Will the next generation of motorsport stars come from gaming?
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Tonight, eight nervous young drivers will compete against each other for one of the largest prize pools in the New Zealand motorsport calendar. But, the inevitable plot twist is that the the cars will be made from pixels on screens instead of cast-iron and carbon fibre.
Run by Lets Play Live, the eight-week Project Cars 2 ANZ Championship comes to a head tonight with qualifying drivers from as far as the South Island (and even Australia) descending on Sky City Theatre to race at Mount Panorama for what's sure to be an interesting finale. The prize? The winner of the championship outright will net themselves three grand, while second and third scoop up $2,000 and $1,000 respectively.
On a low level, it represents an interesting way to make gaming meaningful and more competitive. But, it can also be seen as another step in the push for gaming to be a credible stepping stone for those wanting to break into motorsport. It's worlds away from what things were like when former V8 Supercars driver Greg Murphy got his start.
"I grew up in a phase when there wasn’t any of this stuff available, and motorsport’s become a lot more difficult and expensive to do for real since," said Murphy, just prior to appearing on LPL's live Gran Turismo Sport Twitch stream last night; a slight departure from the television commitments he has these days as a pit reporter with the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship.
"Exposing [the sport] in a different way, and having people become incredibly good at driving — especially with the technology that’s out there now and the realism of a lot of it — it’s giving people the chance to have a crack.
"I would love to see more and more of it be applied, to give them a chance to give it a crack in reality. It’d be interesting."
Esports is an enormous business overseas, namely through tournaments for games like League of Legends and the painfully prolific Fortnite. Racing games don't quite sit in the same ballpark for eyeballs or pay-cheques, but nonetheless there are still a raft of big tournaments held all over the world.
GT Sport and its Gran Turismo forefathers are the most well-known of these. In the past they held GT Academy programmes; the winners of which would get factory-funded real-world driver contracts with Nissan. Nowadays, through their association with the FIA, GT Sport host a string of global finals events. Two of tonight's drivers, Matt Smith and Simon Bishop, were flown to Tokyo, Japan for a regional finals event last year.
Off the back of good recent results, Bishop is off to next month's Nürburgring 24 Hour event in Germany to race in GT Sport's manufacturer's finals showdown. Not bad, for someone who had never travelled beyond Australia until very recently.
The growth of esports provides an interesting counter-point to the doom and gloom around young people's waning interest in the automobile. Although, the supposed drop-off in young people who are interested in cars is something that neither myself nor Murphy have seen reflected in reality.
"Maybe I’m not taking enough notice of it, but you still see a lot of people going to race meetings — a lot of them young people," he said. "There’s a wide demographic in the stuff that I see. But, you watch a lot of motorsport on television and I still think there’s a wide demographic of people going through it.
"I think the bit that’s missing is the tinkering bit. In the garage with an old car mucking around and doing the points, or changing the jetting in the carburetor, pulling engines out and pulling them apart ... that seems to have changed considerably.
"I think there’s a lot of young people that are into cars, but they’re looking at McLarens and Ferraris. They’ve got a love affair for the art of what modern cars are and their performance and the beauty of them. Being able to afford them is another thing."
While the number of professional drivers that esports has produced might seem sparing (save for most of the drivers to come through GT Academy, like 2015 Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour winners Wolfgang Reip and Florian Strauss and Japanese Super GT regular Jann Mardenborough), it's effects are perhaps best seen in helping drivers keep race fit. Formula 1 stars Lando Norris and Max Verstappen and Red Bull Holden pilot Shane van Gisbergen are among the hundreds of professional drivers who use race simulators to maintain race fitness between events.
Murphy thinks there could be similar on-road benefits to using simulators as an educational tool.
"There is nothing that can replace seat-of-the-pants driving through when it comes to learning to drive, and it also depends very much on what people want to learn to drive to do exactly. Is it just A-to-B, is it because they like cars and they want to explore some form of the sport, do they want to join a car club.
"There’s no doubt that any sort of relationship with understanding dynamics and understanding what it takes to be efficient behind the wheel, I’m sure esports is definitely teaching people that. And we have seen in the past through drivers who have proven themselves in esports be able to transfer and become very good accomplished race-car drivers. There’s a correlation there."
Murphy's interest in road safety isn't fleeting, of course. The former Bathurst 1000 champ is a noted advocate for improved driver training in New Zealand, having helped get Holden Street Smart (a practical training tool for young drivers) off the ground last year.
"The road safety thing is massive. We as a whole, there’s plenty of things we should be doing and we could be doing better. On the pathway we’re on now, if we don’t change things soon we could lose the opportunity forever and we could be stuck having horrendous headlines around people getting killed on our roads.
"It’s one of those things. If you don’t change anything, don’t expect any results to be changed. And that’s what’s going on now."
There's still plenty of fire in the belly of the former 'the Prince of Pukekohe' when it comes to the motoring world — a fact made evident after his appearance on the lighthearted stream. Jovial joke-making Murph was swapped out for someone a bit more serious. Project Cars finalists stood, pinned to the wall, as he took on the Red Bull Ring in Austria with a Super Formula open-wheeler. He spun, but not after stringing together eight near seamless laps.
"Just ... Just one more go."
The Lets Play Live Projects Cars 2 ANZ Championship finals take place tonight at Sky City Theatre. The telecast starts at 7.00pm tonight on Sky Sports Pop-Up 5, or online on Twitch.