Sim Racing eSports: Smoke and Virtual Mirrors?

It’s seemingly popped up overnight, hasn’t it?

In just a few short years, our favorite little hobby in the corner of the greater gaming sphere started receiving more attention than ever thought possible. What once felt like a quiet, interconnected ring of racing enthusiasts has morphed into this very loud melting pot of real drivers, rabid millennial auto racing fans, and brands willing to cash in on what’s supposedly a booming industry – or at least one you can argue is tangibly on the rise.

But as eSports championships pop up left and right, each offering higher prize payouts, higher production values, and more intense competition than the one before it in an effort to capitalize on the gradual upswing of sim racing, you’re not mistaken to believe something feels off and decidedly inorganic about the whole venture.

The supply seems to outweigh the demand, and upon a closer look, we’re not really dealing with just traditional growing pains, but rather serious questions that need to be answered.

Otherwise, the whole quest to propel sim racing eSports into the spotlight, might fall apart before it really even takes center stage.

Despite major sponsorships, the involvement of several pro football legends, and a presence on network television, it was difficult to ignore the obvious. When the Arizona Hotshots began their inaugural – and only – season of play on February 10th, 2019 in the Alliance of American Football, Sun Devil Stadium was an aluminum abyss. Supported by only the hardcore football crowd – and few else – photos of the putrid attendance quickly made the rounds on social media, and was a constant talking point until the league’s demise just eight weeks later. Sometimes, if you build it, they just don’t come.

Sim racing eSports are in the midst of this issue as well.

YouTube and Twitch metrics for some of the leading sim racing eSports championships, as well as the more intangible measures of support, don’t exactly paint the greatest outlook for this period in the hobby’s on-going evolution.

Let’s flash back to the middle of October 2020 – when I originally began work on this article for another website. Formula One’s eSports series visited the virtual Vietnam street circuit to begin their 2020 “Pro Series” season on what appears to be October 13th or 14th, and your boy was in attendance on Twitch to see the concurrent viewer number – a modest 4,500.

The YouTube numbers claim 500,000+ eventually tuned in, but that number is actually down 75% from a year prior – the opening round of the 2019 “Pro Series” season brought in 2,000,000. They somehow lost three quarters of their viewers in the span of a single year, and during a year when everyone was at home aimlessly browsing Twitch because their government told them it would save Grandma.

Fast forward to present day: NASCAR’s equivalent eSports championship, the iRacing Coca-Cola series, sat at just 11,000 views for their stint at Richmond on March 30th, 2021.

Assetto Corsa’s V10R league, a fantasy championship that sees professional eSports organizations using fictional cars resembling a futuristic take on early 2000’s Formula One machinery, amass just a few hundred clicks at most for each highlight. With just 2,160 subscribers, my own YouTube channel is actually bigger and I… really didn’t even try. An upload profiling James Baldwin as the most recent Driver of the Week has acquired just 441 views.

Unlike Nielsen data, these numbers are written in bold black digits under every broadcast, the virtual equivalent to tuning into America’s failed spring football leagues that have become fashionable over the past few seasons, and seeing a few hundred people at best in a stadium that seats sixty thousand.

It’s not the greatest look, and there are hints of desperation that bubble to the surface.

Certain clips of the V10R league spike to 11,000 for seemingly no rhyme or reason. A Project CARS 2 championship sponsored by Logitech and broadcast on Twitch encountered a “red flag” period where the race was suspended for around ten minutes due to a technical issue. During this time, the audience count increased by nearly 1,500 despite no racing actually occurring – something longtime sim racing personality Jimmy Broadbent personally pointed out in the chatbox. A second NASCAR eSports championship, intended for a more casual audience, saw an influx of comments inside the livestream chat advertise adult websites or make comments that had nothing to do with anything occurring on screen – spambots.

When consulting what are supposed to be the central online hubs for discussion regarding sim racing, the long-running RaceDepartment, or the streamlined SimRacing subreddit, discussion of eSports events – transactions, race results, drivers – have the lowest engagement rate of all topics on either platform. Furthermore, eSports drivers celebrating a victory or a hard-fought battle on twitter at first glance appear to have a small chunk of fans, but upon closer inspection, the people leaving little hearts on their tweets appear to be mostly… other drivers or administration from their respective series.

Whereas other eSports tournaments on larger platforms such as League of Legends or CounterStrike thrive both in viewership and organic discussions across the central gathering points for fans of each game, there is a tangible level of apathy for competitive sim racing that echoes throughout almost the entire community.

