It’s a sentiment shared in memes, but never seriously discussed. Sim racers are often happy to mock gigantic opening lap wrecks and pathetic displays of driving ineptitude, but unable to to look inward at the root cause of this embarrassing phenomenon. Make no mistake, sim racing as a hobby can, under ideal circumstances, provide thrills unlike Battlefield or Destiny; a hard-fought race is something you’re left reminiscing about for the rest of the evening compared to the fleeting feeling of a good Kill/Death ratio in Call of Duty, but this scenario is quickly becoming a rarity.
The average sim racer is atrocious at sim racing, and this is a sentiment I’ve expressed in past articles on PRC, but only explored on an anecdotal level. Whereas you can usually boot up a game of Madden and be matched up against someone who at least understands the game of football, the “quality of play” in sim racing is practically non-existent. Despite appearing in video games for over two decades, turn one at Monza is still a mess. NASCAR fans flock to virtual versions of Daytona or Talladega in online lobbies, but often wipe out the field before the cars have completed a full lap – only to do it all over again thanks to hyper sensitive caution flags until only one driver remains. Practice sessions are not dick-waving contests over lap times as they should be, but wastelands of broken cars parked along the side of the racing surface; participants careening about as if their parents took them go-karting for their tenth birthday, and they’ve invited their mates along for the ride.
This makes the process of actually becoming proficient at racing simulators, extremely unrewarding. It’s like the hobby has been pumped full of the same Christmas noobs you’d see in Call of Duty every holiday season; players who awkwardly stumble around maps they’re unfamiliar with, reduced to cannon fodder for the early adopters who have owned the game since launch. This is sim racing in a nutshell; confused hobbyists struggling to learn car after car, and track after track, with not much in the way of success as the one or two freaks utterly decimate them. Cannon fodder is great in Call of Duty because it allows you to rank up quicker and unlock the weapons you’ve been eyeing, but in sim racing this instead actively undermines the point of the genre.
People get into sim racing for the sheer rush of racing, or at least as much of a rush that piloting a fake car from the comfort of your man cave can provide. And as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this scenario isn’t impossible; if you love auto racing, a good race is a good race – it doesn’t matter if it’s your favorite driver on television winning by a bumper, or running inches apart from your buddy on the other side of the world. Blowing out the field by thirty four seconds because half of them are upside down, however, isn’t a rush.
It’s quite boring, and most importantly, doesn’t make the people who otherwise love what sim racing represents, want to keep playing. This is an especially large predicament when two of the biggest games in the genre have been designed specifically for playing with others. Private leagues are said to clean up the driving standards to an extent, as are elaborate matchmaking systems that sort drivers by their on-track etiquette – in theory a fantastic design decision.
But what if I told you that all the innovations in the world can’t fix sheer stupidity on behalf of the community, and I’ve got the data to back it up?
The reality of the situation is that sim racing will never succeed as an eSport or a genre, because the on-track product critical to one’s enjoyment of any given title is too reliant on a community whose collective talent level is so preposterously bad.
Originally developed as a ranking system for competitive Chess matches, Elo calculations first found themselves integrated into the world of sim racing with the release of iRacing all the way back in 2008. Though games on Microsoft’s Xbox Live platform frequently made use of the calculations for matchmaking, iRacing’s entire operation revolved around the Elo concept – which was pretty ingenious on paper. Rooms would be seeded by Elo rank in descending order, creating a situation where the best always raced against the best, mid-pack drivers dueled for promotion, and backmarkers would have a friendly environment to improve their skills without getting annihilated by try-hard sim racers.
The concept of Elo is fairly simple; while iRacing doesn’t publicly display your rank until “graduating” into a new license category, every driver begins with a base Elo rank of 1350. Placing in the top half of the field increases this number, while placing in the bottom half obviously decreases the value. Winning a race outright pays out the most Elo points – somewhere between 70 and 110 – yet as you progress through iRacing’s ecosystem, merely placing well against drivers of a much higher Elo rank is more than enough to travel up the leaderboards. This is partially what allows talented sim racers to register for iRacing sight unseen and instantly find themselves to be a recognizable face within the community; a couple of wins or stout finishes in short succession, and your Elo rank will seed you in races among the best because you’ve obviously demonstrated you can compete on a high level from the get-go.
However, the implementation of Elo in the hobby’s most prolific community has also created an unintended way to gauge the validity of one’s musings. Those who display their Elo rank prominently in their personal forum signature openly broadcasts to the world what kind of driver they are. It is quite comical to see sim racers with drastically low Elo ranks discussing physics or racing techniques, only for a portion of their own post to automatically invalidate anything they’ve contributed to the discussion. iRacing’s greatest achievement is not creating a massive online platform for racing, but rather implementing an automated bullshit detector in a hobby notorious for misinformation. You can learn to avoid someone’s car setup advice, hardware reviews, or opinions on other games just by looking at an innocent number.
