sports management from the United States Sports Academy.

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