“I get the impression that outside of the events themselves and the people participating, there’s only a very small number of people who watch and follow the e-sports scene,” writes vernwozza in a post on Reddit’s sim racing section. “Don’t want to talk myself out of a job but even the F1 e-Sports events can’t fill a single cinema screen for the live broadcast. The final was full but from what I could tell it was all sponsors and guests.”

The raw metrics see sim racing eSports competing not with other eSports for supremacy, but instead with fallen YouTubers like Onision, whom after being investigated by Chris Hansen of “To Catch a Predator” fame, has descended into the depths of YouTube obscurity save for a small group of diehards who watch his decent into madness out of morbid curiosity.

It’s very hard to imagine sponsors or investors, sold partially on the idea that the hobby is months away from exploding into the mainstream, are satisfied with these very public metrics.

now this is how you build Go Karts, 5.5 excitement rating : rct

The more you attempt to network within real world racing circles and inquire about the logistics of both national touring series, as well as local race tracks in your own backyard, the less sense sim racing eSports makes – at least from a business standpoint.

Race tracks big and small exist to sell tickets, hot dogs, and beer. It’s really no secret why your local circuit jacks up concession prices to exuberant amounts – they are effectively playing RollerCoaster Tycoon and making use of the classic umbrella glitch. If a customer needs something, they’ll pay for it no matter how steep the cost. In RollerCoaster Tycoon, if it rains, all customers in your park immediately decide they need an umbrella and will pay anything for it. In real life, food is usually the more pressing issue considering most people over the age of eight understand we need to eat twice a day or else bad things happen.

In the world of sports, this business plan is called “gate-driven.”

This otherwise fairly simple lesson in economics, one you should have learned when your family PC was still booting up with the Windows 98 splash screen, effectively fuels the entire world of auto racing, and almost all pro sports save for the National Football League and English Premiere League. These leagues generate revenue by selling off television and franchise rights, an entirely different beast involving a lot more zeroes.

Here’s where the business plan of sim racing eSports is called into serious question:

What are they selling?

There are no tickets, and no VIP boxes to upsell to those already on the premises. There is no concession stand, and no beer tent. There are no radio scanners to rent out. There’s no merch trailer. With these championships aimed at the hardcore superfans of each respective game, it can be argued pretty succinctly that you can’t even sell copies of the game, since it’s entirely likely that every single viewer already owns the game.

If you’re wondering how sim racing eSports generate any revenue at all, or at least attempt to be self-sufficient, you’re just as confused as I am.

The answer is convoluted.

Venture capitalists looking to cash in on the next big thing could play a role, as could various brands looking for stress-free tax write-offs in the form of sponsorships. But given what I’ve already outlined in regards to viewership metrics, you can’t help but wonder if these entities are propping the endeavor up with injections of cash after having been misled about the state of the scene, and that the entire industry-wide eSports push is a house of cards waiting to collapse if just one person starts asking questions.

In fact, some brands have already been smart enough to ask these questions, as Nature’s Bakery did with Stewart-Haas Racing just a few short years ago. It just hasn’t been in the eSports realm.

At least not yet.

Speaking under anonymity, one race-winning eSports driver from the 2020 season who enjoyed seeing his name and mug paraded around Twitter as a serious contender in his championship, was very blunt in his assessment of the competitive scene.

“You’re not even making minimum wage, man.”

With no players union, let alone individual agents to guide a group of timid yet ultra-talented video game wizards into the unknown, things can get a bit out of control. Operating under the premise that this league might not be around forever, and in most cases lacking integral negotiation skills, contracts are quickly signed without shopping around or holding out for a better deal, roping kids into situations where teams expect absurd levels of commitment for pennies on the dollar. Those lucky enough to secure a more reasonable contract consider it a bigger victory than outright winning an event.

That is, if they’re even getting paid. Some series, such as the Gran Turismo Sport championships, abolished prize money altogether for 2020, and professional drivers turned sim racing ambassadors like David Perel have publicly come forward to reveal they have personally seen eSports contracts that are completely egregious.

When asked about his actual salary, our source offered a pretty sobering reality.

“I get paid $2,500 a year.”

His team owner can be seen appearing on motor racing talk shows far and wide acting as an ambassador for the hobby and boasting about the limitless potential of sim racing eSports, but behind the scenes, a much different reality is unfolding. Low pay designed to take advantage of naïve kids, long work schedules, petty infighting, and the growing pains of an evolving industry – and evolving games – all contribute to an environment far different than what’s advertised to outsiders.

It’s a lot to unpack.

