Imagine if, later this year, upon booting up your new copy of Madden NFL 18 and spending a solid twenty minutes tweaking your Ultimate Team lineup for it’s first taste of gridiron glory, you were instead paired against five straight online opponents unable to execute basic football fundamentals: most notably completing a forward pass or progressing past the line of scrimmage. And say you grew tired of these dismal opponents, only to fire up Modern Warfare Remastered for a different kind of online competition, subjecting yourself to a full hour of pubescent children shouting obscenities over the headset, all while aimlessly wandering around the map and mercilessly slaughtering their own teammates – you included.
It’s the kind of experience that would turn off the average person from immersing themselves in modern video games, but thankfully this isn’t a scenario that happens very often in the world of high profile officially licensed sports games, nor the yearly assortment of blockbuster first-person shooters. Though mass market American football simulators and modern military games have evolved into highly intricate affairs – virtually impossible for the average gamer to pick up and play with any sort of success – the average online opponent you’ll encounter during an evening of play still manages to put up a respectable fight and express an understanding of the core mechanics of the objectively complicated set of rules. Very rarely – if ever – do you stumble upon someone who is totally clueless at the controls and unable to contribute anything to the competitive environment; a feat made all the more impressive considering the millions of customers who purchase these games with each passing year.
Yet in a highly specialized hobby, one where dedicated auto racing enthusiasts – who obviously know all the cars, tracks, and techniques needed to be successful – spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to both build a dedicated gaming PC, as well as surround themselves with hardware that sometimes isn’t even necessary to complete the experience in the first place, the opposite rings true.
Unlike Madden, NHL, FIFA, or any popular competitive online game – where you can jump on and be thrown into a compelling match against somebody else within the single press of a button – participating in competitive sim racing events, no matter the software used, is often an exercise in endless pain and frustration. At the risk of sounding like a stuck-up asshole who seemingly scours the web in search of new reasons to loathe his favorite hobby, the honest to God truth is that an overwhelming majority of sim racers are fucking terrible at sim racing, and it makes for a very peculiar dynamic for those choosing to invest time and/or money into honing their skills at these games. Putting in the effort to become a skilled sim racer has next to no reward, because the community itself is so over-saturated with people who simply cannot drive in the slightest, performing well has little to no meaning if your competitors are spinning circles in the infield.
Sim racing’s absolute biggest problem, is that a solid 90% of the community members are unable to turn objectively competitive laps, and the talented 10% are spread across so many games – and leagues within those games – that genuinely compelling races are drastically outnumbered by opening lap clusterfucks and mind-blowing on-track incidents. Again, while I can boot up NHL ’17 and be treated to a fantastic match against a random opponent almost instantly, the same scenario in a hardcore racing simulator warrants something equivalent to public karting against a bunch of clueless women.
Given the recent push for these games to become not just quirky pieces of software for diehard auto racing fans, but instead a legitimate eSports branch, obviously you can see why this might cause some problems. It’s not much of an enjoyable competition if everybody sucks.
Friday night, I’m not gonna lie, I found myself watching one of Jimmy Broadbent’s streams, in which he invited some of his viewers to sign up for a private night of racing with him. Despite this being a private affair – sign-ups not optional, but required – within three corners, the opening Mazda 787B race descended into chaos; the host himself helplessly bouncing off opposing vehicles before another racer ran him off the track just a few short laps later. These are people rocking top of the line pedals, expensive PC setups, high quality steering wheels, and other miscellaneous items – can anyone say button boxes – on top of applications that display where opponents are residing from multiple angles in relation to your car, and yet the end result is basically destruction derby without the radical damage model. This isn’t a knock at Jimmy or any of the attendees participating in the event; it’s just strange how people who have invested so much into a hardcore racing simulator that wasn’t marketed to normies – but dedicated auto racing fans who have all obsessed over race cars for years – are barely able to play it.
What’s also strange is just how prevalent this all is throughout the community.
No, it doesn’t get better if you “join a league”, which is the popular response to those complaining about gigantic opening lap wrecks in public lobbies. Above is a screenshot of Eurogamer’s first Assetto Corsa championship race from this spring, in which the rather stout field was basically hand-picked from a “who’s who” of sim racing in Europe. Event organizers were forced to restart the race three times in a row, as the so-called top sim racers on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean were unable to progress more than a hundred feet without junking a large portion of the entry list. GoPro footage from Pablo Lopez displays this is more than just a byproduct of Assetto Corsa’s quirky collision physics, as there’s a beautiful on-board shot of him dodging the best sim racers in the world when the iRacing Grand Prix series visited Interlagos last season, and those chasing a $10,000 cash prize proceeded to wreck the shit out of each other mere seconds into the 2016 season.
In my own personal travels, I’ve witnessed multiple incidents during safety car periods – whether it be during a warm-up lap or caution period – meaning there are people in the community incapable of literally idling around a track at passenger car speeds; nothing short of pathetic. I’m also genuinely surprised when people adhere to blue flags, move over for faster cars out of respect, flash their headlights as a form of communication, or exhibit basic common courtesy when it comes to either pitting, or merging back onto the race track – as these are all extremely rare to witness. In one instance I also saw a league earlier this year struggle with such an abundance of wrecks, they were forced to run road course races without full-course yellows after their races turned into elaborate car parades from all of the caution periods.
