Why motorsport’s love of esports has been bad news for simracers


Posted on

| Written by

There are few simracing event bigger or more prestigious than last weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual – if any.

Featuring 43 entries and 172 drivers featuring some elite names in simracing and real world motorsport – Romain Grosjean, Jeffrey Rietveld, Felix Rosenqvist, Jimmy Broadbent – the event received lavish broadcast presentation with veteran Martin Haven on commentary, Alex Brundle offering analysis and live links to Hayley Edmonds interviewing drivers between stints, just like the real thing.

If there were any doubts as to how serious this event was and how seriously the team was taking it, the €2,000 entrance fee to participate and the $250,000 prize fund should speak for itself. And if the event needed any more legitimacy, it could do no better than the participation of Max Verstappen – the reigning two-time Formula 1 world champion.

But beyond the race-breaking server problems and random disconnection issues that plagued last weekend’s event and led to Verstappen justifiably decrying how their chances of an overall victory were taken from them through no fault of their own, there’s a much larger problem of which the Virtual Le Mans is simply a symptom of – that simracing is becoming far too exclusive.

Verstappen is a simracing enthusiast
Anyone who has ever attempted to participate in any form of motorsport, even at a local or club level, knows how expensive it is to race no matter what you drive. While Formula 1 fans have scoffed at some of the ‘talented’ rich drivers who have reached the sport in decades gone by, it’s true that, as a driver, your funding can dictate your opportunities no matter what level you compete at.

That was not supposed to be the case with simracing and esports.

Yes, coughing up for a PC powerful enough to run a simulator at a decent frame rate, buying a wheel and a rig to have maximum control and maybe some extra monitors to improve your peripheral vision isn’t cheap. Paying for a subscription to iRacing or to download new cars and tracks is another expense. But once you’ve swallowed the initial costs, the reality is that simracing is so much cheaper than real world motorsport.

You don’t have to pay for fuel every time you take to the track in Assetto Corsa Competizione. You don’t have to pay for registration or annual license renewals in Gran Turismo. And if you wreck you car against a tree in Dirt Rally, repairs will only cost you in in-game currency you can easily earn back, with not a single penny lost from your bank account.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

IndyCar has a long relationship with iRacing
With simracing offering a more viable option for many motorsport enthusiasts to take part in the sport they love while on a budget, while studying or as a parent with a full-time job, it’s no surprise that online racing leagues and professional esports boomed. More simulation platforms emerged. Even consoles got in on the action. Across the world, millions started racing seriously with fellow players from across the world.

Naturally, some major competitions developed for those looking to take simracing the most seriously, such as the Bullrun 1000 which began on Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing 4 and continued into the early 2010s. But much like the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours, these events were imagined, organised and run by enthusiasts for the love of racing.

When iRacing took off in popularity as the most widely used simulator platform, it acquired the licenses to iconic circuits such as Indianapolis, the Circuit de la Sarthe, the Nurburgring, Sebring and more. IndyCar, NASCAR and other major series got on board too and, suddenly, players could race realistic simulations of the Daytona 500, Indy 500, or the Le Mans 24 Hours against other players with the same cars that compete in their real-world counterparts.

The splits system used by iRacing allowed hundreds of races to compete in a single event based on their rating. For marquee special events like the Daytona 500, only 40 or so cars can compete at once. Therefore, all drivers are separated into a different instance of a race depending on their skill level. Not only does this allow elite drivers at the very top of their game to race against the very best, it also provides meaningful competition for every driver, regardless of their skill level or degree of commitment.

And while iRacing provided hardcore simracers the opportunity to race in virtual versions of their favourite motorsport events, their license agreements did not take away from alternative, more casual games such as NASCAR’s Heat series. For many years, simracing enthusiasts enjoyed the best of both worlds with multiple simulation platforms to emulate real-world racing and plenty of other motorsport titles that were providing more accessible racing action.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Unsurprisingly, real-world teams and manufacturers soon caught on to how popular simracing had become. NASCAR sanctioned its own iRacing series many years before Formula 1 followed suit using its own exclusive franchise with Codemasters. But while Formula E embraced simracing with virtual races held before each eprix in its early seasons using modded rFactor2 content, it was years before that content was available for general players.

Then, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, simracing allowed a vital avenue for major series to host events they were otherwise unable to do. F1, NASCAR, Formula E, IndyCar – all turned to the virtual world to host racing events. Even the ACO, which administrates the Le Mans 24 Hours, got involved with the first Virtual Le Mans 24 Hours held during the real event’s traditional race slot in June during lockdown.

