Doing It Right: How Sim Racing Can Improve as an eSport

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.

Advertisements

When Community Modders Have a Point

Inspiration can sometimes come from the most unlikely of sources, and today’s entry on PRC.net really stretches that concept to new heights. In my journey down the YouTube rabbit hole we’re all very familiar with, one which began with IndyCar on-board footage and ended with theories behind how the Rothschild family operates, somewhere in-between I came across a rather lengthy critical piece on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 – yes, they’re still making those games. Since the rather historic chain of releases in the late 1990’s & early 2000’s, which were a staple in the households of many millennials, the keys to the franchise have now been handed to a company known as Robomodo.

In short, the game is now a complete travesty, with many mainstream gaming outlets who once handed the Tony Hawk series 9’s and 10’s when publishers hadn’t yet taken to bribing writers, are now dishing out 3’s and 4’s, urging people to avoid the product altogether. YouTube user Flippy’s review of Pro Skater 5 doesn’t just rip apart the abomination of a skateboarding game; near the end of the video, he discusses the THUG PRO mod for Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, a free community all-inclusive pack that surpasses the work of what was supposed to be a legitimate team under a very real contract to make a Tony Hawk game. In Flippy’s words, “a team of amateur game modders broke down and reconstructed the entire Tony Hawk series to make one kick-ass Tony Hawk game on steroids, but a professional developer can’t figure out how to ship a game that works.”

That’s pretty fucking sad for an entertainment industry that is supposedly bigger than Hollywood.

In the end, this sixteen minute video got me thinking about the sim racing community itself – have there been any instances where fans kicking and screaming about a developer releasing sub-par product resulted in a portion of the userbase actually going out and proving 100% they could do a better job? The sim racing community is known by and large for their inability to be totally content with a piece of software; always demanding more from the developers with little in the way of gratitude, to the point where certain teams actively grow frustrated with these folks, proceed to label them entitled whiners, and then surround themselves with ass-kissing apologists to counter-act what can sometimes be very legitimate negativity.

But have there been any moments where major teams have been unequivocally blown the fuck out out by modders figuring out how to implement features the developers themselves have failed to create, or in some cases said were flat-out impossible without a total re-write of the game’s underlying engine?

The answer is a very definitive yes, and it’s why sim racers like myself are hyper-critical of certain developer teams who make very definite claims about shortcomings in their simulators. If you’re being upstaged by kids in a basement after telling the community something isn’t going to happen, you really need to get your shit together.

We begin our journey with one of the most controversial elements of iRacing not related to rubber – the software’s complete lack of a twenty-four hour lighting cycle. For those who don’t pay too much attention to the world of iRacing, anytime these guys host full-length endurance racing events, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans or Daytona, the entire event – yes, all 24 hours of driving – is contested under static light conditions. It’s either daytime for the complete race, or pitch black. Goofy as hell? You bet, but anyone who dares to point this out will immediately be met with a flurry of iRacers trying to justify the lack of a day/night cycle by changing the topic of conversation to other elements the simulator does do a good job of, such as the organized races, driver swaps, skill ratings, and the emphasis on clean driving.

Turning the clock back 20 years to a piece of software constructed by largely the same team behind iRacing, when Windows 98 was the hip new operating system on the block, Lee200 of the Sim Racing Mirror Zone has created his own Day/Night cycle patch for Grand Prix Legends. This allows sim racers to partake in their own Daytona or Le Mans endurance events with the wildly popular 1967 World Sports Car Championship mod, complete with the appropriate lighting changes throughout the duration of the race that a game twenty years newer by the same developers does not have.

Another one of Lee200’s mods adds rain to Grand Prix Legends. iRacing still has yet to implement rain into the service.

After the initial excitement surrounding Assetto Corsa had subsided, hardcore sim racers hoping the title would serve as the spiritual successor to rFactor were left extremely disappointed by the game’s overall lack of functionality compared to the simulators which came before it. With races scored by time, wet-weather driving, night racing, caution flags, and preset pit stop strategies just some of the features Kunos Simulazioni chose to omit while simalatenously dubbing the game to be “Your Racing Simulator”, eventually the Kunos team began to open up about why certain features taken for granted in other simulators were suspiciously absent.