For a community consisting entirely of avid auto racing fans, it’s truly bizarre how only a fraction of the participants can conduct themselves in a manner that implies they sort of know what they’re doing. Instead, I routinely see people either driving far over their heads, or totally clueless about what’s occurring around them and just sort of pointing the car in the general direction it’s supposed to go, almost like it’s a system link game of OutRun 2 in their local arcade and they’re still learning the nuances of the physics engine.
Speed is an entirely different topic, though I’ll be less lenient than I traditionally have been when covering this subject in the past. Look, it’s okay to be a second off pace and hanging around in the middle of the pack, maybe slinging it out for seventh if you’re lucky because you either blew the setup, aren’t all that experienced with the cars, or are still finding your comfort level behind the toy steering wheel. That’s totally fine; I don’t think anyone has gotten into this hobby and become a phenom, right out of the box. However, now that we’re halfway through 2017, and with social media playing such a prevalent role in our world, there are now several hundred truckloads of YouTube tutorials, guides, books, and sim racing personalities all uploading their own unique tips on how to become a better sim racer – 99% are publicly available at no cost whatsoever.
No, the community should not consists solely of aliens and cyborgs, who have dedicated every lunch break at work and three hours in the evening to perfecting their craft in the hopes of becoming an eSports superstar, but with all of this information publicly available in such a digestible, user-friendly, there’s no excuse for being a particularly bad sim racer. Yet I’ve been participating in Will Marsh’s Mazda 787B league over on SimRacingSystem under the SimRacingPaddock banner – you know, the app you’re supposed to download for close, competitive online racing – and that’s what I’ve been seeing as of late: bad sim racers. I shouldn’t have five wins in six starts, unable to see second place in my mirror, and lapping drivers after ten minutes into a twenty minute race; guys who are blowing braking points left and right as if they’re a teenage girl dragged out to public karting by her older brother.
But somehow, that’s where we are as a community. The “best sim racers in the world” wreck the shit out of each other on lap one during public broadcasts, and those not in contention for a five figure paycheck from iRacing are basically rolling hazards. Those in-between are a mix of the two, and I just don’t feel it’s necessary to treat this subject with kid gloves when there are near-infinite resources out there on how to become a better pretend race car driver. It’s fine to be a bit slow; not woefully off pace and a literal safety hazard.
Even worse, is when you take into consideration that our planet is largely a static entity, and many of the tracks we all flock to in our preferred virtual environment have been appearing in video games for what’s now generations upon generations – as there’s a finite number of both existing and historic racing circuits developers can choose to insert into their video games. Yes, everyone knows that turn one at Monza is a complete shit-show and to expect varying levels of chaos, but we’ve also had eighteen years of Formula One games to prepare for it and get better. Some of you guys have been turning laps at Monza in front of your PC longer than certain drivers on the Formula One grid have been walking the planet, so at least in my opinion there’s absolutely no excuse for the tomfoolery that occurs each and every event – as you can see in the header for this article.
You’ve had decades to learn Monaco, the Nordschleife, Laguna Seca, and I guess we could even throw Le Mans into that mix if you owned a Sega Dreamcast at the right time. I don’t understand how people haven’t figured out the corkscrew at Laguna Seca when the track layout has remained unchanged since Gran Turismo 2 hit the original PlayStation in 1999, and the fundamental act of driving a race car hasn’t exactly changed since driving games became a thing – though obviously the physics fidelity has improved. But alas, the sheer number of sim racers who are completely unfamiliar with even the most prestigious of locations, despite the money they’ve spent on the hobby, is pretty mind-blowing.
It’s very depressing to witness as someone who’s a moderately skilled sim racer. Obviously, I have found a couple good leagues to partake in over the years – a special shoutout to the guys at RealishRacing, that shit was wild – but given the kinds of people these games are built for in mind, and the sheer number of sim racers who dive head first into the hobby – going the extra mile to purchase PC upgrades, triple screen setups, expensive wheels, pedals featuring force feedback, and even VR headsets for that last bit of immersion – the talent level should be significantly higher than it currently is.
The biggest problem with sim racing isn’t the unfinished games, the hostile developers on shoe-string budgets, the sim dad’s blowing hundreds on placebo gear, aggressive fanboys, or the beautiful disasters of the community who will file false DMCA complaints on you for uploading obscure NASCAR game mods away from their preferred website. No, those are all just metaphorical cake decorations.
It’s the fact that if I boot up Madden right now, I can be matched against a dude from Detroit who’s high as fuck and in the midst of arguing with his baby momma over child support, yet for twenty minutes we can have an absolutely killer back and forth battle on the gridiron that I’ll remember for the rest of the week. But if I jump in a lobby full of so-called hardcore sim racers, guys who have spent hundreds on top of the line gear and lurk the forums endlessly at work while claiming to have followed CART, Formula One, NASCAR, or sports car racing since the 80’s, they’ll either be embarrassingly slow to the point where they will be an absolute non-factor, or destroy the entire field before we can get up through the gears.
Sim racing’s progress is actively hampered by the absurdly low collective talent level of the userbase, and this will only serve to intensify once the push for eSports integration increases. These games aren’t fun to play when such a large portion of the community are downright fucking terrible drivers, and would you look at that? Developers think this is the perfect time to shoe-horn us into playing with the community even more.