But just as real-world motorsport seemed to start to recognise the incredible power of simracing to allow racing to be held remotely between people across the world, it ironically triggered a shift that would make simracing more exclusive and elitist than ever before.

F1 22 screenshot
F1’s esports series runs on a special build for pro competitors
When the Motorsport Network established Motorsport Games in 2018, it signed up licenses and studios at a remarkable rate. First it took over 704Games and acquired the NASCAR game license, before purchasing rFactor 2 developers Studio 397 and the platform. It acquired licences to IndyCar and the British Touring Car Championship, and then announced a deal with the ACO and the World Endurance Championship.

With game rights to two of the biggest motorsport races in the world now tied up under one publisher, that inevitably meant that the likes of iRacing and other titles would lose the ability to have those series represented on their platforms. iRacing confirmed that the platform would no longer be able to host official special events of the Indy 500 or Le Mans 24 Hours. And while players can still race the IndyCar models available to drive on the platform and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, privately-run leagues would also be forbidden from streaming races run using IndyCars.

Exclusivity has been the bane of simracers and general racing game fans over decades, but taking away the ability from existing players to compete using licensed content in games they own or platforms they already subscribe to is a new and bitter pill for gamers to swallow. It would be easier to take if moving platforms also retained the same level of accessibility, a chance to anyone to compete. But instead, the Virtual Le Mans event was limited to professional racing drivers and selected esports teams like Redline and Coanda only.

Formula 1’s esports championship has proven popular with many success stories of driver rising from their sofa to being signed by actual F1 teams to represent them. But even the professionals are segmented from the rest of the gaming public, with a special ‘esports build’ of each F1 game offering slightly tweaked physics and functionality unavailable to all other players. This has fractured private racing leagues like PSGL, which cancelled one of its recent PC seasons on F1 2022 after professionals such as Jarno Opmeer and Lucas Blakeley pulled out to prioritise time on the esports build for the official F1 championship.

If simracing continues to head on the trajectory it appears to be going, then so much of what made it great to begin with could start to be lost. What was once a growing arena where all racing enthusiasts could compete together alongside some of the very best drivers in the world is at risk of become just another discipline of real life motorsport, where entry into the biggest events are limited to the same select few who already have the privilege of racing for real. As exciting at it is to watch the likes of Max Verstappen and Felipe Drugovich racing in truly equal cars in the virtual world, that should not have to be at the expense of the rest of those who simply want the chance to race too.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free


    Browse all Gaming articles

    Author information

    Will Wood
    Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

    Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

    17 comments on “Why motorsport’s love of esports has been bad news for simracers”

    1. This was all quite predictable, and I warned some folk about it during 2020. I could see sim racing making exactly the same mistakes karting made (around 1996-2007 when Hamilton made it big). By creating a subservience to the likes of F1 you actively participate in the cultural destruction of your own sport.

      Now sim racing can’t complain too much because to some degree it relies upon real-world counterparts to act as a way to create prestige within its own events (I am being very generalistic here with regards to who sim racing is, but have to for simplicity sake). You can’t criticise the major IP holders who start to ask who exactly is using their brands and events and for what purposes, and you can’t blame them for how they construct these types of events. The money wouldn’t be there to put into production if they had to rely upon the splits system iRacing uses. It’s not Le Mans responsibility to try and kindle sim racing culture.

      Live For Speed has probably been the best simulator to maintain cultural identity because the cars and tracks, bar a few exceptions, are largely fantasy. The developers of that have always had their heads on their shoulders though and do things very differently to everyone else. But if major sims rely upon real-life counterparts to create their big events, then maybe those who are part of the culture should rethink how they do thing because you’ll always be at the whim of the IP holders.

      1. It’s a shame LFS didn’t keep pace over the last decade. It truly was a superb, accessible racer with such a low barrier to entry.

        1. … still is :)

        2. 2 years during lockdown I found out about sim racing.
          it had been a long time since I was a teenager and LFS was one of the first things i tried to drive on.
          and when I got a wheel, due to not having too much to configure, was the first sim where I started doing quicker and consistent laps, only focused about driving skills.

    2. If you think you can be a casual sim enthusiast like most people while competing in the same arena as some of these competitive guys I don’t think you really tried your hand at competitive online simracing.

