These days, esports events are pretty big business. Any major real-world race series that doesn’t already have an esports championship is behind the curve, and even the great Scuderia Ferrari now has its own virtual F1 team.
Top F1 and sports car drivers split their time between their professional simulator sessions and online racing for esports teams too. Young F1 talents Lando Norris and Max Verstappen won the virtual Spa 24 Hour endurance race in 2019. Meanwhile sim racers like Jann Mardenborough and James Baldwin are moving the other way. Then you have drivers like Igor Fraga, who win real and virtual races on alternate weekends.
With even the FIA looking to allow motorsports clubs around the world to substitute the theory portion of a basic race license test with knowledge gained from online racing, you’d think racing esports is universally accepted. Well, not everyone agrees. Enter six-time NASCAR Whelan Modified Tour winner Doug Coby. He has quite the alternative opinion — that race teams treating esports as seriously as regular motorsport is… well, see for yourself:
Today on social media @JBonsignore and I saw people who drive race cars on COMPUTERS having “media days”, announcing “sponsorships” with @JRMotorsports, and hanging out with @dennyhamlin on Lake Norman. Makes real race car drivers. Want. To. Puke. 🤮#nascar @NASCARHomeTrack pic.twitter.com/SROVUqqj7g
— Doug Coby (@doug_coby) January 11, 2020
Coby is specifically referring to something that happened late last week. JR Motorsport held a media day on January 9 to introduce its ‘eNASCAR’ drivers Michael Conti and Brad Davies. The duo will return drive for the team again in the 2020 eNASCAR iRacing World Championship Series, after it made its debut in 2019.
If you’re not familiar with NASCAR, JR Motorsport is the team co-founded by one of the biggest names in the sport: Dale Earnhardt Junior. It’s also far from the only team that runs in both NASCAR’s various physical series and the eNASCAR virtual one, with others including Roush Fenway Racing and Stewart-Haas. They’re not exactly small, inexperienced teams.
Coby’s objection to the whole event appears to be that of what’s real and isn’t. 14 hours after his original Tweet, he took to social media again to clarify:
“Never once did I say that iRacing isn’t competitive, difficult, fun, or useful to learn tracks, or that I hate it or wouldn’t do it if I had time. Hate my guts all you want for making the comment but support your local short tracks in 2020 – they’re the foundation of the sport.”
Colleague Brian Keselowski broadly concurred. After another user called out his supportive response to Coby, pointing out that his own younger brother Brad raced in iRacing, the elder Keselowski replied “So did I but we didn’t pretend it was real. This is way out of hand”. He later went on, rather unfortunately, to state it’s a “mental” disorder comparable to school shooters who play first-person shooter games. Ouch.
While the point that the events — and consequences — of virtual racing are not ‘real’ is valid, the competition, adrenaline, and emotions felt are very much genuine. The element of danger isn’t there, but that rather misses the point of esports — especially when none of the drivers themselves ‘pretend it’s real’. If the events and races brings in media coverage, viewers, and the all-important money, why shouldn’t teams organize and prepare their drivers and equipment just as they would the ‘real’ drivers? That extends to media days and media training, which it’s readily apparent not all ‘real’ racing drivers have experienced…
Generally speaking, events like GT Academy and the increasing realism of environments and vehicle physics even in games has tempered real-world racers’ misgivings about their virtual counterparts. Some of the old guard have even got involved — Dale Jr. himself took part in a two-hour iRacing NASCAR race recently. Coby’s nauseous reaction is unusual in that context, and one that, at this point, seems very antiquated indeed.
Let us know what you think in the comments.