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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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