Before we completely close the page on last week’s FIA-certified GT Championship EMEA Regional Finals and prepare for this week’s American Regional Finals in Las Vegas (which we’ll also be covering in full), we need to stop and take a moment to reflect on one of the best Gran Turismo events, ever.
I have had the privilege of attending many Gran Turismo launch parties and reveals over the years. From the lavish Gran Turismo 15th Anniversary Event in Ronda, to the GT Sport Reveal in London’s Copperbox Olympic stadium, I have enjoyed a front-row seat to the evolution of the franchise and live racing esports events, but this was something different.
The FIA-certified GT Championships started gaining momentum last month, at the game’s second World Tour exhibition event in Austria. It showed us just how good “racing esports” can be. With a slickly-produced broadcast held in Red Bull’s stunning Hangar 7 and fun-to-watch racing, it had all the ingredients for success.
Austria wasn’t perfect, though, and the fact that it was just an exhibition event made the whole thing feel redundant to some viewers. The competitors were racing for pride and some trophies, but there were no real stakes or titles up for grabs.
The “real” competition finally began earlier this month with the GT Championship’s Asia-Oceania Regional Finals in Tokyo. Although clearly a high-profile event with good racing, it lacked the same production value as we saw in Austria. It may not have been the best way to kick off the FIA-certified Championships, but Madrid would more than make up for it.
The one thing that makes any sporting event fun and exciting — esports or otherwise — is energy from the crowd. We’ve seen small groups of enthusiastic supporters at other live virtual racing events, but nothing like this.
We knew we were in for something special when the custom-built, 28,000 square-foot theater was revealed for the EMEA Regional finals. With seating for over 500 people, it was certainly ambitious, but even the most optimistic among us were skeptical it would actually fill up.
The crowd was good on Friday, which featured the races to determine the top 10 drivers who qualified for World Finals and Saturday’s competitions, but there were still plenty of seats.
That changed on Saturday. Minutes after the doors were opened, over 500 people flooded into the Gran Turismo arena, with flags waving and cheer sticks at the ready.
I must admit I was surprised, but I was even more impressed when I looked outside the theater into the convention center which housed Madrid Games Week. Hundreds more people were lined up, waiting to get in.
The VIP / Media viewing area where GTPlanet Editor Andrew Evans and I were watching the event quickly filled to capacity. Cameramen jockeyed for position, and you could feel a palpable sense of excitement as everyone waited to see who would be crowned European Champion.
It wasn’t long before the home crowd got what they wanted, as strong driving and tire strategies put Spanish driver Jorge Lopez (Williams_Coque14) in a position to challenge the dominant Mikail Hizal (TRL_LIGHTNING) for the temporary race lead. (Be sure to read our full race reports here.)
Even though Lopez — nor anyone else, really — was ever in a serious position to take away the European crown from Hizal, it did little to dampen the excitement of the crowd, which cheered nearly every time he appeared on screen. It was a demonstration of the power of the Nations Cup format, and hopefully a preview of what we can expect to see in years to come.
Real Emotion & Human Drama
The energy from the crowd was amazing, but the enthusiasm from the drivers was also fun to see. Unlike the frequently robotic reactions that we see from real motorsport drivers and esport competitors, the European GT Championship players all seemed genuinely happy and excited.
The best reaction of pure joy came at the conclusion of the incredibly close Repechage B race, when Florent Pagandet (Jomas_74) of France drove to a second-place finish and secured the last spot for World Finals. Pagandet jumped from his seat and ran around the stage, jumping and celebrating with his friends and fellow Frenchman Pierre Lenoir (RC_Snake).
If this is the type of “human drama” that Kazunori Yamauchi was talking about when he infamously used the term back in 2012, then we certainly would like to see more of it.
I mentioned above that all the drivers seemed genuinely happy, friendly, and in a great mood throughout the weekend. They had good reason to be, with first-class accommodations and rock-star treatment throughout the experience.
Everyone involved stayed at the Eurostars Madrid Tower, a five-star luxury hotel. They enjoyed buffet breakfasts, catered lunches and dinners, and were shuttled around the city by drivers in black Mercedes vans. Even the 20 players who did not qualify for Saturday’s racing had a good time, with a free trip to the incredible Carlos Sainz Karting Center for more racing.