The reasoning behind a lack of night racing infamously was linked to the underlying engine powering Assetto Corsa, and became an inside joke of sorts within Assetto Corsa’s official message board. Only one light source had been built into the game – the sun itself – meaning there was supposedly no way for the headlights, nor the portable trackside lights, to properly function once the sun had dipped under the horizon. According to Kunos Simulazioni themselves, night racing would be something sim racers wouldn’t see until the game’s sequel, and the sequel hasn’t even been officially announced – just implied that it would happen sometime in the future.

YouTube user stratos0508, as you can see in the above video, managed to manipulate night time conditions into a functional state within the span of about ten minutes or so. Of course, the research obviously took a lot longer than that, but the key thing here is that the professional simulation team behind the game said this wasn’t going to happen in Assetto Corsa, and some guy on the forums sat down after school with the limited time he had, and created a rough draft to prove them wrong. Sure, it’s not an authentic 24 hour cycle, but this isn’t too shabby for one guy fucking around in his spare time; so a professional team should be able to turn things up to eleven and get it implemented properly, right?

Right?

Next, let’s talk about a game a whole bunch of sim racers like to rip on for a multitude of reasons – Need for Speed Shift 2: Unleashed by Slightly Mad Studios. After the resounding success that was GTR 2, many hardcore sim nerds saw working with Electronic Arts as the team turning away from their roots as a dedicated simulator developer, with the two Shift games omitting several elements that would otherwise appeal to sim racers in favor of a mass-market approach. Those suspicions were confirmed when both Shift games dropped, the first in 2009 followed by the second in 2011, each of them exhibiting a very strange hovercraft-like tire model; an experience made exponentially worse by slight input lag that was eventually patched out (surprise) by the community.

The vanilla versions of Shift are very strange pieces of software; they offer a fairly enjoyable Forza Motorsport-type progression system with a lot to see and do, but the on-track action just isn’t quite up to par.

Many hardcore sim racers over at NoGripRacing.com promptly set out to fix what felt “broken” about the games’ handling model; desperate to improve the actual driving model considering the game built around it was a solid replacement for Gran Turismo or Forza on the PC. What members such as B7ake found, were that select typos had been creating a mysterious “instant load transfer bug” that interfered with what was an otherwise very acceptable simulation physics engine.

As a result, the version of Shift 2 that you can play in the spring of 2017, using additional plug-ins such as B7ake’s G-Tyres mod, turn Shift 2 Unleashed into a very different experience that is far superior to the one you first messed around with and promptly shelved in 2011. Once again, a lone guy in his basement poking around in the software fixed a program that had been created by a multi-million dollar professional company.

Lastly, I want to touch on the Monster Truck simulation community that has grown exponentially over the past seven years, as it takes the concept of the consumers one-upping major game companies to the absolute extremes.

After the owners of Monster Jam, Feld Entertainment, made it very clear that all officially licensed Monster Jam video games would be designed with small children in mind, and basically turned into generic off-road arcade racers – a sort of Motorstorm for kids – hardcore monster truck enthusiasts instead gave the entertainment company a giant middle finger, ripped as many assets as they could from the multitude of Monster Jam PS2 games, and starting in 2010 basically built their own entire genre from the ground up using the french freeware title Rigs of Rods as a platform.

Feld Entertainment supposedly believed there was no market for a hardcore simulator that accurately conveyed the difficulties of driving a ten thousand horsepower truck in a realistic stadium environment, instead opting to send the trucks crashing through exotic locales and urban centers, sometimes bundling power-ups and nitro boosts into the affairs for good measure. Feld instead failed miserably in their market predictions. Select online events, such as the one I’ve inserted above of the first season-ending “World Finals” online race held in the Winter of 2010, boast more viewers on that single video alone than the combined sales figures of Monster Jam’s three most recent official releases. To put the view count of 102,742 on the first Rigs of Rods World Finals event into perspective, that one virtual monster truck race has been viewed more times than every single major iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series event combined over the past three years – an online eSport championship where iRacing gives $10,000 to the winner.

All of this, created by hardcore monster truck fans in their respective basements for sheer love of the sport, while the sanctioning body hands the license to literal shovelware teams, believing there is no market for a proper Monster Jam simulator.

