After a tough 12 months, sim racing’s silver lining is its rise in popularity

Despite being one of the oldest genres in esports, sim racing can hardly compare to the most established battle-royale, shooter or MOBA titles — not in terms of viewership nor in terms of developed esports ecosystems. 

F1 Virtual Grand Prix
George Russell became the winner of the first F1 Virtual Grand Prix. Credit: Formula 1

Some argue that motorsports are declining in popularity. In 2020, Formula 1 saw a decline in its global audience and unique viewers, with falls of 4.5 percent and 8 percent respectively. What’s more, the Indy500 saw a record-low domestic audience in 2020. It seems logical that the esports side, which includes titles that resemble their real-world counterparts so identically, won’t draw as much attention as titles that feature flashy magic and surreal experience. 

2020, however, was an extraordinary year for the sim-racing sector, as its viewership numbers exploded in response to worldwide lockdowns. 

“The pandemic has been incredibly kind to sim racing,” said Thomas Bush, Founder of FPSBible.com, a sim-racing-dedicated website. “Admittedly, the most significant factor was the participation of real drivers in virtual races. 

“Some of the most prominent names from motorsports competed in online races hosted by Formula 1, NASCAR or Indycar, which led to a skyrocketing fan engagement. In some cases, these virtual racing series received millions of views.”

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After the cancellation of real motorsports in March 2020, many racing series reacted to the intense demand by switching to sim racing. Formula 1’s Virtual Grand Prix, eNASCAR, and The Race: All-Star Series have been heavily featured by some of the biggest TV broadcasters — including BT Sport, FOX and ESPN — causing a previously unseen spike in viewership. 

Take Formula 1, which drew a record-breaking 30 million viewers across TV and digital platforms during its Virtual Grand Prix series. Consequently, the official F1 2019 title saw a dramatic growth in popularity on Twitch. The F1 Esports Series 2020 achieved 11.4m livestream views across all digital platforms, representing a 98 percent increase compared to 2019.

“With this astounding viewership increase and the amount of free time people had on their hands, many started racing themselves,” FPSBible’s Bush said. “iRacing alone has seen its subscription base surge by nearly 50 percent in the first few months of the year.” 

eNASCAR
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series has returned in 2021. Credit: NASCAR

The iRacing platform reached 160,000 subscribers in April 2020, from 110,000 in January. This was also reflected in live viewership numbers, causing an increase of over 117 percent for live hours watched on Twitch and YouTube between February and April, according to Newzoo. 

Viewership statistics and player-base sizes were not the only things that ballooned. “At FPSBible, we review a lot of sim-racing and gaming products,” Bush said. “It’s interesting to look at things from manufacturers’ perspectives.

“For example, Fanatec, one of the biggest high-end manufacturers of simulation steering wheels, pedals and other accessories, has more than doubled its revenue in 2020 and is expected to grow even further this year. I’m increasingly seeing ‘out of stock’ on their website, as well as reports of higher-than-usual lead times.”

Although the frenzy around sim racing calmed down somewhat as real cars were allowed to race again, the sector has gained important momentum that is being used for further development. 

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series has already returned, offering fans a regular mid-week competition featuring NASCAR’s top drivers. Just like during the inaugural season, FOX Sports is helping gather viewership via television. As for the F1 Virtual Grand Prix, its 2021 edition has already concluded, with prizes being donated to the charities selected by winners.

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One of the most significant steps for the sector was establishing the Esports Racing Team Association (ERTA), aiming to improve the esports racing ecosystem. The association was founded by 12 prominent esports racing teams, including Williams Esports, G2 Esports and Team Redline. Its main objective is to ‘give teams in the esports racing landscape their own voice and lend them more weight in collaboration with sim platforms, game developers, race series, car manufacturers and drivers’.

Overall, 2020 was a milestone for esports racing. The lack of motorsports events has put the scene into the spotlight, and has perhaps blurred the line between real and virtual racing. Some motorsports drivers gained a newfound level of respect towards sim racers, and some motorsports fans found a new hobby in sim racing. 

Most importantly, race organisers began to understand the potential of sim racing for their own long-term popularity and viewership — as well as for scouting potential talent — and that it might play a crucial part in the development of both sectors.

Disclaimer: This piece contains sponsored links.

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