While the Visa Vegas eRace, Eurogamer Assetto Corsa Championship, and the iRacing World Grand Prix Series may be known as the absolute pinnacle of competitive online sim racing, virtual auto racing as an eSport simply hasn’t taken off in the slightest. Despite hundreds of thousands of viewers tuning in to watch world class Counter Strike or League of Legends matches, what’s arguably the most difficult and skill-based genre of video games existing on the planet – hardcore racing simulators – are struggling to reel in any sort of audience whatsoever. Attempt after attempt is made to thrust sim racing into the eSports spotlight alongside much larger titles, but regardless of who exactly is behind the organization of it all, and the simulator chosen to hold the specific competition in question, the end result is always the same; nobody cares who wins, the on-track product is unexciting, the commentators far too enthusiastic for the event, technical issues destroy the flow of the broadcast, and barely anybody tuned in to begin with. League of Legends matches are occasionally covered by ESPN, but sim racing events draw a crowd on par with high school volleyball matches – and that’s pulling from a worldwide audience?
So how do we fix this?
Let’s throw some ideas out there.
And we’ll start by talking about the broadcast crew. Right now, the biggest problem is commentators either go all out and pretend online races are these ultra-serious life changing epiphanies in a desperate attempt to build a portfolio for some kind of real life commentating gig, or it’s absurdly obvious that the commentary crew is sitting in a dark basement waiting for mommy to cook them some hot pockets – and I think on an iRacing stream this actually happened once, where one guy freaked on his roommate for busting into the room during a broadcast.
The commentators need to approach the event with the mentality that it’s an organized event with a big prize on the line, but at the end of the day remember it’s also just a video game where some guys are turning laps in their pyjamas and they can be free to joke around, use slang, and call the action as if they’re genuinely just happy to hang out and watch a race. Two guys who are fantastic at maintaining this balance are Shaun Cole and Ian Plasch – the former being the personality behind The SimPit, whereas the latter is a popular iRacing streamer with his own fanbase. Personally I love listening to Shaun as he really gets that it’s just a fun hobby at the end of the day, whereas Ian is still young enough to appeal to the younger, eSports centric audience.
The reason I suggest to stay away from serious-minded commentators, is that occasionally things can and do go wrong during the on-track action, and it creates a really poor suspension of disbelief effect. Deep monologues discussing alternate race strategies do not go well with cars glitching into the track surface and shooting off into the stratosphere, followed by commentators awkwardly trying to decide if they should explain the game suffered a technical issue, or pretend there was a sudden “mechanical failure” – as they’ve done in the past with iRacing server failures. A laid-back, casual voiceover is a much more acceptable pair for the random carnage sim racing sometimes provides.
Next, let’s talk about the competitors themselves. I’m going to catch a lot of flak for this one, but let’s go there anyways. No matter how many huge eSport racing events are held, one thing has never changed – the drivers are boring, lifeless personalities. I’m sorry guys, the majority of sim events I watch, it’s a flock of faceless Europpean forklift drivers. You have to captivate your viewers, establish heroes and villans – which in turn allows the audience to either identify, support, or root against the numerous drivers on the grid – and that simply isn’t happening in the genre at the moment, so nobody is even caring who wins these competitions. Go watch the Visa vegas eRace again, it’s ten guys who all sound the same, look like they just finished their shift at some obscure Finnish warehouse, and were told to quickly get into this weird Firesuit to pretend they’re real race car drivers. Sorry, no, this is silly. Unfortunately if you want to grow sim racing as an eSport, you’ve got to move away from “the best sim racers in the world”, because as a viewer they have the personality of an Ikea dining set.
Look at the biggest personalities in the YouTube realm: BlackPanthaa, EmptyBox, SlapTrain, xMattyG, tiametmarduk, Yorkie065… all of these people alone have exponentially more viewers than the iRacing World Grand Prix Series. Round them all up and put them into a Championship with a few top-caliber drivers such as Bono Huis and Greger Huttu. As a viewer, I now want to watch SlapTrain get the shit kicked out of him and piss myself at the various fanbases for each sim racing YouTuber fighting in the chat after a wreck, which means the story of Greger Huttu winning his 19th championship or whatever is supported by equally compelling sub-plots. Right now, there is no drama, because nobody cares if Ray Alfalla wins 1, 5, 10, or 20 races in iRacing because he’s literally some dude from Cuba who doesn’t even have a driver’s license. However, there are 1.4 million people subscribed to SlapTrain, and 51,000 people subscribed to EmptyBox. A whole bunch of those people are going to show up to see them rub fenders.
Imagine if every single Formula One driver on the 2017 grid was Kimi Raikkonen. Twenty-two Kimi’s all giving one sentence interviews in simple English does not make for good television, and when you’re trying to grow sim racing as an eSport, it does not indicate to potential sponsors or those on the fence that they should tune in next week as well. That’s what outsiders see sim racing as right now. That needs to change.
