TL;DR: The creation of an amazing virtual racing platform may lead to less interest in the real thing.
Because many fans are unaware of how the business works, they may be turned off to know that their favourite driver is racing because of deep pockets and not necessarily raw talent.
I love Formula 1.
I’ve been a fan since birth, watching regularly for most of my childhood with my dad. I rooted for Prost and Schumacher, opposite to his Senna and Villeneuve.
Many years of watching racing and writing stories on racing has given me a pretty clear understanding of how it all works.
Spend countless dollars and years honing skills in karting, feeder series, and — if you’re lucky — you’ll get to race in front of a large audience, like Formula 1, Nascar, or WRC. Progressing through a career is too expensive for all but the most wealthy, so personal sponsors are brought on board.
Drivers make money one of two ways:
- Personal sponsors want exposure, so they’ll pay you more if you’re racing in front of a larger audience. A larger audience means the sponsor will get more bang for their buck when promoting a product or service with a racing driver.
- If you’re an exceptional talent (Alonso, Schumacher, Senna, Button, etc.) a team will pay you as part of a contract, so you’ll earn money for wins, titles, and appearances. Some drivers live on sponsorship money, other, more fortunate ones, are earning money from both sponsorships and a team contract.
It’s tough, ruthless, and arguably unsustainable. Because many fans are unaware of how the business works, they may be turned off to know that their favourite driver is racing because of deep pockets and not necessarily raw talent. (There are always exceptions, but this seems to be the majority of professional racing drivers these days.)
Good times are had when the action on-track (or drama off of it) attracts new fans, because more eyeballs mean more reach for advertising. Getting your logo on-screen for 10 seconds of a broadcast is calculable, with resources like the £349 Formula Money report, offering a complete breakdown of all aspects of advertising. Chapters include, “The biggest spending team sponsors,” “Five-year review of trackside advertising,” and “Sector split of on-car partners by number.”
What if Formula 1 (and racing as a whole) is eventually disrupted by a digital ecosystem, just like newspapers are? It may sound silly to compare stacks of pulp and carbon fibre chariots, but both are supported by advertising, and advertising dollars go where the eyeballs are.
Advertisers are probably noticing what teams and motorsport publications are: Formula 1’s audience is dwindling. Many theories for improving the show to attract viewers are already being panned (double points in the final race, at a track nobody likes) to ‘trumpet’ exhausts (some think fans are turning off because the cars don’t sound great. Idiots.)
I had read Clay Shirky’s article, “Last Call,” on the death of newspapers within a few days of Dieter Rencken’s, “Why F1 needs a marketing department” on Formula 1’s struggles (Sub. req’d.) They got me thinking: What if Formula 1 (and racing as a whole) is eventually disrupted by a digital ecosystem, just like newspapers are? It may sound silly to compare stacks of pulp and carbon fibre chariots, but both are supported by advertising, and advertising dollars go where the eyeballs are.
Maybe the way for motorsports to thrive is to examine the distribution and not the content, before they follow newspapers into a period of rapid decline.
…if someone wasn’t interested in the game they wouldn’t bother creating content about it, right?
I can see how any of the following would rapidly kick-start a virtual motorsport revolution:
- Motorsports coverage is already being disrupted by user-generated content. Highlights from races held in PC-based simulation games like rFactor and iRacing compete for YouTube views with those from home consoles, like the Xbox One and Playstation 4. Manufacturers who are already lending their intellectual property to these games are getting much more brand exposure than they may realize — and at zero additional cost.
- If fans are turning away from real racing, is it too expensive to watch? Too difficult? Not exciting enough? Not relevant? Online, promotion for games comes largely from their communities; if someone wasn’t interested in the game they wouldn’t bother creating content about it, right? It doesn’t take too long to see automotive brands getting free exposure in ways they may not have imagined, like this video:
- Does excitement really matter? The video above is 12 minutes of a player putting virtual parts on a virtual truck and then virtually testing it. How many views? More than 121,000…and counting. If the virtual experience is good, players will show up, play, and the really engaged ones distribute the experience to their audience. (To say nothing of the countless hours players spend offline.)
