Photos courtesy of Microsoft, Sony (SCEA), and Codemasters
Many reading this have probably had dreams of becoming a professional racer at some point in their lives. It's one of those daydreams that comes with being a gearhead. Though historically speaking, becoming a driver in a top tier pro series has always been a long, tough, and very expensive road.
That desire to reach the top echelon of motorsports is one of the factors I think contributed to the evolution of racing games from being physics-defying, arcade-like experiences into the hardcore, racing simulator games we know today. The likes of Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo, iRacing, and Assetto Corsa are all representative of that.
While those games are more than enough to keep most of us satisfied, over the last few years a major shift has happened. As racing games became more realistic, racing game developers and fans began to bridge a gap between simulator racing and the real thing.
Back in 2010, the term "eSports" was reserved for competitive shooter games like Halo and Call of Duty. Massive tournaments and leagues were set up for the best players of those games with, in some cases, millions of dollars on the line.
Hardcore racing game players and developers started to look at this model and think, "Why not us?"
It started with Forza Motorsport when they launched the Forza Racing Championship (Forza RC) back in 2016. Unlike the GT Academy, the Forza RC was not about earning a real ride in a real race car. Instead, the Forza RC's focus was simply to find the best Forza player in the world. Registration was opened to everyone who owned Forza Motorsport and eventually teams formed as the best players worked their way through a tournament format until the best of the best rose to the top. From there, those players went on to an invitational event where a world champion was crowned.
Forza RC is going into its second year and has grown exponentially since its beginnings, with major tournaments being broadcast live to thousands of people via Mixer, Microsoft's own streaming service.
Not to be outdone, the following year Polyphony Digital started the "Gran Turismo Championship." However, they went one step further by having their eSports league sanctioned by the FIA. In fact, in Gran Turismo Sport players can even qualify for a "FIA Gran Turismo Digital License," which is a real FIA license by the way. There is even a "Nations Cup" and a "Manufacturer's Cup" within the championships. It may be too early to tell, but I wouldn't be surprised if teams from other FIA-sanctioned series started looking over the pool of talent in the GT Championship for a potential driver.
Soon after Forza RC and the GT Championship made their splash, Codemasters jumped into the mix and set up an eSports league connected to their officially sanctioned F1 racing game. The Formula 1 eSports Series has the unique position in that real Formula 1 race teams are involved. Currently HAAS F1, AMG Petronas, Sauber Alfa Romeo, Red Bull Racing, Toro Rosso, Mclaren, Renault, Williams, and Force India are all fielding teams in the series. Ferrari is the only team that hasn't joined in but I predict that will likely change in the near future. Ironically, the F1 eSports series does not offer a digital FIA license as in the GT Championships (though that is another thing that I think may change soon).
While the F1 eSports series doesn't have prizes as rich as the other two aforementioned series, what it does have is a golden opportunity for top-tier players to get eyes on them from actual F1 teams. A price just can't be put on that kind of proximity to F1 talent hunters. In fact, the F1 teams involved actually hold a draft to recruit players to their respective eSports series teams!
It should also be noted that sponsorships play a big part in racing eSports. Though unlike traditional motorsports in which sponsor logos are placed on a race car, in eSports sponsorship it is all about the individual athlete or team. Due to the large (and growing) audience that eSports attracts, it is highly attractive to sponsors that a notable athlete or team can stand to bring in a lucrative income if they get enough eyes on them. In fact, eSports teams are starting to be seen as something of an investment and major sports celebs are starting to get involved. For example, now retired F1 driver Fernando Alonso purchased a large stake in G2 Esports, one of the biggest eSports teams in the world.
Besides sponsorships eSports teams and players can earn money via product endorsement deals and merchandising (apparel, etc.).
So what does the rise of these eSports racing series and the popularity of it's drivers mean for the future of motorsports as a whole? Will eSports supplant feeder series like Indy Lights and Formula 3 as the new place to find budding racing talent? Possibly. At the very least teams will start looking a lot harder at eSports racers.
According to Lee Mather, game director at Codemasters for their F1 games, it's only a matter of time. "There's no doubt that the driving skills transfer over effectively, and we've already seen gamers transition into real motorsport. The gap between the virtual world and the real world is closing fast" said Mather.
If he is right, could we potentially see a future in which virtual racing supplants the real thing altogether? Personally, I don't think so. I think what will happen is a revolution of the path into motorsports. Ten years from now a kid won't need a go-kart and parents willing to take out extra mortgages on their house to fund their child's path to Formula 1, IndyCar, or Le Mans. Instead they'll just need the latest video game console (or gaming PC) and a lot of dedication.