“I could take you through a whole week of setup building and how it works for us, and you’d cry. Someone said last year we’re “setup slaves”, and I think I agree on that.”

Prior to the 2020 iRacing Coca Cola series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, competitor Keegan Leahy posted a sobering tweet outlining the borderline obsessive level of commitment needed for just one event on the calendar.

With no real world resources which could naturally impose limits on testing – there are always an infinite amount of backup cars at the ready, and unlimited access to the track in any condition imaginable – practice sessions balloon to extraordinary lengths and extend over a period of days if not entire weeks, blasting past the length of most single player video games on the market and instead eclipsing full-time job territory.

The goal is simple; pixel perfect lines, lap after lap, every lap. A level of consistency and perfection even the best of professional drivers – Juan Montoya, Max Verstappen, and Scott Dixon – cannot remotely hope to achieve, the first of many a divide between sim racing and the real thing.

“I can’t say it was a fun experience”, Leahy writes on Twitter, “but when $100k is on the line, you gotta pull out all the stops.”

God speed you crazy bastard.

Leahy’s 45 hours at the wheel practicing for just a single race are no doubt extreme, but to his credit Leahy exercises a healthy level of self-control. With iRacing providing detailed metrics of every race a user has completed on the service, Leahy kept this season strictly a professional affair, having taken a noticeable break from the game during the month of October and practicing on a somewhat formal schedule.

Not every driver in the eSports paddock falls into this category.

Thanks to iRacing’s easy-to-read licensing system, you can sometimes see “black stripe” drivers – the game’s special bumper sticker for an eSports driver – leisurely running two or three additional races per day. To take a break from practicing iRacing, they play more iRacing, sometimes participating in races well beneath their level of skill and which don’t warrant any sort of tangible benefit.

It’s hard not to wonder if this gets dangerously close to addiction territory, with the potential of a large payday used as justification for compulsively playing video games.

These 20-45 hours of endurance training sessions are typically spent with teammates on popular voice clients like Discord or Teamspeak, socializing with other eSports team members and preparing for upcoming races as a group. But with little common ground aside from a shared passion for motorsports, and the detachment of communicating strictly online, restlessness and the petty drama associated with all online gaming groups often sets in.

“The immaturity, toxicity, and hatred has literally drove me to the edge of quitting. And honestly I hate that, because I used to really enjoy it. Now it’s all about how much money can you throw at your setup builder.”

There’s a reason setup builders make on-par, if not more than the eSports competitors they’ve been contracted to help.

Sim racing setups require more than just an engineering degree. When you’re dealing with simplified math to replicate real-world physics, often times mistakes or over-simplifications are made deep inside the software’s code that have a butterfly effect on intricacies of each game’s respective physics engine.

This results in virtual mechanics bringing a wealth of race car knowledge to the table, effectively being forced to act as a third party quality assurance team in an effort to intentionally break each game. Rather than being able to efficiently consult telemetry readouts – increasingly popular in sim racing – and establish a useful baseline setup that can then be brought to each circuit with logical alterations, the rule book is almost completely thrown out in favor of grinding away at oddities, hoping to find anything of value.

Anything being, well, exploits. The kind of exploits usually reserved for the Cheats section at GameFAQ’s.

The iRacing scene has produced legendary stories due to the sheer competitiveness seen on the service. One season allowed a setup combination that produced nearly twenty degrees of camber. Another season allowed players to overheat their tires to the point where tire heat in the game stopped being registered and gave the player super grip, resulting in heavily understeering setups designed to capitalize on this – against any and all setup convention.

One particular build had an obscure bug that gave players completely different atmospheric conditions if they loaded into a race with less than 90 seconds remaining on the countdown timer, essentially giving random players a very tangible grip and horsepower boost. For several years, a simple coding issue in the game’s tire physics warranted more grip at lower tire temperatures, encouraging players to crawl around the track at traffic car speeds during their outlap to preserve low tire temperatures for as long as possible. When that was finally rectified, the inability to blow your tires caused players to perform multi-lap burnouts in an effort to warm their tires to near-volcanic levels of heat for just a single flying lap at the end of the session.

The average motorsports enthusiast sitting just on the cusp of qualifying for an eSports event, simply has no chance competing against what by all accounts is a third party QA team contracted out to play the game in increasingly bizarre and ingenious ways that have nothing to do with race car engineering, or driving a race car.

This goes against the whole point of a racing simulator to begin with, and leads to increasingly awkward PR situations as professional drivers conduct interview after interview vouching for the authenticity of these games, often while the game’s most dedicated and talented players are simultaneously saying the opposite.

