Such Great Heights

Microsoft Flight Simulator, sports data and the future of the human experience

Simon Farrant
The Startup
7 min readSep 21, 2020


My name’s Simon, and I’m addicted to watching Microsoft Flight Simulator videos on YouTube.

I mean, come on

To be very clear, this is not because I’m excited about getting my hands on the game; with the possible exception of a couple of versions of Football Manager, the last time I played a PC game was around 2007, and the idea that I’d be in a position to claim enough domestic real estate for the desktop PC gaming rig needed to run this seems ambitious at best.

Instead, it’s because I find the concept, scale and ambition of what the game represents completely astounding.

If you haven’t been following, the latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, (apparently the world’s longest-running game/simulation series) has just been released and, by using Bing Maps, procedural generation and some painstakingly replicated airports and landmarks, the simulation developers have literally recreated the world. The entire world. Microsoft have essentially built a digital world that is so large, huge parts of it won’t ever have been seen or ‘visited’ by any of the developers that actually built it.

However, doesn’t that just mean it’s a prettier version of Google Earth? Actually, no. Because rather than this being a pretty but static canvas recreated from satellite photography, developers Asobo have turned all of these many, many terabytes of Bing data, into a dynamic, living environment: by incorporating real-time weather and air traffic data, the recreated world looks and feels *real*. Put the autopilot on, step away from your PC, look out of a window or nip into the garden, and you’ll see the same sunset or cloud cover, and the same 737 flying high overhead. Your house is in the game. The school you went to is in the game. The trees that line your road are (broadly speaking) in the game.

The potential for a canvas like this is the bit that’s most exciting. Microsoft have stated that they see this version of Flight Simulator as a 10-year project: over time, they and the vibrant modding community will add ever greater realism to the simulation world, by recreating buildings and terrain in even greater detail, and adding more flyable aircraft.

Everything looks perfect from far away

But what about adding more data sources? Adding traffic data means you’ll see the real-life traffic jams as they actually occur as you fly over Shanghai or Los Angeles or the M25, or literally anywhere else on earth. Chuck some tidal data in there, and you’ll be able to see true-to-life azure waves lapping on the beaches of Maui, or the grey North Sea smashing into the Yorkshire coast. Turn the in-game clock back to a certain time and day and recreate the environmental conditions exactly as you might have experienced them, wherever you might have been on the globe at that time.

It was this consideration of how, by adding different data sources, this artificially generated world could become even more alive and realistic that prompted me to write this blog in the first place. Specifically, sports data. As minor as it may seem in the context of these other enormous, world-defining elements, sport represents an area of the physical human experience that is probably measured and tracked to a level greater than any other. Therefore, given how much data is now collected from every major sport in the world, it would be entirely feasible to plug in a couple of data feeds from various providers, and be able to fly or hover over Dodger Stadium, or Anfield, or Eden Gardens or Roland Garros or any other (outdoor) sports arena in the world, and watch live action, modelled to a scarcely comprehensible level of sophistication and accuracy, unfolding in near real time beneath you. Players represented exactly in their real-world positions on the field, the ball moving at an accurate velocity and height. Or, indeed, give users the ability to go back in time to a pivotal sporting moment and watch it as live, in the exactly the same environmental conditions in which it originally occurred. As a way to record and relive specific moments in time, it’s hard to imagine something more immersive.

Using this data to essentially build a specific moment or situation represents one of the likely divergent use-cases of an evolved, mature and thriving sports data ecosystem. Huge advancements have been made over the last half-decade or so in the collection and distribution of this (/these, if you really must) data, and its use across multiple sports to help teams identify and more effectively analyse new signings, or for broadcasters and other media sources more objectively analyse games and players, are well documented and widely understood*. Taking another approach, technological improvements in data management processes and distribution infrastructure, have had a significant impact on reducing latency and improving live accuracy. This, coupled with the sheer volume of information now collected, means that there is now enough information to recreate every element of a high-profile game, live.