It was all topped off with a wild party, where Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital team members danced with competitors to the music of the one and only Lenny Ibizarre — the man responsible for GT Sport‘s soundtrack.
In a particularly special moment at the party, Kazunori himself presented one of the competitors, David Dolinsky (Lord Protector), with a surprise birthday cake. Everyone started singing “Happy Birthday” as an emotional and surprised David humbly accepted the gift.
When it all came together, the event did not feel like a glorified marketing stunt. It was not a celebration of Gran Turismo, nor was it an attempt to impress a bunch of jaded journalists. Instead, it felt like a genuine celebration of the Gran Turismo community, with all the attention placed on the best and most dedicated GT players in Europe.
This focus gave the event a soul — an authenticity, if you will — that I have never felt before at launch parties or GT Academy finals before.
Open Access, Better Coverage
Sony Europe and Polyphony Digital invited GTPlanet to cover the EMEA Regional Finals in Madrid (we’ll also be attending the Americas Regional Finals and World Finals), and granted us full access to the competitors and organizers throughout the competition.
Polyphony’s own coverage of the event on their social media channels has been great, and thanks to our connection with many of the competitors, we can provide another unique angle of coverage that helps viewers get to know the drivers and follow the championship.
We have published detailed driver profiles about our community members competing, interviewed the top qualifiers and European champion, interviewed Kazunori Yamauchi to discuss the Championship, and spoke at length with the FIA about how this all came together behind the scenes (stay tuned for those articles soon!).
Our goal is to help tell the story of the competitors and the Championships, but like everyone else, this is still new to us. We are working hard and still have much to learn, so if you have any comments or suggestions about how we could best cover the events, we would love to hear from you!
Good Racing (Soon to be Great)
To be sure, there was no real surprise at the top of the podium: Hizal (TRL_LIGHTNING) appears to be in a class of his own. While all of the top drivers in Europe are quick, it will be difficult for any of them to catch Hizal moving forward. But it won’t be a cake-walk for Hizal, either.
That’s going to be a big part of the fun at World Finals: to watch such a freakishly good driver go up against the very best from the rest of the world is going to be a real treat.
Hizal will not be able to run away from the likes of Asian Champion Ryota Kokubun (Akagi_1942mi) from Japan, or the fastest drivers from North America and Brazil, nor will they be able to run away from him. The top drivers will be in their own league, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch.
For these regional finals, it appears the very best racing comes from the “repechage races”, where the drivers who failed to qualify for World Finals in the first Block races have a second chance. The repechage races at these EMEA Regional Finals — in Gr.B rally cars on Red Bull Ring — were impossibly close, as the competitors fought for their lives in tight groups at the front of each race.
It was compelling stuff that brought out the best in the competitors, and the emotional, raw reactions like the one we saw from Pagandet.
This is a format that’s really only possible with “racing esports”, and it is exciting to see Polyphony embrace the flexibility of the format to make the “show” more entertaining.
More To Come
With the Asia/Oceania and EMEA Regional Finals in the books and the Americas Finals and World Finals ahead, we are halfway through the live events for the 2018 FIA GT Championship.
After a brief stumble out of the gate with a quirky Asia/Oceania broadcast, the Championship appears to be back on track in Madrid, blasting ahead at full steam.
With a strong line-up of freaky-fast drivers from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico, and the United States, the Americas final could provide some of the best racing we’ve seen yet. The World Finals — set in an exotic locale — is going to be more exciting still, and we haven’t even talked about the Manufacturers Cup yet!
After years of rocky, awkward starts, it appears the racing genre may finally be getting ready to make a mark in the world of esports.
With a cheering crowd of 500 people and an electric atmosphere, I think many in attendance — myself included – finally saw Madrid as a turning point. It’s easier to see the potential in these types of live events now, and such marquee events help pave the way for the entire genre and help it grow.
Stay tuned for more: the GTPlanet team is heading to Las Vegas for the Americas finals this Wednesday, October 31. We’ll have the live streams, driver interviews, and much more in the days and weeks ahead.