Flying under the radar – why aren’t motorsport racing games big in esports

There’s something about the electronic racing world which seems to miss not only the mass media (as lots of esports events do) but also the esports market. Why?

Before I go into all the whys, whos, hows and what nexts, let’s look at a couple of big things which flew under the esports radar. How do I know they flew under the radar? I spoke to lots of esports professionals about it, and they had no clue some of these existed. So, here’s fairly large things which went unnoticed.

Fernando Alonso buys into esports

Okay, so this is HUGE. You have a hot shot, two-time Formula 1 World Champion buying into esports. I get why the majority of mainstream media missed this one – just read one of my previous articles on how motorsport winners are seldom talked about – but why didn’t all the esports publications talk about it? This news only appeared on motorsport websites and one or two tech sites.

Here’s the low down. Fernando Alonso is a driver for McLaren and has a net worth of over $220 million USD. According to Bankrate, he’s the second richest driver in F1 behind Michael Schumacher – mind you this was 2015 so the standings have changed a little since then. Fast forward to 2018, and he’s still on the Forbes list of the world’s richest athletes. He’s worth a truck load of money, which he can use to promote esports as well as motorsport.

Alonso partnered with Logitech to launch The FA Racing G2 Logitech G team. It sure is a mouthful, but those words come with some nice weight. Alonso said this move was a no-brainer, as “every Formula 1 driver is a gamer at heart”*, where the drivers are often practising their skills in racing games. Even Max Verstappen carries around an XBOX so he can play FIFA whilst travelling! Pretty cool right?

Alonso’s esports team bring a few big companies together (Image credit: G2 Esports)

Le Mans launch esports series

How this one flew under the radar, I’m not sure. Running in partnership with Motorsport Network and Microsoft, the series will utilise Forza, and the Paris-based esports company Glory4Gamers is set to run the event itself. Anyone can compete in the series, with the finals taking place at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2019. The fastest virtual drivers will get the chance to race against the physical world drivers.

There’s not much else about prize money, but this massive announcement, bringing together esports companies, motorsport bodies, technology corporations, and gamers, is set to be big. It coincides with the E3 announcement of Forza Horizon 4. Another very cool motorsport event gone unnoticed in the esports world.

Forza Horizon 4 is set to launch at the end of the year and includes heaps of extra content (Image credit: Windows Central)

Visa Vegas Race

It’s a little bit older now, but I’m still surprised people don’t know about this one in the esports world. In 2016, the FIA Formula E Championship race took place. It bought together physical world drivers from the electric race car series and racers from the virtual world. The showdown took place at CES in Vegas, one of the biggest technology showcases in the world.

The prize pool was over a $1million USD, with first place taking home $200K. That’s no small amount of money. Whilst the race itself (for those hard core racers) didn’t exactly go to plan, the event was spectacular. It was well run, bought a lot of fans together, and was streamed online to a worldwide audience. Again, nothing popped up in the esports media about it.

If you missed this one, as many did, check out the highlights video here.

So why does racing go unnoticed in esports?

There’s a few reasons why virtual motorsport events aren’t exactly at the top of the list when it comes to esports. Sure, there are a number big names in electronic motorsport, as well as a tonne of money, but there’s some differences.

Firstly, is motorsport even esports? Get in a conversation with any virtual driver and they will tell you they aren’t gamers. They aren’t people who play video games, they are people who race cars… in the virtual world. They like to refer to themselves as simulation racers, or sim racers. The sim racers are a great bunch of people who spend their time honing their skills and perfecting their driving talents.

Ask any of them the reason why they are racing in this manner and not in a physical world car, and they’ll tell you it comes down to money. Most sim racers (like most of us) can’t afford to race real cars, so instead they revert to digital means to obtain a similar feeling. This is the key difference to traditional esports events. I’m sure the teams playing CS:GO don’t actually want to go around shooting people. Nor does anyone playing Overwatch really want to go around self-destructing themselves just to be resurrected – okay sometimes we do because being immersed in fantasy is awesome, but it’s a bit different when there’s no physical world comparison.

This also happens to be the key reason why electronic motorsport series are so important to physical motorsports. The skills are transferable, as I discussed in a previous article. Physical world drivers are often scouted via racing games, and therefore many sim racers perfect their skills in the hopes they will one day be selected to drive for a real world team.