“We’re not actually driving a simulator anymore, we’re turning it into an arcade game through setting up the cars in a way that’s not realistic; changing my driving style in a way that’s just was like driving an Xbox game. It didn’t feel like racing anymore, it felt like some sort of arcade video game.”

Joseph Burton-Harris, a former open wheel driver turned eSports competitor for top-ranked team Radicals Online, posted a YouTube video in April of 2020 explaining his sudden departure from the top of the iRacing competitive scene.

“It just wasn’t fun. I had to spend so many hours just to find one tenth, and although I was really poor in terms of my knowledge of the car and setting it up, I still had to spend that time with the engineers and I felt like it was just so much of a grind .“

And this is just the soft end of the spectrum.

Rumors of teams going in through the telemetry output system and coding their own, more efficient versions of traction control and anti-lock brakes, have persisted for several years. More recently, online personalities such as Callum Cross and the aptly-named masterlooser15 have demonstrated that anti-cheat systems can be easily circumvented, calling the credibility of nearly a decade’s worth of eSports championships into question.

Occasionally, guys like Tim Heinemann are caught using these hacks to turn on invulnerability or turn off fuel consumption in online races, but this of course means that for several races up to that point, they weren’t caught.

Staunch supporters of eSports try to make the argument that an equal level of cheating exists in real world racing, but there is a level of craftsmanship and ingenuity – not to mention a physical person on the inspection pad you have to somehow slip this all by –that goes into real world cheating. It’s understood by all involved to be a game within a game.

Adrian Newey can’t wave a magic wand to receive alternate weather conditions that only affect the Red Bull cars.

But that’s what’s happening here.

Braving the hyper-competitive, borderline obsessive climate and breaking into your eSports series of choice warrants another reality that can be difficult to swallow.

Some eSports championships are run with an iron fist, with rules so convoluted and totalitarian that often the entire point of a lighthearted video game competition is lost in favor of obsessively power-tripping on what are usually young kids just happy to be there.

Earlier in 2020, the rules package for a more casual-oriented NASCAR eSports league was uploaded to the general public in preparation for season two of the venture. The game itself, NASCAR Heat 4, was aimed at a much less dedicated group than its more hardcore, older cousin iRacing, with the game featuring simplified racing elements and accessible gamepad controls.

A quick run-through of the twenty five page document revealed strict restrictions on the games these players were allowed to play in their spare time, gave the series full permission to change each competitor’s name at their own discretion, as well as over-explained common racing concepts such as overtaking another car or “gamesmanship”, to the point where it’s hard to imagine some of these kids weren’t downright paranoid just turning laps.

Code of conduct policies took up an uncharacteristically large portion of the document, with each forbidden style or subject of trash talking explicitly outlined, when a simple “treat others the way you’d want to be treated” rule would have probably sufficed.

Ironically, this obsessive rules package didn’t even serve its’ intended purpose.

Nicholas Walker, a former driver for Roush Fenway eSports driver formerly operating under the moniker “wowTHATSgarbage”, took to Twitter after his dismissal from the league earlier this year:

“It’s sad that people can get away with the things they do now days and one can’t even stand up for himself when the higher-ups won’t get it stopped. Y’all removed the wrong guy in this situation and the community will tell you this.”

There is indeed some sort of plan for the future of sim racing eSports and the business model which fuels it, although upon closer inspection, it appears to be drawing inspiration from source material that isn’t exactly reputable.

Previously, eSports championships were open-qualification affairs, with off-season championships or a series of time trial rounds used to seed the 20 to 40 slots on the grid. Grassroots teams naturally existed in this world, with Radicals Online and Slip Angle Motorsports being two entities to establish themselves as permanent powerhouses spanning multiple games and racing disciplines.

In recent years, however, NASCAR, Formula One, and Assetto Corsa’s V10R league have all chosen to adopt the franchise model for their respective eSports leagues – a move which blindsided a lot of people. There was an expectation that those who contributed to the scene since its infancy would receive some sort of payoff one day, but instead they were pushed aside for outside organizations – though the team alliances and friendships are generally still present behind the scenes.

Outside eSports organizations, we’ll call them “teams” because it’s the more common term, pay for the rights to a franchise slot – in the iRacing Coca-Cola Series, this is rumored to be as much as $15,000 – and these teams then draft from the complete pool of qualified competitors.

As the popularity of the league increases, you start to have a lot of options.

You’ve laid the groundwork for a revenue sharing plan since you now have an official group of owners – par for the course in pro sports, which this model attempts to emulate – and if you ever plan to expand, you can theoretically charge way more than the original value of $15k and then distribute the “expansion fee” around the league.