- Virtual racing is a surprisingly good way to create successful real-life racing drivers. The Gran Turismo Academy has trained and sent a few amateur drivers to the big leagues with amazing results, including an in-class pole position and second overall finish at Le Mans.
- An online series using real-life drivers. Since it’s far less physically demanding, the cost of entry is very low, and accessible anywhere, it’s conceivable audiences could watch Formula 1 driver Sebastien Vettel duke it out with NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson on a virtual World Rally Championship stage. Champions past and present could meet in fantasy challenges, like modern Formula 1 cars on the Nürburgring Nordschleife — even better, fans could vote on what (and where) their favourite driver will race next.
- A limitless selection of vehicles and circuits. We’re already pretty good at virtually modelling vehicles and environments, and it’s obvious the virtual world will continue to get better. Studios that make Gran Turismo, Forza, iRacing, and other games already work closely with manufacturers and race teams for the virtual experience, including in-game sponsorship space, vehicle modelling, historical accuracy, and promotional material.
- God-like spectators. Through an online platform, viewers would be able to see any angle of the action, from a driver’s point of view to a cinematic experience complete with commentary to rival the best racing broadcasts. They could stop, and rewind, not to mention be given full camera controls to create their own replays and photography.
- Nearly any aspect of a virtual event would be editable instantly, from weather to time of day to vehicles to venue. Not having rain delays is nice, but being able to schedule events online at any time is even better.
Maybe the initial cost of buying the equipment and getting serious is quickly paid for by advertising placed in front of your virtual audience.
Ultimately, what racing leagues like Formula 1 (including FIA, its organizing body) and NASCAR should fear is a company who has the insight to combine Oculus Rift display technology, a racing simulator, a great online racing experience, easy video recording / sharing tools, and a physical driving cockpit that sits in a player’s home.
It sounds silly to compare the cost to do serious virtual racing with serious real-life competition, but if it’s a fact that video game racers have transitioned to real life, with great success. Like how starting a blog or online publication is a fraction of the cost of launching a physical newspaper, investing in a virtual racing platform to hone your skills that comes complete with game, organizing body, and physical controls even at a cost of $5–10,000 all-in is a fraction of the cost of going racing for real.
Maybe amateur online racers start earning money from sponsors, based on YouTube views. Why should a company care where a logo is placed, so long as it’s seen by enough people? What would stop a company from becoming the personal sponsor of a virtual driver? Maybe the initial cost of buying the equipment and getting serious is quickly paid for by advertising placed in front of a virtual audience.
Finally, instead of negotiating complicated rights to content distributors around the world (premium cable channels, media conglomerates, etc.), a virtual racing league could leverage an online game viewing platform like Twitch.tv. The fast-growing (and recently-acquired-for-$900-million service) saw 12,000,000,000 minutes of online gaming watched per month in 2013 — with 2014 set to surpass that.
v. What now?
I’d certainly tune in to watch a grid of 20 Formula 1 drivers duke it out in pixels before playing for keeps.
I don’t think it’s too late for racing to change, but maybe the push will come from advertisers who have already watched digital forcibly transform the news industry’s business model and want to be ready for the next time it happens.
Questions that will impact every major sport:
- At what point does watching a sport played online become more popular than the real thing?
- When will advertisers notice and start moving money around?
Simulating driving is easier than simulating, say, tennis, but maybe what’s on-screen is compelling enough so that realism doesn’t matter. On YouTube, the most-viewed Grand Theft Auto V in-game tennis clip has more than 1.7 million views. The most-viewed clip from this year’s Wimbledon? 1.55 million.
If any of the racing series are worried and don’t know where to start, here’s an idea: Hosting a virtual race weekend for amateur and professional drivers that runs in parallel to a real race weekend might be a good thing to try. I’d certainly tune in to watch a grid of 20 Formula 1 drivers duke it out in pixels before playing for keeps.
While I don’t believe for a second that the virtual world will render real racing obsolete, it would allow for motorsport to truly thrive on in the future, no matter which problems affect the real thing. Government regulations, rising costs, environmental concerns, or a shrinking audience could eventually harpoon any of the major racing series.
Maybe not for a decade or two, of course, but is it smart to bet against something that’s cheaper, easier, more flexible, more engaging, and already has a sizeable — growing — audience?