What’s going on?
Online racing is more than just a game.
eSports – competition surrounding video games – are rapidly shifting from a hobby to a profession attracting large numbers of players as well as serious corporate attention.
The Seven network announced plans this week to launch an online eSports broadcast network, while Supercars (formerly V8 Supercars) flagged the possibility of its own virtual championship. Overseas, Microsoft and Sony shed light on their plans for automotive eSports with new versions of the popular Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo games set to arrive this year.
Real-world motorsport is also welcoming gamers. The winner of a global Forza Motorsport competition will collect $US100,000 in prize money and stand on the podium at conclusion of this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. And the FIA (motorsport’s peak body) will recognise race licences earned through Gran Turismo Sport later this year.
Why the big deal?
Video games are a massive business.
Interactive media experts Superdata reported that the international games market was worth $US91 billion ($120b) in 2016, a number tipped to grow as people become increasingly connected. The world’s largest eSports tournaments – usually centred around shooting or strategy games – are played in stadiums to sell-out crowds watching teams battle for up to $20 million in prize money.
Seven chief digital officer Clive Dickens told AdNews that the network decided to jump into the space following an eSports tournament in Sydney that saw thousands of people watch expert teams battle for a first prize of $250,000.
“On that day at the arena, it was akin to me standing in a Victorian Football League ground in 1910 watching some of the first ever professional games over 100 years ago,” he said.
“We are at the beginning of what’s going to be one of the most exciting decades of the professionalism of eSports in this country.”
Motorsport bodies at home and abroad are taking it seriously, and even the International Olympic Committee is weighing up the possibility of including games in organised competition.
Racing games are incredibly popular.
More than 2.5 million people bought Microsoft’s Forza Horizon 3 – a game set on Australian roads – which helped the Forza series break through the $US1 billion revenue mark. That pales in comparison to the 300 million-plus downloads recorded by Electronic Arts’ Real Racing 3, a free mobile game that requires players to pay real money to collect cars and progress through its events.
Sony’s Gran Turismo franchise has recorded 76.74 million sales since 1997 and its next title, Gran Turismo Sport, aims to “promote the rebirth of motorsports”, introducing new legions of fans to racing through video games.
Players will have the opportunity to represent their country and favourite automotive brand in online contests, with the overall champions recognised at the FIA’s gala awards night. That means the world’s best Gran Turismo players will feature in the same ceremony that recognises real-world champions of Formula 1, MotoGP, the World Rally Championship, World Endurance Championship and more.
Sony says that will represent “a historic moment when a video game becomes a part of official motorsport”.
Sony, Gran Turismo and Nissan laid the foundations for automotive eSports in 2008 with the Nismo GT Academy, a popular contest intended to transform great gamers into professional racing drivers.
A handful of graduates are respected race drivers, regularly taking part in events at Le Mans, Bathurst and beyond.
Car companies are well aware of the appeal of games, using them to drum up interest in emerging models.
Game producers care because increased attention (and cash) will be tipped their way.
Organising bodies such as the FIA, CAMS and Supercars care because of the potential to introduce attract millions of fans to watch and take part in motor racing.
Gamers should care, because of the potential to win cash and prizes (sometimes sports cars) by practicing their hobby.
Former Brisbane courier Matt Simmons cares because victory in the Nismo GT Academy landed him a profession gig racing Nissan’s GT-R in Europe.
But few people care more than Darren Cox. The former global motorsport boss for Nissan now runs eSPORT+CARS, a virtual racing team that has taken victory in key competitions around the world – paying players to compete on its behalf.
eSPORT+CARS boss Darren Cox:
“We know that motorsport audiences are dwindling; we know we need something to bring the younger audience back to the sport and I firmly believe gaming can help do this.”
“We can’t draw in a new generation doing it the old way.”
Supercars boss James Warburton is open to the idea:
“The ability to bring Bathurst to life through an eSports event and giving fans the ability to race against our Supercars drivers is certainly a logical option.”
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach needs convincing:
“We are not yet 100 percent clear whether eSports is really sport, with regard to physical activity and what it needs to be considered sport… we have to carefully consider how this could be consolidated.”
2017 is a massive year for racing games, with the likes of Gran Turismo Sport, Forza Motorsport 7, Project Cars 2, F1 2017 and more set to attract millions of gamers from around the world.
Organised eSports feature in at least three of those titles, opening the door for the trend to grow exponentially. The FIA’s upcoming integration of eSports and physical racing will be fascinating to watch and it will be interesting to see how Australia’s CAMS and Supercars bodies sort that out.
People like Darren Cox are convinced that future world champion drivers are currently playing video games, and that it’s only a matter of time until a gamer reaches the heights of F1.