Physical world drivers like Max Verstappen spend a lot of their time practising in the digital world before taking the cars out on track (Photo credit: Playseat America)

What about all the people in the middle though? Those who like playing racing games, but aren’t sim racers. Well, those people sit in the cross-over, the more esports player, or as some like to call them – arcade racers. Sim racers usually don’t play games like Forza or Gran Turismo. These games are designed more as fun racing games and not true representations of driving. The sim racers use games such as iRacing, Assetto Corsa, or rFactor.

Each type of game – both sim racing and arcade gaming – have their place. Whilst sim racing is designed to replicate realistic driving dynamics and best suited to scouting driver talent, arcade racing typically has more appealing graphics and therefore more conducive to audience spectacles.

The second big difference is most people who watch esports probably have played the game before, and can easily buy the equipment off the shelf. Sim racing is more expensive than typical video gaming due to the equipment needed. Yes, there’s the computer which everyone has, but most sim racing setups have expensive wheels, pedals, shifter, seat, and multiple monitors. Compare this to arcade gaming, where you really only need a console (or PC), and perhaps a half decent wheel and pedal set, which you can grab for about $100. Thus the barrier to entry is much lower in arcade racing, and the games are more mass marketable and readily available, and therefore the player base in sim racing is much smaller than arcade racing.

Couple of home sim racing rigs. Many build their own or buy off the shelf products. One thing is clear, you definitely need a lot more room! (Image: Reddit)

Alrighty, so those are the main differences between sim racing and arcade racing. So where then does esports motorsport sit? Some series are designed to scout drivers, otherwise are developed to increase audience engagement across the broader motorsport channels, and some are still a marketing exercise. With the differences in sim racing and arcade racing fairly clear, can there be an event which caters to both audiences? Or is motorsport esport only suited to arcade racing?

It’s difficult to have an event which scouts driver talent AND appeal to the mass audience. Your mass audience (both in motorsport and esports) typically play arcade racing games and are drawn in by these titles, whilst the sim racers generally only compete in sim racing competitions. From that point of view, it’s difficult to build a series for both sim racing and arcade racing.

What about the audience? As I’ve written in previous articles, you don’t have an esport without an audience, and to get an audience you need to have content they want to consume. Do people want to sit down and watch sim racers battle it out on a game the viewer is unfamiliar with, the times are down to the nano-second, or do they want to watch something which (graphically) looks more like real world racing in terms of track quality, and rendering. I’d say it’s the latter, and even then it’s rather difficult to grab this audience. I also so it’s the latter because if the game is too close to the real world, the question is asked “why not just go watch the real thing then?”.

Even the real thing isn’t easy. We all know (and I’ve written about this too) physical world motorsport isn’t exactly at the top of the list of most watched sports. There’s a niche market for motorsport fans, and even more so if we are talking digital motorsport fans.

Yes, even Formula 1 has its own esports series, now in the second season (Image credit: Codemasters)

I think something will come soon though. Something which caters to each audience. I don’t think, for the reasons above, you can have a competition designed to scout drivers, and appeal to the audience, until the games themselves come closer together. Project Cars 2 for example aims to bridge this gap – high quality graphics, good driving dynamics, and audience appeal. It still has a long way to go however, and then there’s the problem where most of the sim racers have their teams and communities on iRacing or R Factor (approx. 90,000), and the gamers have their communities on Forza and GT (approx. 4 million). You can already see the huge difference in player base and to bridge the gap may take a while.

So until that happens, I believe we won’t see a true motorsport esport series. The series will be designed either as “scouting driver talent” or “gamers get behind the wheel”. It’s a tough nut to crack, but it’ll get there, especially with the likes of Microsoft, McLaren, Logitech, and more on board.

Oh and one final thing, there’s a new motorsport esport series announced pretty much every week, so everyone is doing it everyone is trying to be the best, and trying to find something that sticks.

And back to the original question… why aren’t motorsport series big in esports? I think it’s mainly due to the fact racing ‘games’ aren’t seen as esport. Rather, they are seen as a pathway for simulation drivers to make it to physical world racing.  So, who will triumph? Will it racing become true esport? Who will establish themselves as the baseline for esports racing? Who will be able to bridge the gap between sim racers and arcade racers?

I want to hear your thoughts. Are you a sim racer? An arcade racer? Are you a motorsport fan? A gamer? Are you an esports company producing racing events? re you a racing team? What do you think about my take on esports racing?


* Quote from FA Racing G2

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