Image: Richie Stanaway (Supplied)
There's plenty of buzz around esports, which is great if you're a CS:GO, Overwatch, Dota 2 or League fan. But something that's oft neglected is the incredible role that racing games has played over the last 15 years - not just as a competitive pursuit in their own right, but as an legitimate pathway and effective training for real-world racing.
Kiwi driver Richie Stanaway is one such success. If you go through his publicly available profile, you'll see plenty of results for the Formula Ford championship, testing opportunities, Formel Masters and Formula 3 championships, experience in the Bathurst 1000 and the 24 Hours Le Mans. But what you won't see is where it all started, which Stanaway says began with the PS1.
When I'm introduced to Stanaway over email, it's with a brief list of achievements and plaudits: a racer with a motorcross background who switched to karts and cars at the age of 12. But Stanaway, who's recently forgone international racing to concentrate on the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship, said it was Codemasters' V8 Supercars on the PS2, as well as countless hours playing Need for Speed and Gran Turismo on the PS1 that got him started.
"It all started about 20 years or so ago playing car racing games on PS1. Gran Turismo, Need for Speed etc. Naturally, I purchased a wheel and pedal set which I can only imagine must have surely been one of Fanatec’s first ever products in that line of hardware," Stanaway said.
"When Codemasters created V8 Supercars: Race Driver for the PS2 it really set off my passion for gaming and heavily exposed me to the world of motorsport and was probably one of the most significant influences on my career choice. It's a surreal thought that a lot of the cars and tracks I played as an 11-year old kid I was fortunate enough to experience in reality later in life."
The Supercars driver estimated that he'd spent between 5000 and 10,000 hours playing a range of racing games, including the original rFactor and Live for Speed, before stepping foot in a proper race car. "I think [that] was a huge factor in making me appear like a 'natural talent' when I first jumped into a real car and appeared to be able to do and understand things that typically would have been beyond my level of experience," he said.
He continued honing that experience later with iRacing, although the quality of his hardware - at one point he was using a MacBook Pro for his setup - wasn't the best. "It took me many years before I understood the importance of frame rates, field of view and screen refresh rates. I cringe at the thought of my most competitive days and thousands of hours spent on iRacing on a 60hz screen at an FPS surely not too far from that figure," he said.
As someone who races professionally, while having also been a world championship license holder for iRacing and a winner of the iRacing Road pro series championship, I was curious to know how well the long-running series holds up. (It's not the only game for simracers with rFactor 2, GT Sport recently, Project CARS 2 and Automobilista available, but iRacing has the most extensive framework for competitive play.)
Stanaway remarked that iRacing was "extremely accurate", although he avoids the simracer these days for two reasons. "It would distract me from the fine details I have to concentrate on with my current real life campaign due to the amount of hours I'd have to put in to get back to my past level and with the amount of time I have to commit to it these days," he said.
The second is a sentiment that's not hugely uncommon amongst older competitive gamers: when you're not able to play at the level you used to reach, the game isn't as fun. But he would still recommend younger drivers grind out a license on the sim, given the accuracy of its tracks and modelling to real-world racing.
That said, Stanaway hasn't given up on gaming at all. CS:GO is his main game of choice these days, and his PC rig would make most gamers proud: an i7-8700K with a GTX 1080, encased an inWin Infinity case and a dual-monitor setup with an ASUS PG258Q 240Hz monitor as the primary.
Image: Richie Stanaway
I asked whether more simracers would be scouted by teams to make the transition, and Stanaway noted his own experience in simracing, as well as the natural evolution of technology, would make that more common. There are some elements that don't quite translate over - coping with the sensation of g-forces and the mental fortitude required when you're putting yourself at risk physically, for instance.
Stanaway noted that drivers get accustomed to those elements over time, though. "I don't think it’s an important thing to recreate in order for online racing to be as good as real world racing and I feel like having a well balanced competitive game that only esports can provide outweighs what you miss from real world experiences," he said.
"My vision for the future would be that with future technology the esports gaming industry outgrows its real life counterpart which would completely eradicate the need to go racing in real life and the drivers / esports athletes can be judged and score results based on true ability without the variables that can heavily influence a real life racing drivers career, and that’s not to mention it would almost completely remove the high financial barrier to entry that drivers wishing to go about competing in real life have to overcome."