So the idea would be to go out and get all of the prominent YouTube personalities, and mix them in with a flock of very talented sim racers, to sort of balance out the grid with a pack of drivers who can run at the front and set an example of “this is what top level sim racing looks like.” The personalities give people a reason to cheer for their favorite YouTuber, and at the end of the day the series still has credibility thanks to the cluster of guys running at the front.
Now the next topic to address is the officiating, and this is one of the most important parts of the whole series – it has to be FUN for all involved. Look, thanks to my connections to certain people within the world of iRacing, as well as some of the individuals who have sent me screenshots of the internal iRacing World Championship forums over the past few months, it’s time to let you all in on something that isn’t much of a secret to the top ranked drivers on the service – Shannon Whitmore is a power-tripping asshole. The eSport series officially sanctioned by NASCAR and sponsored by a major automotive brand is basically one guy in a private section of the iRacing forums ruling the championship with an iron fist, and it would be absolute chaos if I could run wild with the print screen key and post it all on PRC. Some of the participants in the iRacing series are under twenty years old, really just kids who happen to kick ass at a NASCAR video game, and yet the head steward power-trips like a middle school teacher unsatisfied with the fact he’s on his third career choice. It’s absolutely, one hundred percent not warranted.
Thankfully, older iRacing members can act as role models or support systems for the younger sim racers, but holy mother of God, the stuff I’ve seen is insane. You CANNOT treat your sim racers like this as a steward. Officials have to remember that this is a GAME and eSports competitiors are just here to have fun and compete for a bunch of money, because they happen to be absurdly good at driving fake cars. If the competitors aren’t having fun, the on-track product will suffer.
So what cars, and what tracks? Formula One, NASCAR, and IndyCar are suffering from dwindling crowds in recent years because people have lost the passion they once had for it, so why are organizers believing that Virtual NASCAR or Virtual Formula One will catch on to some extent? Nah man, change it up. I’m not saying GT3 cars at Bristol Motor Speedway is a good idea, but the rumors about NASCAR going to Circuit of the Americas, or IndyCar going to the Daytona Infield Road Course, now’s the time to try it – this gives viewers a reason to tune in as it’s something unique that the real world of auto racing isn’t giving them. And if the event goes well, congratulations, you can now show IndyCar that an event at the Daytona Infield track went well, you had all these viewers, and the real thing just might be every bit as compelling.
There’s also the option of developers creating a special eSports-centric race car to level the playing field and prevent any one driver or team from dominating and turning the race into a snoozer; look at Gran Turismo 6’s Red Bull X1, for example (but maybe not as extreme). Send a car like that to the Nurburgring Nordschleife in the rain, or if a game allows for it, Spa in the snow with special snow tires. Why shouldn’t the iRacing World Championship Grand Prix Series head to the Nurburgring? Nobody can get hurt, and it’s still within the realm of possibilities; let’s do it.
Lastly, let’s talk about the reward, and the inevitable follow-up. Sorry mates, I don’t care if some pasty white dude from Europe wins 250k USD. Sure, the Visa Vegas eRace put up a huge prize, but what is the winner going to do with the money, hookers and blow? We don’t know, only a few of us ever found out thanks to keeping up with obscure sim racing news websites, and that’s lame. Even with iRacing, they put up $10,000 for a championship win, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Three time NASCAR Peak Anti-Freeze champion Ray Alfalla was interviewed by Shaun Cole of The SimPit a few months ago, and it eventually came out that the multiple iRacing championships he’d attained hadn’t led to much of anything.
This isn’t exciting for the viewers. If nothing is on the line aside from a novelty cheque that’ll go towards copious amounts of takeout and an escort or two, nobody cares about a sim racer having his life changed by a five figure prize pool.
So let’s throw ’em in a race car. Organizers of an upcoming eSports series need to track down an amateur team willing to give a complete rookie a shot, and throughout the season have one of the team members come into the commentary booth as a third booth personality to evaluate the drivers from a racing ettiquette standpoint – and this means everything from throttle application, line choice, respect for other drivers, strategy… the whole nine yards. Whoever wins the championship receives a test day with said amateur team (so we’re talking Formula 4 or Clio Cup here), and that too is broadcast live as the final episode of the online broadcast – you spend all these races rooting for a guy, and the end payoff is seeing the guy you cheered for strap his ass into a modest race car and try his hands at the real deal. If he passes the test, he’s got a ride, and if he fails the test because he’s too fat to fit in the seat OR the skills just didn’t transfer over in the manner he intended, he walks home with $20,000 in prize money.
Provided the resources are directed into the proper areas which are lacking, sim racing can take off as an eSport, but right now organizers seem to be throwing multiple piles of shit at a wall and hoping it sticks. Unfortunately, it’s not – 22 virtual Kimi Raikkonen’s are parading around a circuit, and giving viewers zero reasons to tune into each broadcast. The ideas I’ve outlined above are ways to try and turn it into something more, but they’re just that – ideas. Maybe somebody will be crazy enough to try them.