In its infancy the franchise model might not look like much at all, but it’s not really supposed to; it’s setting up for a future in which the value of this stuff has grown exponentially (or you just tell unsuspecting suckers that it has), and you can charge exuberant amounts for a new franchise slot to line current owner’s pockets.

Or just make a ton of money selling a current franchise slot.

It’s the same business plan that fuels Major League Soccer in America, a sports league which not unlike sim racing, also struggles with TV ratings, sponsorship, constantly losing money, and organic support outside of very niche specific markets. Get in early for cheap in anticipation of a future boom inspired by pie-in-the-sky thinking, start a revenue sharing plan among all early adopters, and then jack up expansion fees to outsiders to line the early adopters’ pockets. The sooner you’re in, the better.

Which, as Deadspin and other soccer fans around the world have expertly pointed out, is dangerously close to a Ponzi scheme.

An odd blueprint to follow.

MLS Buzz på Twitter: "The evolution of #MLS expansion fees over the last  decade is pretty insane. #MLS2CLT… "

Last July, NASCAR driver Parker Kligerman appeared on NBC Sports’ talk show “In the Wall” to discuss the future of sim racing, one of many pro drivers seemingly all-too eager to sell the greatness of sim racing eSports to potential competitors, fans, sponsors, and investors.

As an enthusiastic young driver, it’s easy to come out swinging with grandiose ideas that impress the old guard of executives and exert a level of optimism for the future without saying much of substance, especially knowing your overlords are looking for anything that helps motorsports stay relevant in an era where less and less teenagers are opting to get their driver’s license, let alone head to the race track or buy a racing game.

But the growing pains of this endeavor can’t be ignored any longer.

There doesn’t appear to be any tangible audience outside of a few diehards. There doesn’t appear to be any way to make money off of these events, aside from baiting unsuspecting outside investors or brands into sponsoring them, and then pocketing the money for yourself.

The very competitors partaking in these events, have increasingly begun to voice that they’re no longer having fun, that they’re underpaid, overworked, taken advantage of, and forced to play these games in ways that are bizarre and backwards – often contradicting the actual goal of racing simulators and their respective marketing campaigns in the first place. For some, it has merely become a way to justify a video game addiction.

And the future plan to make this stuff profitable is to seemingly follow the model of a soccer league that has been mocked and laughed at around the world.

It won’t collapse, at least not right now. But if sim racing eSports continues on its current path, it will stagnate and fizzle out before it even really had a shot.

4 thoughts on “Sim Racing eSports: Smoke and Virtual Mirrors?

  1. Good to see you back. Shame about the job. You’ll come good with something else. Can you get a job with Reiza and help them out with Automobilisa 2. Getting a custom championship update soon, so maybe there will be a game there after all.

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  2. On GT Sport: They never had a prize money (likely because of Japanese anti-gambling laws that causes problems regarding prizes in professional eSports there). Instead, they gave out prizes from the sponsors (a TAG Heuer watch in 2018 and 2019, and a Sony Alpha camera in 2020 when Sony’s own camera division took over TAG Heuer as one of their partner-sponsors)

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  3. I’ve never cared for esports in general. Then again, I also don’t watch actual sporting events, I might watch actual races if they were televised here, but they aren’t. My mind sits firmly on local events where a group of mega-nerds come together to play a game they like simply for bragging rights at best. Maybe people toss in a $20 entry fee into a pool for the winner or something.

    Sim racing doesn’t have people interested in it. I know for a fact that my dad who likes racing and has partaken in actual racing events, thinks sim racing and esports are fucking dumb. He’s NEVER going to want to sit and watch some dweeby kids throw hissy fits with plastic steering wheels sitting in front of a screen. The only real viewers of these events realistically is the incredibly small segment of PC sim racers, and maybe Nascar fans being forced to watch iRacing events no one but sponsors take seriously. Even then, real motorsports is already having a major problem with viewer decline. It’s depressing to say, but I think racing in general is starting to go on life support.

    I just find it interesting that the games that have the biggest esports presence are the nerdiest, shittiest bullshit like DOTA and LOL. I have no idea how their viewership is so high.

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    1. Motorsports is dead or at least dying as much as I hate to admit it. Video game competitions of a dying sport won’t grow the fanbase much especially when you consider the pretentious and elitist atmosphere surrounding the iRacing community for example. I had some interest in iRacing before realizing how toxic the fanbase and game developers are and how bad the game actually is.

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