These four examples I’ve outlined above clearly display that whenever the sim racing community kicks and screams at developers either cutting corners or producing sub-par products, sometimes, they certainly have a valid point. Like what Tony Hawk modders have done in response to the abomination that was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, the sim racing community as a whole are more than capable of putting professional video game developers in their place. I grow very frustrated when I see apologist shills or fanboys bending over backwards to defend certain sim racing developer teams, as well as the developers themselves blasting the community for “not understanding how hard it is to create a game or implement X feature”, or my favorite “if you think it’s so easy, go and do it yourself”, because we’re in a genre where bored kids in their spare time can and very well will upstage you.

iRacing doesn’t have a dynamic day/night cycle, but some guy figured out how to make it happen in Grand Prix Legends, a piece of software iRacing released almost twenty years ago on vastly inferior & simplistic hardware. Kunos claimed Assetto Corsa requires an entire graphical engine re-write to implement night racing, but again, some guy got it working in his spare time, so why can’t the professional guys do it? One sim racer at NoGripRacing rectified typos in the Need for Speed Shift 2 Unleashed handling model, transforming the game into a fantastic package after stumbling out of the gate in 2011, and obsessed monster truck fanatics built their own goddamn ecosystem which became arguably more successful than the officially licensed games themselves after the sanctioning body failed to listen to their continuous stream of complaints regarding the line of video games.

Just think of that the next time a developer whines about a feature being difficult to implement, or a fanboy claims you’re asking too much of a certain team. There’s no justifiable reason these studios shouldn’t have their shit together.

Soon I’ll Be Pro: Someone Made a Sim Racing Rap Album

verbal-chicaneryI’ll be the first to admit, I was ready to tear Verbal Chicanery a new asshole. I regularly cringe at some of the extra-curricular side projects avid sim racers tend to dabble in from time to time, such as creating audition videos for sponsorship contests typically reserved for real drivers, or filming their wives/girlfriends turning idle-speed laps in their simulator rig, so an entire album rapping about the obscure hobby of sim racing immediately struck me as the absolute pinnacle of how bizarre our collective community could get. I was in high school during Eminem’s resurgence of sorts, so I’ve seen what happens when a whole lot of delusional pasty white kids get their hands on entry-level audio recording programs, and combining that with the often-times embarrassing behavior of sim racers was as if I’d entered a special kind of hell designed specifically for me and about thirty other people.

To my surprise, however, Verbal Chicanery by Rhys Gardiner transcends many late-night ideas tossed around on TeamSpeak that should have been abandoned, if not entirely forgotten the following the evening. Featuring acceptable instrumental packages, creative phrasing, and an underlying lyrical theme that explores some of the shittier parts of sim racing which mirror a lot of PRC sentiments on the topics addressed in each piece, I’m actually left wanting more. Rhys found a sweet spot between comedy and insightful exposition, writing genuinely hilarious songs that also double as a commentary on how far off the rails sim racing has traveled. This is not an album intended to serve as a soundtrack of sorts to our virtual racing adventures; it instead openly mocks certain portions of the community with reckless abandon, continuing to dig into uncomfortable topics with the throttle pedal pinned firmly to the floor.

Split into two distinct sections, Verbal Chicanery is structured in a very dynamic fashion, with the first six tracks focusing solely on sim racing, before a half-time narrative piece setting the stage for the back half of the record – dropping the extremely niche subject matter in favor of broader topics acting as a throwback of sorts to pseudo-artists such as John LaJoie. The flow of the record is very cohesive, each song digging a little bit deeper into sim racing insanity before peaking at the very center of the record, and proceeding to dial back absurdity with the final six tracks, acting almost as a sampler of sorts for Gardiner’s other work.

The introduction piece is a little shaky, but Everybody LookVerbal Chicanery’s second track and first proper song – firmly establishes the album’s theme and stance. Gardnier is not here to tell us about the joy of these very obscure video games obsessed over by a fraction of a fraction of Steam’s overall userbase, but immediately begins ripping into sim racers who refuse to do anything other than participate in offline hot lap sessions with poorly-filmed YouTube videos of their escapades, or cherry-pick online races with a small field of competitors to prevent their egos from shattering after a defeat. Gardiner’s commentary on the subject is much appreciated, as despite the 16,000-member strong Reddit sim racing community, many titles that are routinely praised by the group feature pitifully small online server browsers, with games such as Automobilista struggling to attain more than 20 total drivers across all active sessions outside of league hours. It’s hilarious hearing someone put this passive-aggressive dick-waving contest into lyrics.

