Gaming is big business. It's a hundred billion-dollar industry – more than double the value of Hollywood. Competitive gaming, or eSports, is no less impressive.
With tournaments around the world and a viewing audience in the order of the hundreds of millons, eSports is something few can ignore for much longer. That extends to the motorsport industry too.
Traditionally, eSports has focussed on combat games, both team-based and player vs. player. The gamers seek to score more points than their opponents. Motorsport is an obvious fit – what can be more objective than who gets the furthest against the clock – but until recently it hasn't seen much traction. Now the tide is turning, in favour of “eRacing”.
2017 already saw one of the most remarkable events in racing game eSports. Paired with the Formula E round at – where else – Las Vegas, the Visa Vegas eRace saw some of the world's best simulation drivers compete head to head with the real drivers. In fact esports is nothing new to Formula E, which hosts an eRace for spectators at every round of the series, but by inviting the best sim racers via a series of online qualifiers, the Vegas event was a landmark – the fact that it offered a $1m prize pot (the largest in racing eSports to date) aside.
However eSports didn't exactly come out from the event free from blemishes. Technical issues saw the race start delayed, and one of the Formula E drivers, Luca di Grassi, was unable to start at all. A further fault saw one of the sim drivers, Finland's Olli Pahkala, given five laps of extra power (due to Formula E's “Fan Boost” feature) instead of five seconds. The organisers demoted him from the lead, giving sim driver Bono Huis the winner's $200,000 prize.
Huis is one of an increasing number of celebrity sim racers. He – and Pahkala for that matter – are members of one of the oldest sim racing teams, Team Redline. This team has been competing around the world at eSports racing events for almost 20 years, using simulators like iRacing and rFactor2. Along with Huis and Pahkala, the team includes real-world racing drivers like Lando Norris and Max Verstappen in its roster. Yes, that Max Verstappen.
Verstappen isn't the only F1 driver to try his hand at eSports either. Double-world champion Fernando Alonso has recently decided to set up his own eSports racing team, FA Racing, to compete in F1 and rFactor leagues in 2018. Indeed F1 itself recently hosted a major eSports tournament using the official Formula 1 game, culminating in 18-year-old Briton Brendon Leigh winning the title at the final at Abu Dhabi, during the final (real) F1 race weekend of the season.
Brendon Leigh (centre) is a Formula One World Champion at 18 - at least in the official F1Esports Series - winning in Abu Dhabi
But these events all have one thing in common: poor accessibility. Racing simulators of this type are all typically PC titles, requiring expensive hardware. Some, like rFactor 2, are not too far removed from what racing teams use in their own simulators. The iRacing platform is a subscription service, which requires users to buy cars, tracks and server time separately from the software itself.
It's a far cry from the console racing games. These sell millions of copies, ship with hundreds of cars and tracks and can be played with nothing more than a PlayStation or XBox. You can even use the standard controllers. They too have joined the eSports bandwagon, with Microsoft's Forza Motorsport series now in its third season of hosting the Forza Racing Championship, while Project Cars is part of a huge ESL eSports network.
But when it comes to the numbers, there's no bigger name in racing games than Gran Turismo. Whatever your opinion on how accurate it is as a simulator, the fact is that among the realistic car games there's nothing close: Sony's GT games have racked up 75 million sales, and counting.
GT Academy has created racing drivers from gamers, with Jann Mardenborough arguably its greatest success
It's had its own approach to eSports in the past. Spearheaded by Nissan's Darren Cox (now the manager of his own eSports racing team, named 'ESPORTS+CARS'), the game became a platform for the gamer-to-racer programme GT Academy. A leaderboard competition within the game would find the fastest racers, who'd after further challenges, would then face a demanding driving, fitness and racing regime to get them into a GT4 endurance race in Dubai. Some turned this into a full racing career, none more so than Jann Mardenborough, who now races in Super GT and Super Formula open-wheel cars in Japan.
But with its latest release - this Autumn's Gran Turismo Sport - Sony has bet the farm on eSports. Previously an extravaganza of car collecting, GT Sport arrived with fewer than a fifth of the vehicles and a similar reduction in circuits compared to its predecessor. Polyphony Digital, the game's developer, grouped those cars that remained into categories and equalised them with “balance of performance” (BOP) calculations, just like real-life GT racing. Why? Well it had teamed up with no lesser a body than the organisers of world motorsport, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).
The FIA's partnership with Gran Turismo Sport represents a major step in the recognition of motor racing esports
The goal of this association is, through a pair of officially sanctioned, in-game tournaments, to find the game's quickest racers. These events will run through 2018, with live broadcasts of later rounds in true eSports spirit. Whoever wins the final event will receive their prize at the FIA Prize Giving Gala Dinner in December 2018, alongside the winners of other real world, top-tier FIA events: Formula One, the World Rally Championship and the World Touring Car Championship.
Even the Olympics is sitting up and taking notice. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced in 2016 that eSports meets the standards to be considered a sport, and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) will trial eSports at the 2018 Asian Games.
With Olympic recognition, million dollar prize pots, inclusion in the huge F1 and Formula E circuses, and even the FIA set to recognise virtual drivers alongside the Lewis Hamiltons of this world, 2018 looks set to be eRacing's biggest year yet.