Published on April 3rd, 2020 📆 | 7636 Views ⚑0
Real-world racing is on pause: Does esports fill the gap?
When it comes to sports, 2020 is going to be one of those asterisk years, like 1919. People years from now will scroll down the page to a note explaining that “*normal stuff was supposed to happen, but then we had a pandemic instead.” The Summer Olympics are being postponed for a year, and pretty much every major sports series is on hold as organizers anxiously wait to see if public gatherings can happen once more later in the year.
Motorsports is no exception, and its prospects are bleak when you consider what collapsing sales will do to marketing budgets. But while the pandemic rages, drivers, teams, and series are coming together online to put on a show for the rest of us. Or as NASCAR’s Scott Warfield puts it, to give people “a distraction for 90 minutes, two hours on a Sunday and return some sense of normality to their lives.”
The move from real-world to online racing really took off in mid-March, over the weekend that should have seen F1 start its year with the Australian Grand Prix. The first events to draw big audiences were put on by esports organizers. By week two, big racing series like F1 and IMSA were starting to get in on the act. These days every real-world series has an esports league, so none of them is exactly a stranger to the concept. But NASCAR was the first to elevate its esports to broadcast TV with the start of its iRacing Pro Invitational series. It’s also leading the pack when it comes to giving fans something approaching normality.
“Our content team was wondering, after we have gone through the archives and put up every old 1980s and ’90s and 2000s race, what are we going to do for the next eight weeks? Well, now here’s Jeff Gordon calling the race; here’s Dale Earnhardt Jr racing against Clint Boyer, which people have been clamoring for. You’ve got Sportscenter reaching out wanting drivers to come on Sunday morning and do a pre-race interview… That is hard to replicate. You know, it’s our 11th year with iRacing and we’ve had a decade to build and partner and make this thing real,” Warfield told me. That’s paying off—NASCAR’s production values are high, as are its ratings.
So far, the other major professional real-world racing series are adapting to social isolation a little more slowly. F1 has started its own series of Virtual Grands Prix, using the excellent F1 2019 game from Codemasters. But the sport has been less successful than most when it comes to getting its real-world stars involved and even allows competitors—which included names from other sports like cycling and golf for the first event—to use driver aids in its races, which also feature reduced damage.
IndyCar has been the last to join the fray, and I think it deserves a special mention here. There’s no studio broadcast here; Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Paul Tracy are still calling the races, but quite obviously each from their own home. Somehow getting a bunch of presenters together in one place to call the action seems very pre-pandemic to me.
People are playing together
Plenty of professional race car drivers turn to sim racing for the same reason as you or I—it’s fun as well as good practice for the real thing—and so it wasn’t too hard for Darren Cox and Torque Esports to put together a grid that included some big names from series like F1 and IndyCar to race alongside esports pros. Some of the younger real-world race car drivers like Max Verstappen and Lando Norris even race for professional esports teams alongside their better-paying normal jobs and are therefore able to hold their own against the sim pros, who spend an awful lot of time practicing. “The issue is these aliens—they just grind it out, right? You give them the car the day before and they’ll do 24 hours’ practice, whereas the real drivers will do a couple of hours and then they’re done,” Cox told me. (And yes, I’m pretty sure he did call the rFactor 2 experts “aliens”—at least that’s what the tape says.)
Getting the participation of real-world racing pros is only getting easier, which is probably a good thing for growing the esports audience. Warfield thinks the fear of feeling left out will draw recalcitrant or skeptical racers online, and the fear of being beaten (plus, let’s face it, a lot of free time) will get real-world pros to up their game. “These guys and gals at their core are racers, and they’re competitive as hell. And they don’t like losing. The kid that won our Coca Cola iRacing series race at virtual Miami-Homestead Speedway—he did 1,000 practice laps at Homestead.”
Perhaps most encouragingly, so far everyone appears happy to play together, and apart from the occasional scheduling snafu that sees two races happening simultaneously, no one is locking drivers into exclusive leagues. “If you start talking about contracts, then you decide to take the fun out of it. When those guys want to go run open-wheel or a dirt track or anything else, as long as that allows our fans to engage with it as well, that’s fantastic,” said Warfield.
“We put all rivalries aside, [saying] “right, this is for the best of the sport,” and our hope is that there’s not a land grab from other people that upsets the equilibrium of a community that’s been around 20 years,” Cox told me.
It’s not about how fancy your rig is, it’s what you do with it
The move online has seen a bit of a scramble for sim rigs, some fancier than others. Our friends at CXC Simulations, which builds extremely high-end sim racing rigs, has been pretty busy. Classified as an essential business because of its military contracts, it’s still operating, although on split shifts. “Our sales department has been very busy with interest in new simulators as well as our Certified Pre-Owned simulators, and our customer service department has been tremendously busy. We have a lot of customers who are now becoming very active and using their simulators not only as a training tool, but also to compete in organized sim races. So we have a lot of demand, but we are somewhat limited in how quickly we can manufacture and ship new simulators,” CXC boss Chris Considine told Ars.
Considine is also happy just to share his knowledge with people building their own setups. “I’ve been fielding a ton of phone calls and emails, not only from people interested in our simulators, but people who might not be in the market for one of our machines but want some guidance on what kind of components they need to build one for themselves at home. I’m happy to share what I know because I want them to have an enjoyable sim experience and continue to utilize platforms like iRacing for a long time,” he told me by email.
Drivers haven’t been shy in showing off their setups on social media, but unlike in the real world, esports really is much more about the driver than their equipment. Timmy Hill, winner of last weekend’s NASCAR Pro Invitational at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway, did so with a decade-old Logitech G27. And Ross Chastain beat Jimmy Johnson from an even more ad-hoc setup, including what looks like a slightly rusty garden chair. One racer is an exception to that rule—IndyCar’s Robert Wickens, who was paralyzed after a crash in 2018. Wickens is determined to get back into the cockpit for real and has made amazing strides when it comes to walking again but needs to use a specially modified Fanatec wheel when he rejoins IndyCar’s virtual series at a virtual Barber Motorsport Park on April 4.
The mastermind @maxpapis of @MPI_INNOVATIONS built the wheel in a race against the clock to ship before 6pm last night! Here is what the finished product looked like. I can’t wait to try it out soon. pic.twitter.com/j7ZKvdZFf3
— Robert Wickens (@robertwickens) March 28, 2020
Is it what the fans want?
So the drivers are making the most of the situation, but does that translate to fan enjoyment? Posing the question on Twitter drew a few replies. The locked-down car setups in most series were a turnoff for people like Racecar Engineering’s Sam Collins. On the other hand, the freedom to set up your car how you like in IMSA’s Super Sebring race, and the consequent work by BMW’s racing engineers to help out their sim drivers, was praised by Design News’ Dan Carney. People also praised the sense of normalcy we got from IMSA Radio’s crew of John Hindaugh et al., and suggested that F1’s virtual Grand Prix “was the most F1 way to handle F1 esports.“
I’ll leave the last word to Will MacFarland, not least because he took the time to write me a lengthy email after watching one of the Porsche Club of America’s sim races
I will probably watch some more synthetic racing, but only the highest-level stuff. I also get to wondering about who is using what hardware, and who is connecting with what ISP. I think it could be interesting to drill down into who’s using, say, Gigabyte hardware versus who’s using MSi hardware, or who’s connecting with Mediacom versus who’s got AT&T. The “credit to my sponsors” part of the post-race interviews would be even more amusing than usual,” MacFarland wrote.