The following piece, Running Default, discusses the overwhelming amount of sim racers who seemingly have no fucking idea how to drive despite months of practice, and promptly accuse those faster than them of cheating when the driver in question tells them he only made minor tweaks to the supplied setup. This is a problem I’ve noticed myself across many online racing leagues, even when handing out setups to ensure people at least had a decent starting point with whatever car we were driving that season – there are a whole bunch of sim racers in our hobby who just don’t fucking get how to drive a car at competition speeds, and they can’t deal with it. It’s obviously frustrating to experience it first-hand, but hearing it described with tone & rhythm adds another layer to the message itself; it’s fucking annoying. Running Default benefits from great delivery and a simplistic backing beat, with Gardiner hitting his stride and feeling confident in his abilities as a random guy messing around with recording software. The combination of Everybody Look and Running Default was a great way to start the record.

Verbal Chicanery sputters a bit with Lights Out, a track nearly saved by featuring one of the better instrumental beats on the record, but after the very distinct theme set with the first two songs, the non-critical vibe of Lights Out contrasts too much with the overall tone being conveyed with the record. Lights Out lacks the one-two punch of humor and insight on the pitfalls of the sim community, instead being an underwhelming filler piece that is more along the lines of the corniness I first expected from this project. The lyrics try to address the nerves of making it through opening-lap chaos unscathed, but it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album – it’s too serious, too corny, too “oh my God, you’re rapping about sim racing, please stop.”

Soon I’ll Be Pro, however, absolutely nails the concept of sim racing comedy rap with flying colors, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of accompanying YouTube video will follow in the near future. This is the pinnacle of Gardiner’s creativity and it’s clearly the song that fueled the whole project; Soon I’ll Be Pro takes extremely specific shots at sections of the iRacing community and specific individuals in particular, who spend copious amounts of not-always-disposable income on absurdly high-priced simulation gear in the hopes of making it into one of two $10,000 iRacing championships, or landing some sort of real-life ride from their sim racing exploits. Had this been released as a single on the iRacing forums, or any sim racing forum for that matter, people would actively demand Gardiner’s head – it’s that good, or bad depending on your inner fanboy.

It’s clear Gardiner had a lot of fun both writing and performing this track, as the rich lyrics and uncomfortable, very direct knocks & impersonations take the piece to spectacular heights. If someone were to make a video compilation of all the cringe-tacular happenings in the world of sim racing, from Jason Jacoby’s eternal love for Domino’s Pizza and monolithic sim rig, the legally binding contracts for iRacing teams that don’t participate in any meaningful online events, the “sim racer’s girlfriend runs a sim team to feel included” stuff, and the guys bragging about injuries they received from direct drive wheels, Soon I’ll Be Pro is the soundtrack to the insanity. I want a video for this song, even though it may possibly go viral and make us all look like complete losers to the outside world.

screenshot2016-05-06at2-39-24pm-pngSadly, the pinnacle of Verbal Chicanery’s lyrical hilarity and creative drive marks a very steady slide that lasts for the final portion of the album. A guest appearance from sim racing YouTube personality Jimmy Broadbent serves as the album’s half-time split, shifting the remaining songs away from sim racing, into broader topics meant to serve as a demo for Gardiner’s other work.

While the final tracks all feature rather acceptable instrumental pieces, the lyrical content just doesn’t resonate in the same manner, which is why I’m left wanting a bit more from the original theme of taking the piss out of sim racing. Rag Top is the only notable standout of side two, starting off as a generic expose about modern American muscle cars before trailing off into trackday fights between two wanna-be race car drivers, and a clever Murray Walker impersonation, complete with audio effects to mimic a shitty YouTube upload of the race. Rag Top is good work, but other pieces just don’t feature the same amount of depth or creativity behind them.

I’ve suffered far through far too many wanna-be Eminem knock-offs over the past decade, but what Rhys Gardiner has put together as some sort of goofy project in his spare time to take the piss out of sim racing in a creative way honestly isn’t terrible. At least one of his songs deserves an accompanying video, and as a whole the lyrical content of his work draws attention to how ridiculous and annoying the sim racing community can be; it’s nice to see someone else going about what I’m doing here at PRC, but in a different and unique manner. I’m not saying everybody should go out and start messing with Cool Edit Pro, Garage Band, or Audacity, but Gardiner’s creation in Verbal Chicanery was worth the twenty minutes I set aside to listen to it, and that says a lot.

