By now, I’m sure everyone has seen the sudden influx of iRacing shill pieces lately, published on a multitude of outlets from AutoWeek to NESN, often implying that drivers are getting picked up by major racing teams for simply using the service and being good at sim racing. While it’s nice to see iRacing actually trying to market themselves in a broad fashion compared to the past where they relied primarily on word of mouth, there’s still one major problem with their approach: iRacing do very little to cater to the road racing side of the experience – all of the advertising is directed primarily towards oval drivers and oval cars in oval series.
No wonder the costs of subscription and content suddenly went up as well.
iRacing recently announced a partnership with Kasey Kahne to be all over his Sprint Car, as it competes on the Craftsman World of Outlaws Series tour, they’re continuing with Ty Majeski into the NASCAR Xfinity Series, they’re on Clint Bowyer’s dirt late model, yet there is absolutely nothing to represent the other 50% of the service. The biggest market in auto racing, with mass world-wide appeal, is something iRacing has worked very hard to make lots of content for, and yet they seem to have no interest in actually going out and attracting that audience, at least from the public viewpoint – instead focusing everything on a very segregated series from the rest of the world, with both declining numbers in track attendance and TV ratings.
At this point, they are just doubling down on a market that has the most local appeal to them, but yet almost any oval racing fan or driver I’ve talked to already knows about iRacing, they don’t seem to be gaining anything from advertising to local short tracks, and then of those who are reached by the marketing campaigns, how many local racers look at it once, complain about the paywall that most people don’t bother to look past, and never take a second, more in-depth look?
Yes, you can get a three month trial for free with certain promotions, or free cars on top of the base subscription package, but you are advertising to people who most likely don’t have a wheel, and they’ll be forced to spend upwards of $200 or borrow one from a friend – who most likely already has an iRacing account himself to go along with said wheel – and in that case has already done the free advertising for you himself, again making your investment pointless. It just seems like money being thrown into a market they have already tapped, and the gains are now at a point where they’re just not going to match the investment.
Any oval racing fan already knows about iRacing, and on top of that, most of them have already made the choice to sign up for it or not. It’s all a bit silly at this point; double down on the oval advertising when there’s an entirely separate discipline of auto racing they’re ignoring, despite building an abundance of content for. I appreciate the fact that they are giving back to local racing… sort of… but they’re at a point where they’re trying to grow the service by preaching to the choir.
The other major flaw with iRacing’s marketing department that I’d like to discuss in this entry, is how they push their software as the “original eSport racing game,” or sometimes just as “the original eSport,” though I think that tagline was quickly rectified. Here is a place where I feel iRacing seem to have no idea what the eSport audience actually is, and their claims show just how little they know about the eSport landscape itself. First of all, the very beginnings of what we now know as eSports can be traced back to either the Nintendo World Championships in the late 1980’s, or the mass appeal of online Quake or Counter-Strike matches from the late 1990’s – and even then some of the older folks among us will override our claims with Pac-Man challenges in the early 1980’s that local taverns or arcades held, all of which were well before iRacing started handing out $10,000 prizes for their championship wins starting in 2010. In terms of being the first eSport racing game, that tagline is also incorrect; Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo both beat it to the punch by a significant margin, with Forza’s Showdown and GT’s Academy.
Another major part of the story iRacing marketing has seemingly omitted is the fact that every large eSport which they’re aspiring to be, has a massive userbase in the millions, mostly due to being free-to-play games or one time $60 purchases, all of which are designed with mass customer appeal in mind. iRacing can barely maintain 3,000 people online at once without servers crashing and the staff blaming it on a DDoS attack (when it’s really just iRacers mashing F5), yet they somehow think they are equal to League of Legends, reeling in 200,000 viewers for a TSM regular season match. Oh please, I don’t know if it’s just pure arrogance from the small team in Bedford, maybe being sent a blank cheque from John Henry gives them that kind of ego, but the fact is iRacing seem to have completely missed the mark, not only on WHO they are targeting, but what that target even represents.
One element all “simulator” games seem to have missed, is that if you are going to build an eSport, you first need the userbase to support said eSport, and massive paywalls are not going to get you the audience needed to support the marketing world that surrounds the current state of eSports. The only racing game with the potential to attain a decent eSport following has been Gran Turismo, offering a full private racing school followed by a legitimate Nissan contract, just for buying a $60 game. Forcing people to pay upwards of $400 in the cost of in-game content alone, for a chance at making $10,000 – a portion of which is taxed by the US government – seems laughable in comparison.
Games like League of Legends make almost nothing from the average player, but they compensate for this via optional in-game microtransactions that are mostly cosmetic changes to existing gameplay elements. This allows them to actually make way more money and massively increase their audience than they would ever make from a simple $60 purchase or a monthly subscription fee without being pay to win, or pay to play. How many people would play League of Legends if merely competing in lower tier competitive ladders generated a three figure credit card bill? Not many, and iRacing doesn’t appear to understand this. If iRacing were to drastically reduce the costs of the service, they would actually increase the size of the userbase and generate more revenue from loads of smaller purchases, as has been proven over almost a decade with numerous free-to-play titles.
As usual, sim racing tends to be stuck in the past, refuses to adapt, and we always have another one waiting to take the #1 spot. Sim developers all greedily fight for this small portion of the market, while console users hand over their wallets to companies like Electronic Arts or Slightly Mad Studios, all while complaining that the games aren’t realistic enough, yet scoff at the idea of paying anything over $100 for a sim. Not to mention the massive PC investment or the periphreals needed. Stuff like JJacoby88’s estimated $20,000 USD credit card-maxing sim rig, shouldn’t be praised; it only drives away people on the fence who go “yep, I’m never paying that much money no matter how good it looks”, and crawl back to their consoles.
Sim developers desperately need to realize who their target audience is, stop throwing money at targets they already have acquired, and stop the ridiculous paywalls that drive away any sort of casual audience they need to keep their games alive. Gran Turismo has already proven it’s possible to have both a quality sim with massive appeal that can attract the audience needed to support a full TV series, as well as get a major manufacturer involved in finding talented drivers, and that’s all while paying a much bigger team to work on their game off a simple $60 purchase.
The math speaks for itself, a $60 game multiplied by one million sales nets a greater profit than $600 in subscription and content fees, multiplied by only a thousand hardcore sim racers, and if you create a cosmetic item department, then the whales show up and you get the best of both worlds, all while leaving the casual, low income user unaffected and able to enjoy the full game experience – and thus generation more interest in watching the product they actively use.
That’s how to grow sim racing as an eSport. This stuff has to make sense financially for people on the fence, and right now, iRacing – the company with the best shot currently at establishing themselves as a legitimate eSport – doesn’t.