What’s in a name?

There has, over the last six months been an explosion in virtual racing, esports, eRacing or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be called.

We’ve seen a virtual 24 hour Le Mans with Audi, a McLaren F1 competition to appoint a new simulator driver via the Worlds Fastest Gamer programme and the official F1 esports world championship take place at the season finale in Abu Dhabi.

These are the notable points for the mainstream, but there have been dozens more too. With the explosion in esports and the growth of the simracing scene this year it would be easy to dismiss this as a new fad, a “BMX biking” for the year 2017, but in actual fact this has just been the culmination of a talented and dedicated simracing scene that is possibly older than esports itself.

With mainstream exposure comes new viewers, new fans, new sponsors, new journalists and new publications all wanting a piece of the pie. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it does mean that, inevitably perhaps, some basic things get forgotten or assumptions are made without checking.

Assumptions such as “this is a brand new sport” when it’s been around in various forms for over 20 years.

Assumptions too about what it should be called. Assumptions that can infuriate the existing dedicated fan base and community.

Which is why, even though I was slightly tongue in cheek when I complained to DriveTribe’s Twitter, it does matter that people are calling this eRacing.

First off, what does that even mean? Electronic Racing?

Secondly, if it’s Esports (or esports if in mid-sentence) then it’s Eracing or eracing. But that kind of misses the point entirely. It has a name - and there's no "e" in it.

It’s called Simulator Racing (or simracing for short) - and it has been for a very long time.

I’ve been an esports professional (mostly as a commentator and presenter) for over 15 years. I was one of the first people to work in the industry and helped to found the early roots of what it has now become.

But I’ve been an F1 fan for far longer. In fact, the first race I ever remember watching was highlights of the French Grand Prix at Dijon in 1979. On that particular day, three names would be etched in to my mind forever. The first two are obvious, Rene Arnoux in the gorgeous turbo powered Renault and Gilles Villeneuve driving the number 27 scarlet Ferrari.

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The two drivers battled for the last few laps by simply bouncing off each other, mid-corner at ridiculous speeds. And this was for second place! Remember too, this was a time when leaving the track often added you to a long list of F1 drivers who did not live to see retirement.

The third name might not be so obvious, unless you have watched F1 for a long time on British television. The man commentating this utter madness was my personal hero Murray Walker. A complete legend of the sport if ever we had one that was not a driver.

I share this to explain my passion. I am more passionate about F1 than James May is about wine, and me missing an F1 race would be about as likely as Jeremy Clarkson coming out in support of making caravans compulsory for all Ferrari drivers. In Italy.

I’m also a nerd. A geek, if you will and proud of it. So when I get the chance to merge my two passions of F1 and computers, it was like giving Richard Hammond a Porsche GT3 and telling him to drive it around the Nurburgring. On a sunny day. With no other cars on the track.

I howl like a maniac whenever I get the chance to race something - anything - around any track large or small. This also applies to racing games and always has.

Back in 1988 a friend of mine, known as “Groggy” (don’t ask) had a BBC B machine which didn’t interest me in the slightest. It was boring for the most part but it held one redeeming feature: it had a game called Revs by Geoff Crammond.

This was a Formula Three simulator, that I mostly remember for having very bad graphics and with a black sky (!!). But it played remarkably well. The AI was incredible for the time (including the irritating Johnny Turbo who would win most races over me) and while we couldn’t hook it up to another machine and play against each other, we’d take turns trying to set a qualifying lap or finish a race. Using the keyboard for controls and the space bar combined with left and right to make the “steering wheel” turn accordingly. Primitive but bloody good fun.

From there, I moved on to purchase a Commodore Amiga a few years later. Why? Well, Geoff Crammond (it’s like Clarkson and Hammond had a kid) released a new game called F1 Grand Prix.

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This game mesmerised me and consumed me beyond my school studies. I also pulled in my best friends Dan and Rich to play the hot seat mode which allowed us to do a few laps and then let the AI take over mid-race and then let someone else have a few “manual” laps before handing back over to someone else.

I’d invite Dan and Rich over to my parents’ house to play countless hours, sometimes entire championship seasons. I’m not sure to this day that either particularly enjoyed it, but they wanted to hang out regardless and we did play a lot of football and cricket in the times we weren’t stuck in my bedroom playing F1GP.

Several years passed before I felt the urge to upgrade my computer and again it would be an F1 game that would take care of it (see a pattern here?).

By 1995 I had a job and therefore could afford to do things like take out loans (I’d only later realise how bad these were!).