Can Good Simulators Kill Sim Racing?

mclaren-6_aeenhnpOne of the most intriguing aspects of the sim racing landscape compared to other areas of the video game industry, is how small, little-known indie developers can directly compete with major releases churned out by established studios – and occasionally come out on top in the long run. As we saw with Assetto Corsa’s rise to PC simulator prominence for about two and a half years – starting in the spring of 2014 and lasting until the summer of 2016 – even though Turn 10 and Slightly Mad Studios had pushed out comparatively huge racing games onto the market that dwindled what Kunos Simulazioni had created, Assetto Corsa’s active userbase only continued to grow. Steamcharts displays a pretty striking graph for us when we actually try to verify this statement with raw data, showcasing a massive surge in the popularity of Project CARS on its day of release, only for Assetto Corsa to slowly rise up the charts and overtake it in the spring of 2016.

comparisonBut can the opposite also be true? Is it possible for one simulator to be so astronomically ahead of its contemporaries, that the rest of the hardcore simulation developers simply can’t keep up and offer an equally compelling product? I believe so, and this is what might end up killing sim racing as a genre when all is said and done. Not the toxic community or the eternal science projects developers hold their users hostage with, but a game so good, it’s pointless for the others to even try. Those that do, will never achieve enough sales to keep the company afloat, and one by one, developers will simply fall off the map until there’s basically nobody left.

iracingsim64dx11-2016-10-16-19-59-16-57_1_origLet’s begin by taking a look at iRacing. As I’ve touched on in a previous article, back in 2008 when the service first entered the public market, iRacing was a totally different beast compared to every other simulator you could go out and purchase after work. While most pieces of software were just stand-alone games with a very generic, almost dated online component, iRacing offered this elaborate, mammoth online career with races going off every hour, and a genuine sense of progression to the whole experience that other games simply didn’t have. As a result, almost everyone who was interested in half-decent online races flocked to iRacing, while the once-popular rFactor leagues were now full of drivers who were simply too lazy (or poor) to upgrade their PC’s. At the same time, oval racing fans who had been patiently awaiting the next generation of licensed NASCAR console games, promptly abandoned ship from the woeful Eutechnyx offerings after only a release or two, and signed up for iRacing.

Even though other games had objectively better physics models and drove like proper race cars, it wasn’t uncommon to come across people on the iRacing forums, or on the in-game chat feature, who simply refused to install anything but iRacing on their PC’s because “I can’t race people.” Numerically speaking, there are a surprisingly large amount of sim racers for each game to have its core audience on paper, but iRacing did so many things so well, that if other games didn’t offer even a quarter of the iRacing-style online experience, people refused to even test the waters.

This is part of the reason why rFactor 2 stumbled out of the gate and had such a paltry following in the immediate years afterwards; people didn’t want an open modding platform with slightly better graphics when they were fairly content with a piece of software that had this massive online racing world to explore, and most of the cars & tracks they would have spent months building in their free time already available to purchase.

dirt-4-evo-6-carNext, I’d like to talk about what Codemasters are doing with DiRT 4. After years spent appealing to teenagers obsessed with energy drinks and the X-Games crowd that couldn’t care less about rally racing to begin with, Codemasters are set to bring back rally in a big way this June, with the release of DiRT 4 across all current generation gaming platforms. Unless you’re like that one guy on 4Chan who deems Mobil 1 Rally Championship (1999) to be the ultimate rally simulator despite its dreadful physics, there’s an enormous list of reasons to get excited about DiRT 4. From the mammoth roster of cars, in-depth single player career mode, and the randomly generated stages which promise a game you simply won’t be able to memorize in an afternoon, DiRT 4 basically ticks every last box fans of the genre have been asking for. Seeing it in action will obviously be a different story, but for the time being, this game looks really fucking good.

However, on the flip side of this spectrum, teams such as the folks behind gRally, the officially licensed WRC games, or even Milestone if they plan to launch another rally title, have absolutely no point in trying to make a competing rally game. gRally may offer open ended modding support, but no reasonable informed customer, let alone veteran sim racer, is willingly going to choose one add-on stage that took three months to build over a game where you press a single button and the built-in software presents a high-fidelity, seven minute stretch of road based on your exact perimeters.

As a result, these developers simply cant recover the cost of development with sales figures, because there’s one killer app on the market.

project-cars-2-directing-suiteLastly, let’s explore what happens if Project CARS 2 or Gran Turismo Sport end up being genuinely good pieces of software that are enjoyed by a vast array of people. Slightly Mad Studios are planning to inject all of this eSport compatibility into their upcoming title along with a dynamic track element, full seasonal weather effects, and a mass-market roster of cars with no major brands missing in the lineup. Gran Turismo Sport for the PS4 will introduce a dedicated userbase in the millions to the eSport kingdom, with a drastically altered progression system which moves away from the single-player grind-fest the series is known for, in favor of a rigid online structure akin to what iRacing offers. Essentially, the name Gran Turismo alone guarantees a huge crowd of people using the new online competition features of the title to its fullest extent, and potentially asking even more from it.