Which obviously means there’s a database of these numbers. And in turn, we can analyze said database to further learn about the sim racing community as a whole.
Buckle up. Y’all won’t like this.
There are 42,436 members on the iRacing.com service who have made at least one start on the American oval racing side of the simulator – an act alone that indicates they’re taking the hobby at least somewhat seriously. Of that sample size, which despite focusing solely on ovals is still large enough for us to use, only 18,232 were able to improve upon their Elo rank from the default starting value. This means that a whopping 57%, or close to three out of every five hardcore sim racers, are certified backmarkers unable to outweigh seriously poor performances with borderline acceptable results over multiple races in a structured setting.
These are not stoned teenagers renting NBA 2K from Blockbuster and getting blown out by the AI for trying to shoot threes with Shaq. That’s not the iRacing crowd at all. These are people who are spending hundreds of dollars on computer upgrades and toy steering wheels, yet are unable to finish at least sixth in a twelve car field, or fifteenth in a thirty car field, once or twice out of every four races to maintain a net positive Elo rank.
This kind of abysmal performance from a lone individual is possible by signing up for multiple races in a row, and then just walking away from the computer without even launching the iRacing application. It is highly unlikely that roughly 25,000 hardcore sim racers – nearly 60% of all drivers who have ever made an oval start on iRacing, even if it was just out of curiosity – undertook those same procedures. We are talking about a majority of the service being so statistically incompetent behind the wheel, they have fallen below the default Elo rank provided to them when they register. This is an incomprehensible lack of talent; three out of five sim racers are unable to drive in a circle and finish mid-pack against drivers of a similar skill level.
These people of course then go out and purchase other racing simulators, and then shit up online races in those games as well.
A victory, as mentioned above, can net you anywhere from 70 to 110 Elo points, with placing in the top half offering less and less points as you move closer to the center of the pack. Over the years, certain Elo milestones have become status symbols among the iRacing community; during my time on the service, the number a lot of guys had been shooting for was 5,000, though this has since changed due to an influx of new users making for easy cannon fodder, and the same old personalities remaining on the service to grind for points – therefore dishing out even bigger rewards for those who manage to beat them.
The first semi-superficial milestone to achieve would be the 2,000 Elo rank mark, which for any competent driver can be achieved in just an evening of play on iRacing if we’re going off the numbers listed above. Getting home from work at five in the afternoon, signing up for iRacing, and placing well in one event per hour until bedtime, or just winning a few races back to back, will put you over the 2,000 milestone with relative ease. Those pressed for time may take longer, but the core concept is simple; amassing 2,000 Elo points is something that can be done in a handful of starts. Most of these races, at least on the oval side, last for a paltry eight minutes. It’s not a lot of work.
Of course, that’s the best case scenario, in which you’re coming from other simulators you’ve traditionally done quite well in and generally understand how a simulator is supposed to be driven. As I’ve already noted, you don’t have to be a legend to obtain Elo points; merely finishing in the top half of the field warrants a positive Elo gain, even if that gain may not be as substantial as outright winning races.
Therefore, you can easily attain the 2,000 Elo milestone from the default 1,350 in just three nights of light play by basically turning a qualifying lap without spinning the car, and then maintaining your position. Considering we have already established 57% of the people you’re racing against are incompetent backmarkers who are woefully off-pace, failing to achieve the 2K mark is pretty much impossible unless you are purposely crashing into walls.
Only 16% of hardcore sim racers have completed this goal. By playing iRacing for three nights and making zero effort to do anything aside from turn laps in fourth place, you are already a better driver than 85% of the hardcore simulator community.
But it’s when we get to the score of 3,000 Elo that things start to take a turn for the worse. Attaining this score on paper is the numerical equivalent to winning seventeen races; a bit much to ask for a complete newcomer, but given those on a quest for 3,000 have most likely progressed into more prolific classes and are undoubtedly racing against higher skilled rivals, their net Elo gain from just riding around in fifth and not causing any problems in the company of superior drivers will be almost as much as a race win against inferior opponents.
Given iRacing’s tendencies to chop the length of fixed setup oval races in half from what they were the previous season, an Elo rating of 3,000 shouldn’t take more than a week of light play after work to achieve. We’re talking two or three races per night, a commitment of maybe thirty minutes total, starting on Monday and ending on Friday.