Therefore, opportunities to use this data to enhance, recreate or even substantially alter and enhance the sports consumption experience are now both realistic and currently being worked on. My go-to example of this is still the augmented broadcast experience that Second Spectrum, the NBA, ESPN and the LA Clippers created a couple of years ago, but there are others — Rezzil/MiHepa and the gloriously clunky Sky Sports/Jamie Carragher VR punditry experience are two examples of VR-focused use cases in football. Crucially, advancements in streaming technology, not to mention the soon-to-be widespread adoption of 5G connectivity, means that it’s now becoming a reality for broadcasters to be able to offer fully personalised and individualised experiences for users — none of the above necessarily has to represent the default broadcast option for everyone; we’re now in a position to offer every viewer the ability to experience a game or event exactly as they may wish.

The future

Come down now, they’ll say

Flight Simulator represents world-building at its most literal and real, and the first time someone has made the entire world accessible and interactive. The sheer scale and ambition Microsoft have shown with this edition of Flight Simulator means that it has the potential to be a canvas of unbelievable proportions. When you consider what might be possible with this, the actual plane-flying bit of Flight Simulator starts to become much less important.

As media analyst/metaverse prophet Matthew Ball wrote,

“One of the biggest storytelling “lessons” in the 20th and early 21th century was that audiences have an unending desire for “more” of the stories they already love. And the Internet has enabled this to an unprecedented degree. You can constantly track production (cast Instagrams, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and leaks on social media), engage in fan communities (message boards and YouTube theory/Easter egg videos), consume endless amounts of fan content (e.g. fanfic and watch-along podcasts), play this content back on demand (e.g. Netflix), and engage in never-ending and constantly updated online multiplayer games (e.g. Star Wars: Battlefront 2). This is a powerful, self-sustaining financial and cultural flywheel.”

What Microsoft have done with Flight Simulator, possibly even inadvertently, is to theoretically create the single largest, most complex, most realistic interactive ‘channel’ ever seen.

If Travis Scott was able to host a game-changing virtual concert in the Fortnite world, imagine what could be possible using this version of the *actual* world, especially if combined with a VR or AR headset? The opportunity to fly alongside the officially-licensed characters from the next Avengers/Top Gun/ some other film, in real-world locations? The ability to attend a virtual Coachella or Glastonbury that are 10x larger than the physical events, but with no mud or Ed Sheeran? An immersive, digital-only ‘channel’, separate but complementary to the TV coverage, of the 2024 Paris Olympics opening ceremony (actually, given that Asobo are based in Bordeaux, that one doesn’t seem too unrealistic)? It’s telling that every scenario that one can come up at this point feels almost apologetically limited.

This ‘real’ world effectively sits at the opposite end of the reality spectrum from (the also Microsoft-owned) Minecraft, which currently attracts 120 million players every month. While FlightSim won’t have anywhere that volume of users at this point, that doesn’t necessarily matter — FlightSim is being brought to Xbox Gamepass at some point, which immediately opens this world up to 15 million plus subscribers, a number that will also undoubtedly grow rapidly when the next generation Xbox launches later this year.

Again, to reference Matthew Ball:

“For decades, the only real way to experience a digital world with agency and an individual sense of self was to go to the theme park. Games have been on the cusp of these experiences for years, but in 2020, they’re well under way. These are “games” like Minecraft, Fortnite, Roblox, to a lesser extent GTA Online, and Pokémon Go.”

Given what Microsoft have created here, it’s not hard to see a version of the ultra-realistic world created for Flight Simulator joining that list before too long, further drawing people into the Microsoft ecosystem.

* My first role in this field, in 2012, was to try and convince football clubs that effectively using good quality event data was something that could actually help them win. It’s probably fair to say that that message has been received and understood.



Simon Farrant
The Startup

Sports technology, data and broadcasting. Work for Deltatre, previously Stats Perform/Opta