So how are teams like Sector 3, Studio 397, or Reiza Studios offer even a fraction of that experience on shoe-string budgets and minimal staff members? Currently, there’s a bit of talk that the three “indie” studios mentioned will implement some sort of structured online racing element to their titles in the coming months and/or years – and alright, that’s great, but if these mass-market games like Project CARS 2 or Gran Turismo Sport end up partially warranting the hype surrounding them, you’ve now got three developers rolling out online features they’ve spent a lot of money on implementing that are used by exactly nobody because someone else is doing it infinitely better, and an audience of nobody doesn’t keep the company afloat. And with how small these companies are by nature, they can’t go out and offer “something different than mass-market game X or Y”, because we’re currently in a period where the Sector 3 team still haven’t implemented tire pressures into RaceRoom Racing Experience, and Automobilista is still clearly powered by a modified version of a physics engine lots of us were first exposed to in 2006, if not sooner.

formula-v12-spaWe’re entering a very interesting time in the history of sim racing. While there are a lot of bold promises on the table from the likes of Polyphony, Codemasters, and Slightly Mad Studios, if these teams manage to accomplish what they’ve set out to achieve, the little guys – Studio 397, Reiza Studios, Sector 3 – they’re simply not going to survive. Right now it’s at least sort of worth giving money to everybody and trying out every game on the market, because there’s no one title that gets everything correct and is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. However, with Codemasters acquiring almost the entire team from Evolution Studios and experiencing a resurgence of sorts, followed by Slightly Mad Studios seemingly getting their act together and initial previews for Project CARS 2 looking kind of okay, and Gran Turismo shifting the focus of their franchise into the modern era, away from the Japanese-style RPG progression elements that once made the game a chore to play, we’re looking at a future where a lot of the smaller teams – such as those who don’t even let you create custom lobbies for the console version of their simulator – will be spoken of in the past tense.

Are an Over-Saturation of Streams Hindering SimRacing as an eSport?

npas-daytona1-1500This topic shouldn’t need a lengthy introduction, so I’ll make things as short as I can for today. The growth of the eSport phenomenon in very specific mass-market titles, such as Counter-Strike, League of Legends, and even the Madden NFL franchise, has led to a scenario where every basement-dwelling nerd armed with a semi-competent PC and modern high-speed internet connection believes the world deserves to see a live play-by-play broadcast of whatever online match they’re participating in.

Whether the footage focuses on the first person viewpoint of someone playing their title of choice into the wee hours of the morning, or is instead an elaborate production built to present the online competition as if it were a major sporting event – complete with some sort of amateur commentary team – the popularity of streaming has skyrocketed over the past three years. Gamers are not only scouring YouTube for hilarious gameplay clips accompanied by colorful personalities; they also want to watch this stuff unfold in real-time within a competitive setting. For a large portion of the planet, live broadcasts of League of Legends matches have become what Sunday Night Football is to traditional sports fans.

However, while other video game genres are prospering from this relatively cutting-edge way to consume these titles from a spectator standpoint, sim racing has become even more obscure despite an influx in broadcasted events. Hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to watch fighting game tournaments or Call of Duty matches, but simulators such as iRacing – who openly bill themselves as “the original eSport racing game” – reel in less viewers than your kid’s Christmas concert.

The reason behind this probably isn’t what you think.

shootout-streamAbove is a screenshot I snapped only seven laps into last nights iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze shootout, a 40-lap brawl that brought together the absolute best active oval drivers on the iRacing service for a quick little romp before the actual season began. Despite the iRacing simulator being a predominantly oval-focused simulator, with the majority of users residing in North America and flocking to the numerous stock cars found within the online-only racing sim, the broadcast attracted just over 200 viewers. Nick Ottinger, Ray Alfalla, and Byron Daley are some of the absolute best in the world at driving a virtual race car in iRacing’s competitive environment, and yet this “star-studded lineup”, the sim racing equivalent to rounding up as many of the best active League of Legends players on the planet for an impromptu broadcasted showdown, had less viewers around the world than what a local Canadian high school football team can reel in on a weekly basis for their games.

