The meteoric rise of the racing simulator and what the future holds for esports
Racing simulators are a relatively new concept to many but the virtual racing industry - in its modern guise - has been growing at a steady pace for approximately two decades. With some of the world’s leading sim titles such as iRacing, rFactor and Assetto Corsa being greenlit in 2003, 2005 and 2013 respectively, the concept has gained a foothold in the unique crossover space between motorsport and gaming, tightening that grip in recent years.
The inaugural Formula One Esports Series was held in 2017 - won UK native Brendan Leigh - and unknowingly set a course to become the sports’ unlikely knight in shining armour some three years later.
As with most other industries, a proverbial shockwave was felt across the motorsport world as organisers controversially closed the gates to expectant Australian Grand Prix attendees the morning the event was due to get underway. With the dust rapidly settling, the world’s leading motorsport authorities had to react quickly to appease fans’ insatiable appetite for on-track action and at that point, the industry turned to an unlikely solution that had received minimal testing on such a grand scale.
Veloce Esports were among the first to react to the demand, slotting the ‘Not the Australian Grand Prix’ neatly into the void left by the real-world event on the same day, with drivers Lando Norris, Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutiérrez taking to the virtual track. Formula 1 followed in short order a week later and so virtual racing was brought to the fore, experiencing an explosion in popularity unlikely to be repeated.
In addition to F1, the likes of NASCAR, IndyCar, SRO Motorsport, Formula E, and WEC all organised surrogate virtual events in place of their real-world counterparts, many of which were broadcast on dedicated sports channels such as ESPN, NBC as well as championship-specific YouTube broadcasts. Even national and club-level championships ran their own virtual series such as Fun Cup UK which Riley Phillips was instrumental in facilitating.
At the time, uptake was good with untapped demographics at loose ends due to furlough, many of whom were looking for quality time with family and were all too happy to oblige when encouraged to give esports a try by younger generations.
Some of the real-world stars - most notably in the cases of Lando Norris and Max Verstappen - took to esports like ducks to water, having utilised such technology throughout their careers to stay sharp in the off-season. Other drivers didn’t fare so well and the global motorsport fraternity gained new admiration for elite sim racers. Having been an established discipline for some time but only ever with an incredibly niche following, it had finally gained the respect it deserved.
Like the professional racing drivers, official teams like McLaren, Ferrari, Williams and more have flourished in the virtual environment, but it's not just the established players who have controlling stakes in this industry. Veloce, Team Redline and R8G eSports have all made names for themselves purely in the esports sphere and regularly appear on entry lists for the world’s most well-respected virtual events.
This relatively young industry hasn’t been without its fair share of controversies though. With big-name racing drivers and the apparent zero-consequence mentality that is part and parcel of gaming, on-track disputes seemed inevitable. Still, the off-track drama is where things really heated up.
The virtual Indy 500 of 2020 ended in chaos when, in an act of revenge, Simon Pagenaud took out leader Lando Norris for an earlier altercation. In a separate incident, Daniel Abt hired a professional sim racer to compete for him in the virtual Formula E series which was quickly detected and he was subsequently dropped by Audi. Most recently, Max Verstappen’s disconnection from the 2023 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual made headlines with the double Formula 1 champion’s scathing statements bringing esports into the public eye once again.
The future is bright
So what does the future look like for sim racing and esports? While it can never replace the high thrills experience of driving an actual racing car on a track or the prestige that comes with an international racing paddock, it does in fact offer something that motorsport is ineluctably drifting further and further away from; that is affordability and accessibility. Although even the most rudimentary of simulator ‘rigs’ don’t come cheap, the three or even four-figure initial investment falls considerably short of the astronomical fees associated with top-tier motorsport, and even grass-roots karting in the twenty-first century.
That gives sim racing an edge few could’ve predicted at the turn of the century, and has resulted in continued investment in the platform's growth. Bigger and bigger productions for F1 esports in recent years, races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual continuing to increase in popularity and the opening of venues specifically geared towards sim-racing such as F1®️ Arcade all highlight its enduring appeal.
With all this taken into consideration, it seems probable that the popularity of racing simulators is only going to increase as advancements in virtual reality and FFB (force feedback) technology improves and the glory days of petrol-powered racing fade further into obscurity, experiencing those thrills for a fraction of the cost becomes all the more alluring.
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