This topic shouldn’t need a lengthy introduction, so I’ll make things as short as I can for today. The growth of the eSport phenomenon in very specific mass-market titles, such as Counter-Strike, League of Legends, and even the Madden NFL franchise, has led to a scenario where every basement-dwelling nerd armed with a semi-competent PC and modern high-speed internet connection believes the world deserves to see a live play-by-play broadcast of whatever online match they’re participating in.
Whether the footage focuses on the first person viewpoint of someone playing their title of choice into the wee hours of the morning, or is instead an elaborate production built to present the online competition as if it were a major sporting event – complete with some sort of amateur commentary team – the popularity of streaming has skyrocketed over the past three years. Gamers are not only scouring YouTube for hilarious gameplay clips accompanied by colorful personalities; they also want to watch this stuff unfold in real-time within a competitive setting. For a large portion of the planet, live broadcasts of League of Legends matches have become what Sunday Night Football is to traditional sports fans.
However, while other video game genres are prospering from this relatively cutting-edge way to consume these titles from a spectator standpoint, sim racing has become even more obscure despite an influx in broadcasted events. Hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to watch fighting game tournaments or Call of Duty matches, but simulators such as iRacing – who openly bill themselves as “the original eSport racing game” – reel in less viewers than your kid’s Christmas concert.
The reason behind this probably isn’t what you think.
Above is a screenshot I snapped only seven laps into last nights iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze shootout, a 40-lap brawl that brought together the absolute best active oval drivers on the iRacing service for a quick little romp before the actual season began. Despite the iRacing simulator being a predominantly oval-focused simulator, with the majority of users residing in North America and flocking to the numerous stock cars found within the online-only racing sim, the broadcast attracted just over 200 viewers. Nick Ottinger, Ray Alfalla, and Byron Daley are some of the absolute best in the world at driving a virtual race car in iRacing’s competitive environment, and yet this “star-studded lineup”, the sim racing equivalent to rounding up as many of the best active League of Legends players on the planet for an impromptu broadcasted showdown, had less viewers around the world than what a local Canadian high school football team can reel in on a weekly basis for their games.
Make no mistake, 206 viewers is absolutely brutal for how much effort is being put into these events, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen such a low number on a major iRacing broadcast. Aside from the opening round of the season at Daytona, and the inevitable shitfest that occurs at its sister track Talladega, view counts for Peak Anti-Freeze series races – the highest level of sim racing in the world – never manage to acquire more than a few hundred people watching at once. It’s simply awful for the image iRacing tries to present to the general public; you have these massively elaborate broadcasts that are watched by basically nobody.
Shifting gears away from iRacing, Formula E and the monolithic credit card company VISA held a one-off million dollar prize purse showdown back in January, dubbed the Formula E Visa Vegas eRace. Despite the enticing event format, which saw the world’s best virtual road racers compete toe to toe against the complete roster of Formula E drivers in a static setting that relied on driver skill over dialing in the perfect setup, the broadcast could only retain around seven to ten thousand viewers or so, most of whom mocked the dated visuals. We later learned the event was aired on a Twitch channel that primarily hosted Counter-Strike tournaments, meaning that for all the money that had been dumped into this supposedly world class event conducted with the FIA’s blessing, they couldn’t even stream the footage to the correct audience.
It’s a pretty dire situation when you look at the bigger picture of what’s going on; you have all these fantasy bullshit games skyrocketing in popularity that are being watched by millions around the world, but the genre of sim racing – which lends itself quite well to this online broadcasting thing – is basically stuck in a rut and unable to capitalize on the boom in any meaningful way, even with the help of companies such as the FIA, iRacing, and a goddamn credit card company doing everything in their power to spread the joy of sim racing. None of this seems to be working.
So what’s happening, and how do we reverse it?
I think you could make a fair argument by drawing attention to auto racing’s steady decline in popularity away from the computer monitor, as both Formula One and NASCAR – two of the biggest racing series in the world – have struggled to deal with empty grandstands as of late, so if people aren’t going to the races in real life, why would they ever watch nerds on the internet compete in a virtual representation of it?
In my opinion this is a decent argument, but despite the lack of people in the stands, nobody’s telling you the other side of the story. NASCAR tracks are removing grandstands en mass, but on the flip side, the NASCAR Subreddit is growing exponentially with each passing month, more and more YouTube videos about NASCAR are uploaded every day, and Twitter/Facebook stats always shoot up whenever there’s a big moment on-track.
The reality is that people just don’t go to events anymore because tickets are too expensive for what they offer, and the high definition, fifteen million camera television broadcasts by and large offer a better experience than sitting in a stationary spot for four hours out of your day, only able to see the cars for a second or two at a time. Auto racing isn’t declining in popularity; people are just consuming it in a different fashion. You only have to look at the 2017 release calendar to figure out people still fucking love racing at its core.
- F1 2017 is due for release this fall.
- DiRT 4 is due for release this summer.
- Project CARS 2 is due for release this winter.
- Gran Turismo 7 is due for release this fall.
- Need for Speed 2017 is due for release this fall.
- Forza Motorsport 6 is still being updated.
