My relationship with esports is pretty complex. In all honesty, I’ve always had an indifference towards the idea of competitive gaming since it hooked its flag onto extreme brands like Mountain Dew and energy drinks. It’s pretty much the anti-thesis of what sport is all about, so this was one of a few reasons that I didn’t care for it. However, in recent years, the field has matured with professional organizations and established championships. Hell, even the Olympic Committee is starting to take notice.
It’s a surprise then, that sim racing hasn’t really propelled into the spotlight. There are audiences out there who watch the races sure, but compared to other games, anything we have to offer is merely a drop in the ocean. It’s unrealistic to think racing titles could rise up to “Tier 1” status (which is defined as a title that brings in over 20 million hourly views and hosts a combined prize pool over 5 million) but perhaps we should be aiming a little closer to home.
Rocket League is, in my opinion, the most exciting esport available right now. It’s fast, frantic and — most importantly — a ton of fun to watch. I primarily watch the crown jewel of the RL scene: the Rocket League Championship Series. Hosted every six months or so, this tournament takes the best teams from around the world and pits them against each other. With a professional setup and believability to the whole affair, its Tier 3 prize pool matters not. The game brings in more than 110,000 viewers a week across the NA and EU league rounds, with viewership really exploding at the world finals. Anyone who watches RLCS has a passion for it and usually a favorite team (if it’s not G2, you’re doing it wrong). That’s what sets it apart.
With GT Sport’s FIA Championships kicking off next month, the topic of esports success has never been more prevalent. This is a huge event for Sony and Polyphony and they’ll be looking to make it as popular as possible.
From an avid sports (and Rocket League) fan, here are my suggestions on how sim racing can learn from Rocket League esports to really capture an audience.
Inject Some Personality Through Broadcasting & Competing Drivers (or Teams!)
Production value is one of the key elements for any successful form of media. When it comes to sport (and inherently esports), simply looking the part will influence perception of a championship right from the beginning. However, this is pretty much general knowledge at this point. Most (if not all) worthwhile competitive gaming ventures have a decent enough setup complete with sponsors. The next step that really drives perception is the personality that comes through.
It doesn’t take a lot to be stoic and professional but a cold approach only isolates viewership. Rocket League Championship Series defeats this issue with a host of fantastic broadcasters. Each member of the team is insightful but there’s never an air that this is simply a “job”; genuine enthusiasm comes through and the viewers appreciate it.
The real brilliance comes at the live finals, the electric crowd clearly psyches the casting team up and the back and forth between both groups leads to meaningful analysis and commentary that is naturally exciting. Not a forced level of hype or mere play-by-play commentating which is often something other esports (sim racing included) fall into. A common pitfall also comes from using real-world racing drivers in streams, with the assumption they should care about sim racing enough to cover what happens on the track.
This level of personality keeps consistent with competing teams and the players that make them up. Players and teams interact with fans on social media and give post-match interviews during streams. RLCS isn’t perfect from this perspective but it is doing more to remind viewers that there are people behind the gameplay. Whether it be SquishyMuffinz becoming a pantomime villain for a bit after a slightly salty tweet or G2’s overall fan love-in, RLCS has characters. Sim racing esports should continue to try and drive the whole process together; casting, teams and players all influence the overall success of the event. Passion is just as important as professionalism.
Reward Viewers For Tuning into Race Day Streams
The first question for any esports competition should be: Why should people bother to tune in? There will always be those who genuinely have an interest right from announcement but building an audience tends to be difficult. Turning players into viewers can be a lot harder than many would expect. It is safe to assume that at least half of those who are hardcore sim racers are also motorsport fans, so getting these types of fan should be doable. However, what about the other 50%?
Rocket League is a runaway success that developers Psyonix couldn’t have imagined. Going free on PlayStation 4 during its first month of release was a masterstroke in hindsight. With a large audience base, the RLCS needed a way of capturing an audience and retaining them week on week during competition. How was this achieved? Rewards.
Players can link their gamer ID to Twitch when watching RLCS and random item drops happen throughout the stream. What makes this so compelling is that the items players can receive are RLCS exclusive. Everything is cosmetic but because of Rocket League’s massively healthy trading system, just about every RL player wants to get involved. With this system, it’s simply a case of casting out the bait and then hooking new viewers in. I can attest to this because, even as someone who doesn’t care about trading, the free stuff was attractive. Eight months later and I’m a hardcore RLCS fan. Go figure.
Sim racing could adapt a similar set up. I appreciate that putting a muffin on top of your Nissan GT-R probably doesn’t have appeal but the approach can be dialed down. For example, let’s use Forza Motorsport 7 since the current rewards system for the franchise is perfect for adoption. During the Forza RC series, viewers tune in and in return, an individual can get a random prize spin, XP bump credits or special ForzaRC edition cars. There’s a balance between locking content away and offering incentive which is something that needs to be decided on a game-by-game basis.