Make no mistake, 206 viewers is absolutely brutal for how much effort is being put into these events, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen such a low number on a major iRacing broadcast. Aside from the opening round of the season at Daytona, and the inevitable shitfest that occurs at its sister track Talladega, view counts for Peak Anti-Freeze series races – the highest level of sim racing in the world – never manage to acquire more than a few hundred people watching at once. It’s simply awful for the image iRacing tries to present to the general public; you have these massively elaborate broadcasts that are watched by basically nobody.

c1juohuwgaaj3lShifting gears away from iRacing, Formula E and the monolithic credit card company VISA held a one-off million dollar prize purse showdown back in January, dubbed the Formula E Visa Vegas eRace. Despite the enticing event format, which saw the world’s best virtual road racers compete toe to toe against the complete roster of Formula E drivers in a static setting that relied on driver skill over dialing in the perfect setup, the broadcast could only retain around seven to ten thousand viewers or so, most of whom mocked the dated visuals. We later learned the event was aired on a Twitch channel that primarily hosted Counter-Strike tournaments, meaning that for all the money that had been dumped into this supposedly world class event conducted with the FIA’s blessing, they couldn’t even stream the footage to the correct audience.

pit-lelIt’s a pretty dire situation when you look at the bigger picture of what’s going on; you have all these fantasy bullshit games skyrocketing in popularity that are being watched by millions around the world, but the genre of sim racing – which lends itself quite well to this online broadcasting thing – is basically stuck in a rut and unable to capitalize on the boom in any meaningful way, even with the help of companies such as the FIA, iRacing, and a goddamn credit card company doing everything in their power to spread the joy of sim racing. None of this seems to be working.

So what’s happening, and how do we reverse it?

Oct 11, 2015; Concord, NC, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Joey Logano (22) during the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

I think you could make a fair argument by drawing attention to auto racing’s steady decline in popularity away from the computer monitor, as both Formula One and NASCAR – two of the biggest racing series in the world – have struggled to deal with empty grandstands as of late, so if people aren’t going to the races in real life, why would they ever watch nerds on the internet compete in a virtual representation of it?

stands-inlineIn my opinion this is a decent argument, but despite the lack of people in the stands, nobody’s telling you the other side of the story. NASCAR tracks are removing grandstands en mass, but on the flip side, the NASCAR Subreddit is growing exponentially with each passing month, more and more YouTube videos about NASCAR are uploaded every day, and Twitter/Facebook stats always shoot up whenever there’s a big moment on-track.

The reality is that people just don’t go to events anymore because tickets are too expensive for what they offer, and the high definition, fifteen million camera television broadcasts by and large offer a better experience than sitting in a stationary spot for four hours out of your day, only able to see the cars for a second or two at a time. Auto racing isn’t declining in popularity; people are just consuming it in a different fashion. You only have to look at the 2017 release calendar to figure out people still fucking love racing at its core.

  • F1 2017 is due for release this fall.
  • DiRT 4 is due for release this summer.
  • Project CARS 2 is due for release this winter.
  • Gran Turismo 7 is due for release this fall.
  • Need for Speed 2017 is due for release this fall.
  • Forza Motorsport 6 is still being updated.

That’s a whole lot of major racing game releases by big-name developers for a sport that’s supposedly in decline and people don’t care for. And developers like Electronic Arts, Polyphony Digital, Turn 10, Codemasters, and Slightly Mad Studios are all teams that don’t just go out and make hardcore games for a sport that is falling like a rock in the court of public opinion. They’re in this to make money. Racing games still obviously make money judging by how many are coming out in 2017 alone.

So if auto racing isn’t dying, and racing games are more popular than they’ve ever been before in the gaming landscape, why has sim racing not taken off as an eSport?

The answer is actually pretty simple: too many goddamn people are trying to cash-in on the boom at once, and it’s over-saturated the market.

16930391_10154436905289001_1935531452_oThere is no cohesive effort to present sim racing as a legitimate eSport by a talented group of individuals who know what they’re doing, and the “market”, so to speak, is flooded with so much useless crap and amateur broadcasts, that any sort of meaningful viewerbase that would otherwise give sim racing a proper footing in the eSports market is instead split across hundreds if not thousands of miscellaneous videos. Above I’ve provided an example of what I’m getting at – here you have an iRacing user, who obviously has the technological know-how to stream some sort of sim racing broadcast, is going out and wasting it all on an iRacing practice session. Completely and utterly pointless.