      Young F1 drivers who grew up with these games such as Max Verstappen has been known to be really fast drivers of iRacing platform since they were 11-12 years old and put in tremendous amount of time. So if you think you can just buy a rig and try to compete with them in a virtual le mans race I think you are in for a hard cold reality check.

      In addition, a poorly maintained and updated service like rFactor2 can not sustain a multi split style racing with different sessions running at the same time like iRacing.

      When these events were held in iRacing anyone and everyone was able to participate in these events. I also don’t believe any of the casual player base is interested in racing in a 24 hour Le mans race organised by ACO, there are many platforms and organised sim races to do it, you don’t need to be on a broadcast on youtube to enjoy sim racing.

    3. So it’s not improved from the dross of the virtual F1 events over lock down then?

    4. It’s incredibly sad that they tip this Virtual Le Mans as “the biggest simracing event of the year”. I don’t understand why…

      I’ve been simracing since 2014 (now on a hiatus tho) and that was the year iRacing implemented team racing, the idea of a bunch of drivers from different parts of the world sharing a car for an event up to 24 hours in duration. It was incredibly exciting to be part of that, with races having more than 10 thousand players racing at the same time in different splits. THOSE were the biggest simracing events of the year. The Daytona 24, Le Mans 24, the 500… you had the whole community practising for weeks and racing all together in a single weekend, few people were racing in anything else. Pro drivers raced too in the top split, so they had their own “VIP” race in a way broadcasted by iRacing itself…

      I raced in the same split against Alonso Kanaan and Barrichello in the Spa 24 hours in 2020. Best moment of simracing for me, having them sharing the track with me (I got lapped by Alonso in the middle of the nigh!)

      So now they made it exclusive… only pros enter, or they invite certain people. And they have to pay. Suddenly something that was “free” for all is just constested by very few people… take away the sponsors and how’s that the biggest simracing event of the year?

      1. A real shame that now it’s genuinely not possible to compete against pros if you’re genuinely good enough.

      2. It’s the biggest event because it’s the biggest event. It’s an event media outlets will report on. it’s an event people will tune into watch. It’s the same reason F1 is the biggest motorsport. It’s not about how many sim drivers are involved in the competition. If real-motorsport worked that way the only FIA World Championship event worth watching would be the KZ World Championship. I’ll take a wild guess and assume you don’t watch that. That’s not how the game works.

        You have two types of motorsport. Spectator based and competitor based. The former ones have less competitors, more exclusive entry-barriers and fans (F1). The latter has more competitors, less barriers to entry and well… no fans (karting).

        Sim racing has failed, and this was obvious back in 2020, to foster an ecosystem strong enough that creates enough prestige for these events to be worth watching. It’s a similar problem karting has faced throughout the years. You could swap every driver in the tier 1 at Daytona 24 this weekend and no one outside of sim racing would even notice. If you want prestige then the drivers have to have some level of fame or notoriety.

    5. I would love so see more fictional tracks in simracing, which would then avoid this problem.

      Raceroom Raceway is fantastic for Raceroom and Papyrus Speedway from the official NASCAR Racing 2003 trackpack is one of my all time favourite tracks.

    6. I bought some kit to keep me amused over lockdown[s]. I’m retired and having done some motorsport in my youth was curious about the whole thing. I have the obligatory heavy duty PC, a YawVR motion platform, Thrustmaster FFB wheel and load sensor pedals. I went through various screen options ending up with a Valve Index VR headset that was truly game changing, worth 2.5 seconds lap time in the Lotus 104[?] psuedo GP car around Imola in Assetto Corsa.

      Start-up software bugs are a huge pain, but once the package is up and running the overall experience is extremely realistic and I’m surprised more drivers don’t have a home set-up for keeping the reflexes sharp during the off season. I can easily see why the likes of Ash Sutton and George Russell use it and it seems, benefit hugely.

      1. I’m in no way a expert driver but to a certain extent I suspect after a certain amount of time driving at the highest levels the benefit you’d get would be very limited except for perhaps learning circuits. Certainly in terms of transferable skills from sim to F1.

        I think these guys love driving and racing so much though it makes sense to do more of it to some, especially the younger ones. I suspect other drivers though get more benefit from unwinding or investing that time on training and hobbies. Time on the factory race simulator would be vital though I suspect.

        VR is a game changer for all simulation and I wish I had the space for a setup. Well done on building a nice rig, being retired I’d say you’ve earned it!

    7. So… IRL motorsport entities should lend legimacy and IP for all simracers to use any which way they see fit?
      Even much maligned Motorsport games should have some rights. They acquired licences from series owners.

