Saturday , 28 November 2020

How the sim racing and Esports rise has exposed its weaknesses

It is possible to have too much of a good thing. With the lack of real-world motorsport taking place at the moment due to the ongoing global pandemic, the likes of sim racing, Esports and drivers who had previously never owned a sim rig taking to Twitch and broadcasting their exploits as ‘influencers’ have become the content to enjoy.

Sure, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but there are few alternatives right now to get the racing drug we all crave so badly. Classic races, books, documentaries and films provide good historical content, but it’s not the same as watching things live.

For those waiting for racing to return and deciding to simply shun these options – it’s worth getting comfortable. It’s clear that it is going to be a while before things return – and they won’t return exactly where things left off when things were cancelled and postponed in huge numbers at the start of March.

So, for when it comes to new, live racing, this is as good as it gets. Sure, it’s not what everybody necessarily wants, but this is the harsh reality. It’s not all rosy.

When the situation started to spiral out of control, Veloce Esports and Torque Esports (in conjunction with new outlet The Race) were the first to find a reasonable compromise with their ‘Not the… GP’ and ‘All Star Esports Battle’ respectively. The pair did well to avoid a scheduling conflict, and it provided us with the racing entertainment we so desperately craved and needed during such a bizarre situation.

It then became clear that in order to stay remotely relevant, existing series had to get onboard. NASCAR was quick to set things up – becoming the first major iRacing player to do so, while the likes of IndyCar (and its feeder package), VLN, GT World Challenge and Supercars all added their names into the ring for high-level sim racing. Formula 1 also joined the party with its Virtual GP – albeit on its F1 2019 game rather than on a fully-fledged sim software. MotoGP likewise on its own game.

But as with real-world racing, this has managed to trip over itself in terms of scheduling. On Saturday 18th April, we had FE’s Race at Home Challenge (1h 47m), The Race’s All Star Series/Legends’ Trophy (3h 7m), IndyCar iRacing Challenge (1h 20m) and Veloce’s Not the… GP Versus (2h 55m) all within a short time of each other. Some of it, unfortunately, clashed.

That’s just the high-profile stuff. That omits the Road to Indy event, the NASCAR event on later that evening, the VLN one held earlier that day, the Marble race (yes, really) hosted by FE team Envision Virgin Racing, and numerous other sim races and Esports events hosted on that day (some lasting more than six hours). It also ignores F1 re-broadcasting the 2018 Chinese GP – you guessed it – starting right before this wave of live racing started. From this weekend, you can add both DTM and the pre-existing Le Mans Esports series too. Mad.

It’s total oversaturation. There was more racing on Sunday too, with F1’s Virtual GP the main highlight. In normal circumstances, many series would try to do their best to avoid clashing with F1 because, unsurprisingly, that draws massive viewership from motorsport fans both hardcore and casual. That’s not the case right now. What we have is a bit of a free-for-all which all feels somewhat unnecessary.

By all trying to go for what is normally a primetime Saturday slot, all of these series and so forth are tripping over themselves. It proves problematic for drivers hoping to contest in events with little rest time and for broadcast members also having little time between one broadcast ending and another starting. As a result, nobody really ‘wins’ as a result of this. Fans find it very difficult to schedule their Saturday afternoons, drivers may have to prioritise one event over another in terms of preparation, and those organising these events may lose potential viewers to other events or broadcasts of old races.

It’s probably a bit late for some to re-arrange their broadcasts now, but why doesn’t some of this racing take place during the week? There are seven days a week after all, and a lot of people have free time on their hands now. Many will be able to watch racing while working from home, or during the evenings. A midweek slot is exactly what the likes of long-time body GPVWC have run for a while, and it’s worked well for it in the past.

Supercars is probably the one real-life series to really get this right. By broadcasting on a Wednesday night (Australia time) which is Wednesday morning (UK time), it gives some very exciting midweek racing which can be enjoyed over a nice cup of coffee and some breakfast all while working from the home office – an enjoyable experience that feels unique right both right now or before the world came to a halt. By doing that, it’s avoided clashing with every other series – something the others have all failed to do. It’s become a must-watch every week.

When a series doesn’t clash with another, it does pave the way for a very exciting crossover to take place. Lando Norris is taking part in this weekend’s IndyCar event at Circuit of the Americas, joining the likes of Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin and NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr in doing so. Meanwhile, Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion Will Power has gone the other way, trying out Supercars at Bathurst (which required a 3am start). The ‘better back then’ brigade hark on for drivers simply driving whatever they can get their hands on at any opportunity, and this is exactly what the likes of Norris are doing at this time – that is something that should be applauded, more so if they’re quick at it.

The rise has unfortunately highlighted the shortcomings of the software and hardware used – this is not reality. Sure, it was not necessarily designed to be, but the real-world drivers have made it clear that this discipline is a totally different kettle of fish to what they are used to when circulating at 200mph or more. When a driver showcases extreme pace on the real track and in the sim world – that shouldn’t be overlooked.

As realistic as the top-level rFactor 2, iRacing and Assetto Corsa Competizione all are, it doesn’t reflect the real world. It never will, which is a sad story. Hence the ‘sim’ part of sim racing. They all have their benefits and drawbacks (iRacing doesn’t have collision physics in the pits for goodness sake, while rF2 doesn’t factor in the likes of wind variability) and there is no one ‘complete’ sim. While a very good sim in its own right, ACC is very limited with car options. That’s why some of the best in the real-world business have been struggling on the virtual platform.

Many of them also lack stellar graphics, photo modes or broadcast-friendly options, which can be frustrating at this time. The quirk with iRacing that shows drivers who exit to the pit at the top of the timings for a time can make things very confusing for first-time viewers watching. It’s little quirks like that which while non-essential to the enjoyment of driving totally sideways in a Brabham BT44 around the Nurburgring Nordschleife, is very essential during times like these.

All of this will make for harsh reading for those passionate about their respective favourite sim or game, but it must be accepted. The toxicity of the internet and fandoms (be it software, content creators or real-world drivers/series/etc) has also been underlined now because as a result of the rise of these series and the rise of drivers taking to streaming what they participate in. A darker side of the internet that we don’t need at the best of times, let alone through these challenging times.

It needs to be emphasised that the likes of Project CARS 2 and F1 2019 are not sims, but merely games. The real-world F1 drivers have made it clear that Codemasters’ titles are not very realistic, but it needs to be accessible for everybody – and in its own right, it is an exceptionally difficult piece of software to master. Just watch one of the F1 Esports drivers at work and pay attention to the absurd number of times they change settings during a single lap for example. That doesn’t stop the Virtual GP series from being enjoyable in its own right, especially with stars from other sports joining in.

But perhaps this is a little bit of over-expectation during these weird times. Being put in the spotlight was always going to expose the shortcomings of the sim racing world – perhaps more-so than through F1 Esports, World’s Fastest Gamer, Nissan GT Academy and other series that operated not so much in the frontline while active because of real-world racing taking place. As some events have been hastily put together and others running merely as a trial just to dip toes into the water, they obviously did not go without issue first time around.

It’s all a bit of fun to scratch the itch during this time of not having the racing we know and love. It’s also really enjoyable to see crossovers – Norris trying IndyCars, Will Power trying Supercars, legends driving old F1 cars. Let’s enjoy it while we can and while we have little else to do. Hopefully, just without too many clashes in the future. But the desire to be trackside watching racing is growing stronger and stronger. It will be such a relief when it is safe to do that again.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

Check Also

From the brilliant to the baffling – Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari career to date

14 race wins, 12 pole positions, 54 podiums and twice a runner-up in the world …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close