On top of endeavors like this, you have so many private leagues that stream all their races for their 17 YouTube viewers, and an abundance of individual twitch users who hit record on basically any simulator they play, that it’s impossible as a viewer to figure out what you want to watch. It’s as if the National Basketball Association suddenly expanded to 485 teams overnight – which means no one series or simulator as a whole can gain the following needed to make the next step up the eSport ladder; there simply aren’t enough viewers to go around for the sheer number of broadcasts shitting up YouTube and Twitch. Everybody is trying to get a piece of the pie all at once, but the sim racing pie isn’t big enough for everybody because this is an incredibly niche genre to begin with, so what happens is that they’re walking away with crumbs, and as a result the genre doesn’t go anywhere.

iracingsim64-2014-06-08-22-59-09-57Fixing this doesn’t happen overnight, but there is a way to at least reverse from where we’re at right now.

There needs to be one major sim racing championship that is pushed to the forefront as the definitive online competition in the genre that everybody does their part to help promote, so outsiders or those on the fence can follow the action and think “wow, this looks neat, I want in,” rather than stumbling through a YouTube & Twitch landscape cluttered with amateurish sim racing broadcasts.

It has to have the best sim racers in the world, the best sim racing commentators calling the action, the best broadcast crew working to present the event in a professional fashion, showcase the best piece of software our genre has to offer, be aimed at a target audience who will be somewhat receptive to it, and boast a massive, meaningful prize for those who finish well.

The Visa Vegas eRace, for everything it got oh so terribly wrong during the abhorrent display in January, came the closest anyone’s ever gotten to launching sim racing as an eSport into the spotlight. There was a major prize on the line, a solid roster of drivers on the grid, and a professional studio-quality production fueling the whole thing. Before the first green flag even dropped, it made for entertaining TV.

But it was over too quickly – the race was a one-off exhibition event that was completed in two hours, instead of an entire championship where we could grow to know and love (or hate) certain personalities over an entire season – which is why a lot of people watch sports; the natural story lines that develop are pretty fucking entertaining. Yet instead of moving on to race number two with all of the competitors rattled by technical issues and a hastily amended final outcome, the credits rolled and that was it. Now what? Back to our obscure streams that nobody watches? What are we supposed to do now? Just sort of sit around and wait for all of these obscure rFactor 2 streams to quadruple in size?

Of course not. You have to keep it going. This is why you conduct a major sim racing championship instead of a one-off race.

Now in terms of simulation software, rFactor 2 looked absolutely awful – a kind of Flight Simulator 2000 vibe with modern lighting and reflections, so not a whole understood why this genre is so special to so many hobbyists. Straight up, you can’t be using rFactor 2 for this kind of thing. It’s just not the kind of software that looks good in the spotlight. Go away fanboys, you know it looked like a goddamn cartoon and this matters on this kind of platform. People were openly asking on the stream what was happening during the pit stop segment, because the cars were just sort of parked in an empty paddock area as if they’d wandered outside the map in an old Call of Duty game. You can’t have this. Sorry.

You also can’t have this event broadcasted on a Counter-Strike tournament channel. Here, I’ll put it in even simpler terms; you aired a Formula One race on the Golf Network. Good job.

And okay, Bono Huis won $200,000 USD… Good for him! Do we get a follow up episode? Do we tune in next week to see him test a Formula E car? Of course not! We have to head back to our obscure little websites, three weeks later, to see spy shots posted on a sim team’s Facebook page, to find out what happened to our champion. That’s not how you get people excited for the winner, or what future events may hold in store.

What you need is one killer championship. Because at the moment, you don’t have that – instead you have several minuscule tournaments that are spectated by only a fraction of the sim racing community.

maxresdefaultIt’s obviously a pain in the ass to coordinate a kind of all-encompassing world sim racing series to help advertise the genre on a wider scale, but you have to walk before you can run. Sim racers are burying themselves in endless low-quality streams of private leagues watched by twelve people, while the developers of the games themselves struggle to retain any kind of meaningful audience with their own broadcasts, simultaneously asking why sim racing hasn’t exploded in a fashion similar to League of Legends or Call of Duty despite how well the genre lends itself to a competitive platform.

You need to reel people in with one major production first, and you haven’t done that. Hell, you’re not even paying people to cover your events, instead telling them that “the prestige of the iRacing Pro Series is more than enough compensation for your work.”