That being said, rewards are a sure fire way to drum up an audience and get new viewers interested right from the get go.
Come up With an Exciting Format to Compensate For The Loss of ‘Danger’
As far as motorsport goes, a good chunk of fans love it because of how inherently dangerous it is. It takes real stones to pull off some of the overtakes we see in series like Formula 1. However, this doesn’t transfer to sim racing (for obvious reasons) and that’s a bit of an issue. Without the breathtaking moves we see, where is the excitement supposed to come from? To make matters worse, a lot of the sim racing esports competitions disable in-game damage, making the whole event a bit derivative. With little to no repercussions during a race, it means that overtakes that would be exciting normally just seem a bit … standard.
This isn’t an issue that Rocket League has to deal with but I will use this criticism of sim racing esports to bring up how important competition format is. With its team-based gameplay and sport-inspired mantra, RL is able to borrow from real life event setups. RLCS uses a play-off format by having bestof-five and best-of-seven rounds throughout. This means that matches are exciting because they can be flipped on their head or the best teams simply boss it and amaze everyone. If a team has a bad match, it’s far from over.
Moving off of this, sim racing esports should try and incorporate the most exciting elements of real life motorsports. The BTCC has an especially exciting format, to quote the British series’ website:
The grid for race one is decided during Saturday’s qualifying session
The grid for race two is based on the finishing order of race one
The grid for race three is based on finishing positions, however there is also a reversed-grid element to the starting order. Numbers representing the cars that finished from sixth to 12th position in race two are put into a bowl, and one number is drawn at random. The corresponding car will start on pole, with the cars that finished ahead of it reversed i.e. if number six is chosen, the car that finished sixth in race two will start from pole ahead of the car that finished fifth, fourth, third etc. The remainder of the grid follows as per the finishing order of race two.
High profile esports feature the best players in the world. Put them outside their comfort zone, crank up the mechanical damage and try and recreate the danger element lost by racing in the virtual world. The main point here is that sim racing shouldn’t be afraid to borrow elements from real-world series and manipulate them to suit virtual racing. Realism is important but keeping the audience engaged is also a very big deal.
Don’t Forget The Real World Element, it Can Make or Break The Whole Thing
The last point I’d like to focus on is specifically looking at when an esport emerges from the world of Twitch streaming into the real world. We aren’t talking about the frankly ridiculous DOTA and League of Legends Tournaments found in places like China but the everyman’s live esports event. How can this be done right?
The Grand Finals for any large esports tournament should be a massive event that teams, players, organizers and casters all look forward to. There’s an (understandably) massive pull for sim racing esports to piggy back real motorsport events but in doing so, it isolates a huge group of the viewers who might watch the streams loyally. For example, if GT Sport explodes onto the esports scene, then it should aim to host live events in open areas and medium-sized arenas. It certainly worked at the Copper Box.
The RLCS World Finals is the ending point to a month and a half of competiton. Fans flock to see matches played live and the atmosphere is electric. The level of excitement is contagious to those at the event and those not. Having watched last year’s Washington DC Season 4 finals from my home in Scotland, I’m praying this year’s is in the UK or even Europe. Why? It just seems like so much fun. One particularly awesome moment came as one of the best competitive Rocket League goals was scored.
As an outsider to RLCS and Esports in general, I was blown away to hear genuine reaction from the crowd and commentating team. It was at this moment that I realized the impossible had happened: I gave a crap about esports.
It’s these real moments that make the doubters become fans. It’s easy to sit on a high horse and scoff about the idea of games as sporting activities. The fact of the matter is, taking passion and giving it a platform is what really convinces people to give something a go.
One of the best Gran Turismo trailers for me came pre-release when PD showed off some exciting moments from the reveal tournament — complete with crowd reactions. Seize this element of the whole esports furor and don’t obsess over the money involved or prizes. Don’t chase approval from committees who somehow validate the whole venture because they are associated with real life sporting activities. Deliver the human drama that makes people sport fans in the first place and perhaps success will follow.
I’m far from an esports expert, that much is true but as someone who has fallen head over heels for RLCS, these are just a few of the aspects I think sim racing should look toward to become relevant in the esports arena. Motorsports are already a bit niche in their own right which is why perhaps it isn’t the best barometer to chase success against. There’s nothing wrong with accepting that games are games and harnessing those features to become successful. All eyes are about to turn toward GT Sport’s FIA Championships and I for one, can’t wait to see if it makes as big a splash as many will hope for.
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