Only 5% of hardcore sim racers have gotten past the 3,000 Elo marker. Understanding how iRacing works, and knowing how easy it is to amass Elo when first starting out on iRacing, we are looking at a situation in which 95% of hardcore sim racers are unable to establish themselves as competent, mid-pack drivers who can bring the car home in one piece.
57% of hardcore sim racers are unable to offset numerous poor finishes with acceptable results. What constitutes as a poor result in this very specific data point? It’s pretty simple: placing in the bottom half of the running order, something that usually happens due to crashing out prematurely. In other words, over half of the sim racing community, based upon a sample size of 42,000, is incapable of finishing a race. These are people who supposedly eat, sleep, and breathe auto racing.
85% of hardcore sim racers are unable to maintain a brief upward climb of acceptable results. There is a shocking lack of consistency and progression among the average sim racer, to the point where simply maintaining a string of satisfactory finishes over a period of two or three days is out of reach for the majority of sim racers. In a traditional joypad-based game, let’s take Super Smash Bros. for example, a new player will start out potentially not performing well against the AI, but as their understanding of the game improves, both their mastery of the controls, as well as their win percentage, will steadily improve.
According to the data available to us, the majority of sim racers are unable demonstrate any sustained improvement in their skills. Imagine trying to practice guitar every day, but never getting past an off-tempo version of Smoke on the Water for months, if not years on end? This is what three out of every four sim racers experience when taking up this hobby. They’re simply no better than when they first started.
95% of hardcore sim racers fail to make significant strides behind the wheel. The 3,000 Elo threshold is not an elitist status symbol, but merely a tangible milestone indicating said sim racer is able to demonstrate he has some grasp of what’s needed to drive a virtual race car consistently, and has made at least some sustained progress in building his set of skills.
In other words, an estimated 5% of the sim racing community actually have a clue behind the wheel, the other 95% are no better or worse than the very first day they unpacked their plastic steering wheel.
Using the data extrapolated above, in a field of 20 cars for an online event, it means there are basically two people at most who are a genuine threat to win the race. Roughly eleven drivers will struggle with consistency to the point where they are well off-pace and either crash out or are overtaken by the leaders, whereas seven may demonstrate brief moments of competence and may not be as far back as the others, but are otherwise still inconsequential to the outcome of the race.
Let’s see how close those estimated numbers are compared to a real league race. In this example from last year, we had three drivers retire from accidents, and seventeen that were beyond the consistency required to challenge for the lead.So basically, three people actually enjoyed themselves out on the race track and were able to partake in the thrill of sim racing. The other 85% were most likely bored to tits. The data we could extrapolate from iRacing’s leaderboards aligned almost perfectly with a random race I’ve pulled from the fine gentlemen at Realish Racing (these guys run a great show and I was extremely happy to compete with Mike, Craig, and Lee for a title).
Well first off, it means a Driving School mode is almost mandatory at this point for any future racing game under development. Not YouTube videos, an actual interactive school. More than half of hardcore sim racers are unable to either complete a race, or simply walk away satisfied with their performance in their most recent online session where restarts are not an option. Three out of every four sim racers can’t even make any light progress behind the wheel when compared to the day they first started. We are talking almost an entire community in which every single day behind the plastic steering wheel is no better or worse than the day before it.
Is that not a giant red flag to try and help these people? Hello? I don’t give a fuck about your third GT3 physics revision – the people playing your game have no fucking idea how to play your game! There are bigger things to worry about!
Second, it actually explains why simulators as of late aren’t selling. Sim racers are spoiled for options, literally spoiled! Yet games such as Automobilista, RaceRoom, and rFactor 2 boast very little activity compared to giants such as DiRT Rally, Formula One 2017, Assetto Corsa, Project CARS 2, and iRacing. Why? The majority of the community fucking suck at the first or second sim they’ve bought, so they’re really not itching to try the ultra hardcore stuff. Instead, purchases come primarily from the 5% I’ve mentioned above.
Third, we now know there is underlying data to suggest why public lobbies across a multitude of racing games are such a nightmare. If only 5% of the community are able to slow down and brake for corners on a routine basis, no wonder every single opening turn becomes a wasteland of trashed race cars. Competent sim racers who understand the basics of performance driving are a legitimate endangered species.
Fourth, almost everything you read on a message board should be taken with a grain of salt if it isn’t already. How are we to be so sure John Smith has put out an accurate review of a new simulator or substantial physics update, when close to 60% of sim racers are prone to consistently junking their cars or being well off pace? It’s like an entire guitar enthusiast forum flooded with guys who literally just picked up a guitar that day.
Yet the biggest takeaway of them all, is the simplest. The average sim racer isn’t merely average, they’re downright brutal. And that is very strange in a hobby centered around depicting automotive competitions in a virtual environment.