      Porsche was exclusive to one racing title for a long time and now is in all of them, and there is a huge spread of options for a current simracer.
      First party BTCC cars are actually available nowadays.
      Real world drivers raised a lot of noise about iracing indycar and supercars physics. And it led to improved product for all users.
      Race room experience has a lot of free competitions, some would lead to IRL test drives.
      Top of the tops is, and was, alien planet territory in simracing. Huge base of casuals like me that just enjoy hacking at the wheel and pedals in a close fought division 5 podium. We pay for new DLCs and closed betas. We understand how much time and talent we don’t have to reach >6k iRating and really compete against Greger, Ogonoski and such.

      Sorry, can’t explain why your article irked me a bit.
      Happy new year of racing :)

      1. I think you’re missing the point a bit Mirko. My understanding is that Will is pointing out that license exclusive deals which block content being available to any and all platforms is bad. It actually reduces and removed competition and the need for platforms to make improvements as well, as it allows (for example, Motorsport Games) to churn out utter tripe with no fear of their customer base ever moving to anywhere else, as they have nowhere else to go.

        The bigger issue emerging here is that it’s becoming clear that outside of the VLM24, MSG actually have little to no interest in actually delivering the games they signed the exclusive licenses for. They seem to be relying on the team behind KartKraft (which they bought cheap) to pull some things together using Unreal engine and are only producing content for RF2 not seriously working on the back-end. It looks to all intents and purposes like a way of printing money through some unscrupulous practices, while taking an industry and series owners like Indycar and BTCC for mugs. What definitely won’t be coming out of it are ‘true’ sim titles, more arcade style like NASCAR heat.

        As someone who enjoys sim-racing, this was all predictable years ago when it was all ‘big news’ around the pandemic. Suddenly a hobby was thrust into the mainstream, products that were acceptable to the hobbyists had real-world drivers calling the products out as ‘BS’, acting like idiots during broadcasts and real-world money started to come into it. It was the perfect petri dish for someone to come in and exploit, which they have, and likely will now leave in the next year to eighteen months leaving a wake of destruction behind them but laughing with suitcases full of money as the ‘exclusive’ licenses are sold off to EA. The losers here are sim-racing hobbyists who can’t take part in a Le Mans 24hr race, an Indy 500 and who won’t get to drive the new LMH cars in virtual form.

        1. Fantastic take. I read the story the same way.

          Co-founded a sim racing sanction in 2004. We started with, and still run the original NASCAR Heat game. We also run rFactor and dabble with rFactor2.

          We build our own mods and tracks for American, paved oval, short track racing,(supermodifieds), not only because we have to, but because we can, and can be in control of our own stuff. We ask for a $25 donation a year and that all goes to a benevolent fund we set up to aid injured drivers. Our biggest fear is that similar to what happened with iRacing and IndyCar, when will tracks be the next to say you can use our likeness or ne unless it’s with the officially licensed company that we choose?

          At 55 years old, I too saw this coming with the pandemic and it had $$$ signs written all over it, not for us, but marketers and companies. We had an incredible surge in membership, some have stuck around, but few have remained, some didn’t even make one race.

          Much of that was because we run antiquited games, but some was due to the fact that they heard the iRacing siren songs calling and were attracted because of the major motorsport sanction involvement, and it was more important to be involved, ne drop, and think they had a shot at being recognized, than just building friendships, having fun racing, and relieving a little stress.

          I had to laugh at the money being paid to enter some of these events, let alone the purse up for grabs and thought to myself that in the end… it’s just a game.

          A game where you don’t have to worry about loading it into the trailer in one piece, spending any time in the crash house, traveling the hiways and biways to get to the track and get home in time for work Monday, or having a p.o.ed competitor and their crew come into your pits after the races to call you and your mother any number of unsavory things while threatening to wack you with a wheel knocker.

          Then I thought to myself…iRacing, Motorsports Games and the sponsors of these high end events are the only ones laughing…and they’re doing it all the way to the bank.

    8. I have little to no idea about sim racing, but can’t they base the entrants on something as simple as qualifying?
      In the virtual world it’s no problem to have a million people participate in the qualifying and then the best – whatever the field size for the race is – say, 30, to drive in the race.

      Why on Earth won’t they do that?

      1. Because big names attract sponsors and viewers.
        Gamers you’ve never heard of…. well… don’t.

        Much like F1 – they aren’t actually trying to find who is the best, they are just running an entertainment business.

    Comments are closed.