That’s a whole lot of major racing game releases by big-name developers for a sport that’s supposedly in decline and people don’t care for. And developers like Electronic Arts, Polyphony Digital, Turn 10, Codemasters, and Slightly Mad Studios are all teams that don’t just go out and make hardcore games for a sport that is falling like a rock in the court of public opinion. They’re in this to make money. Racing games still obviously make money judging by how many are coming out in 2017 alone.
So if auto racing isn’t dying, and racing games are more popular than they’ve ever been before in the gaming landscape, why has sim racing not taken off as an eSport?
The answer is actually pretty simple: too many goddamn people are trying to cash-in on the boom at once, and it’s over-saturated the market.
There is no cohesive effort to present sim racing as a legitimate eSport by a talented group of individuals who know what they’re doing, and the “market”, so to speak, is flooded with so much useless crap and amateur broadcasts, that any sort of meaningful viewerbase that would otherwise give sim racing a proper footing in the eSports market is instead split across hundreds if not thousands of miscellaneous videos. Above I’ve provided an example of what I’m getting at – here you have an iRacing user, who obviously has the technological know-how to stream some sort of sim racing broadcast, is going out and wasting it all on an iRacing practice session. Completely and utterly pointless.
On top of endeavors like this, you have so many private leagues that stream all their races for their 17 YouTube viewers, and an abundance of individual twitch users who hit record on basically any simulator they play, that it’s impossible as a viewer to figure out what you want to watch. It’s as if the National Basketball Association suddenly expanded to 485 teams overnight – which means no one series or simulator as a whole can gain the following needed to make the next step up the eSport ladder; there simply aren’t enough viewers to go around for the sheer number of broadcasts shitting up YouTube and Twitch. Everybody is trying to get a piece of the pie all at once, but the sim racing pie isn’t big enough for everybody because this is an incredibly niche genre to begin with, so what happens is that they’re walking away with crumbs, and as a result the genre doesn’t go anywhere.
There needs to be one major sim racing championship that is pushed to the forefront as the definitive online competition in the genre that everybody does their part to help promote, so outsiders or those on the fence can follow the action and think “wow, this looks neat, I want in,” rather than stumbling through a YouTube & Twitch landscape cluttered with amateurish sim racing broadcasts.
It has to have the best sim racers in the world, the best sim racing commentators calling the action, the best broadcast crew working to present the event in a professional fashion, showcase the best piece of software our genre has to offer, be aimed at a target audience who will be somewhat receptive to it, and boast a massive, meaningful prize for those who finish well.
The Visa Vegas eRace, for everything it got oh so terribly wrong during the abhorrent display in January, came the closest anyone’s ever gotten to launching sim racing as an eSport into the spotlight. There was a major prize on the line, a solid roster of drivers on the grid, and a professional studio-quality production fueling the whole thing. Before the first green flag even dropped, it made for entertaining TV.
But it was over too quickly – the race was a one-off exhibition event that was completed in two hours, instead of an entire championship where we could grow to know and love (or hate) certain personalities over an entire season – which is why a lot of people watch sports; the natural story lines that develop are pretty fucking entertaining. Yet instead of moving on to race number two with all of the competitors rattled by technical issues and a hastily amended final outcome, the credits rolled and that was it. Now what? Back to our obscure streams that nobody watches? What are we supposed to do now? Just sort of sit around and wait for all of these obscure rFactor 2 streams to quadruple in size?
Of course not. You have to keep it going. This is why you conduct a major sim racing championship instead of a one-off race.
Now in terms of simulation software, rFactor 2 looked absolutely awful – a kind of Flight Simulator 2000 vibe with modern lighting and reflections, so not a whole understood why this genre is so special to so many hobbyists. Straight up, you can’t be using rFactor 2 for this kind of thing. It’s just not the kind of software that looks good in the spotlight. Go away fanboys, you know it looked like a goddamn cartoon and this matters on this kind of platform. People were openly asking on the stream what was happening during the pit stop segment, because the cars were just sort of parked in an empty paddock area as if they’d wandered outside the map in an old Call of Duty game. You can’t have this. Sorry.
You also can’t have this event broadcasted on a Counter-Strike tournament channel. Here, I’ll put it in even simpler terms; you aired a Formula One race on the Golf Network. Good job.
And okay, Bono Huis won $200,000 USD… Good for him! Do we get a follow up episode? Do we tune in next week to see him test a Formula E car? Of course not! We have to head back to our obscure little websites, three weeks later, to see spy shots posted on a sim team’s Facebook page, to find out what happened to our champion. That’s not how you get people excited for the winner, or what future events may hold in store.
What you need is one killer championship. Because at the moment, you don’t have that – instead you have several minuscule tournaments that are spectated by only a fraction of the sim racing community.
It’s obviously a pain in the ass to coordinate a kind of all-encompassing world sim racing series to help advertise the genre on a wider scale, but you have to walk before you can run. Sim racers are burying themselves in endless low-quality streams of private leagues watched by twelve people, while the developers of the games themselves struggle to retain any kind of meaningful audience with their own broadcasts, simultaneously asking why sim racing hasn’t exploded in a fashion similar to League of Legends or Call of Duty despite how well the genre lends itself to a competitive platform.
You need to reel people in with one major production first, and you haven’t done that. Hell, you’re not even paying people to cover your events, instead telling them that “the prestige of the iRacing Pro Series is more than enough compensation for your work.”