Virtual racing is on the rise; the pandemic was only a blip; it won’t be seen as the catalyst.
The online, virtual racing spiked when sports were put on hold starting in 2020, aiding simulator racing participation and awareness, but it has been destined to grow for other reasons.
During this challenging time, we have seen a spike in the number of online racers (Racer.com published an informative article in 2020 on this subject, found here). But while many well-respected racing series, including NASCAR, IndyCar, F1 and IMSA, have hosted races with their rosters to keep racing fans worldwide engaged in the sport, the question many racing enthusiasts asked is, “Is this growth just a blip?”
We are confident it will not be the largest blip.
“While there are countless online racing leagues to choose from between the numerous types of racing verticals available (e.g., open wheel, stock cars, sports, cars, Rally, etc.) and multiple platforms (e.g., iRacing, Project CARS, Assetto Corsa, Forza Motorsport, rFactor, Gran Turismo, and others), motorsports have many distinct advantages over other esports games,” commented motorsports marketing veteran Jim Bowie.
Aaron Jeansonne, a Mazda and Team USA scholarship winner, and avid sim racer, agreed: “Thanks in large parts to the expeditiously advancing technology, the skill set from the simulator to the real race car transfers. There are some skills that are built, or realized, when a driver is truly wheel-to-wheel headed down to a big brake zone, for example, but the technology helps us learn much quicker, and polish our skills.”
This is why Mazda Motorsports could put an iRacing competitor or two in its MX-5 Cup Shootout four straight years. The only question that was not answered was the sustainability of the careers of those who transition from the virtual to real world, which comes down to the value proposition of the sport.
Costs of real racing cannot go down significantly enough. A set of racing tires cannot cost $50; travel and crew costs cannot reduce enough. While cost-cutting should be a focus, the motorsports industry needs to spend time on growing the value – which should come from growing the audience. But how do we do this?
According to Bowie, “By studying other successful esports properties – mostly shooter games such as Fortnite, Dota 2 and League of Legends – you’ll find four key elements that have resulted in large, loyal followings: 1) they are leveraging huge prize pools, sometimes exceeding $40M for a single event, 2) their audience, or community, is made up of people who have played the game – which is very hindering in traditional motorsports, 3) they have world class ‘athletes’ at the top of the sport – the best of the best and 4) the skills to be the best are transparent and easily relatable by the audience. These four elements are why some esports properties have surpassed the size of many traditional sports’ audience; and if sim racing follows these key principals, it could explode as well.”
And of course, when they aggregate audience, they monetize it.
“Motorsports do not have to deal with violence that is inherent in other esports games,” Bowie continued, “which is a factor for huge support from endemic and non-endemic partnerships. So when the virtual audience grows, where do you think some of the marketing and ad revenues will go? These are just a few of the ‘whys’ behind why our beloved sport is able and will figure out how to marry the real and virtual worlds.”
Bowie concluded that, “For many consecutive years, esports has grown right under the feet of traditional sports. They have followed these four elements. Those leading motorsports know they need to attract audience to the sport through esports, since they play the game, but the question has been how.”
We know Bowie is working on his solution to this question. And whomever solves this question and is able to figure out how to connect the real and virtual worlds, the last couple years will prove to just be the first blip, and it will pale in comparison to what is to come.