So when Geoff Crammond and Microprose released Grand Prix 2 and it was on the PC, I had to have a PC. The £2,400 Packard Bell P60 ran GP2 well enough and I would embark on race after race until I could beat the entire AI on the hardest setting (Ace) and win every GP for the entire season.

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Once that was done, I’d head online to find new cars, carsets, track updates and a mind blowing amount of mods for the game. I even dabbled in making a few carsets myself (you can still find this online if you look hard enough).

But what really got my juices flowing was the thought of racing against others from around the world and despite Dan and Rich being good sticks, they were bloody useless in the form of any competition for me, the greatest virtual racing driver on the planet. Or so I thought…

This was the early throws of the internet, so speeds were a blazing (!) 4.2k a second. 56k modems were all the rage and downloading a film would take a brisk five years.

Organised leagues sprung up around this time for GP2, but obviously we weren’t going to be racing each other. Instead, we would compete in our own game and send the replay file in, compare the finishing times with each other (or rather, the league admin would) and then report over the weekend our finishing order.

I finished second in my first race in Australia, but alas would fade to a distant 10th in the final championship standings without a win.

With my virtual racing career in tatters and my go karting career in a similar state and my wallet ruined by both, I went back to work to pay off the debts.

As internet speeds got better and games became even more realistic the leagues of Simracing grew too.

They were the most competitive, but perhaps most geeky of all the early esports leagues forming on the internet. Surely it wouldn’t be long before they burst out in to gaming shows?

But unlike their big brother Mr Esports, who was not only playing out to live audiences in large computer shows, but was starting to see tens of thousands of dollars in prize money come in, it never really happened for Simracing.

That was until a youngster called Jann Mardenborough beat 90,000 others in the GT Academy, sponsored by Nissan.

Jann Mardenborough graduated from Simracing to real world racing (Pic: Sutton)

Jann Mardenborough graduated from Simracing to real world racing (Pic: Sutton)

He wasn’t the first to win the competition that ran from 2008. That honour went to Spaniard Lucas Ordóñez who went on to compete at the Le Mans 24 hour with Martin and Alex Brundle.

Lucas and Jann showed that, not only were they supremely quick in a videogame (on the PS3) but that they could transfer these skills in to real life racing too. This was more than just computer kids messing around.

Jann’s subsequent success (he’s currently competing in Super Formula in Japan, one step from F1) has increased other teams and companies beside Nissan’s interest in the virtual world of racing.

McLaren now have a full time racing simulator test driver, courtesy of the winner of this years “Worlds Fastest Gamer” and F1 has its first virtual World Champion in the form of Brendon Leigh.

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None of this would be possible without those early leagues in GP2 or the success of Jann on the PS3 in Gran Turismo.

It makes a lot of sense really. Whereas most top esports stars are good in games like League of Legends or Dota2 or Counter Strike Global Offensive, the guys racing in virtual leagues have the potential for real world, transferable skills.

That’s not to denigrate the top esports stars, far from it. Their skill levels are insane and they are regularly playing to tens of thousands of people in stadiums around the world for millions of dollars of prize money, but perhaps the simracers have a chance to go beyond that. Imagine a 10-year-old who can’t compete in real racing due to costs or age or size or disability, but can compete on an even playing field inside a racing game.

It’s also incredibly inclusive. It doesn’t matter what skin colour you have, what your height is, what your gender is or what religion you practice or even whether you can walk. Racing games allow you to compete, almost against anyone in the world at any time.

You might be of the opinion that esports players are just basement dwelling nerds who are overweight and don’t see any sunlight - and a decade ago, you might have been right, but today's professional gamers earn a living in a world where mere fractions of a second matter, hell fractions of the fractions of seconds matter, and to have any advantage over the competition requires more than just being great at the game.

It requires better mental preparation and a healthy body. Some pro esports teams have psychologists, nutritionists, fitness trainers and chefs all helping them attain the highest possible fitness levels in order to compete at the highest levels in their chosen profession.

In the coming year there will be an even greater focus on Simracing and esports, with more TV, sponsorship, and car manufacturers and games entering the esports arena.

Hell, I may finally get my dream of an entire virtual F1 season that rolls alongside the real circus.

But whatever happens let’s not forget how long this has been around. It’s not new, it’s just new to you. Be respectful of the part people have played in helping it get this far and let’s not add to the insults by calling it eRacing, which just makes it feel derisory to the existing players.

Embrace the change. Respect the sport.

Paul “Redeye” Chaloner.

@PaulChaloner

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