It has been over 7 years since my ‘debut’ in one of the top Czech sim racing leagues. A small community led by Formula 1 and Motorsport fans. People who wanted to experience their favourite sport in a different way than just watching on TV. They wanted to try that special feeling, that adrenaline when you are going flat-out through Eau Rouge or using all the grip in Parabolica.
On every F1 Sunday, we would gather at an online server in the evening, do some practice, then a short qualifying before the main part, a 45-minute long race. We were all playing rFactor sim game on PC and with steering wheels. This game was offering the most advanced physics and tyre models at the time. It was so famous that its engine even powered some of the simulators used by F1 teams.
As games like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo started to improve and to offer very authentic experience, console players got more interested in virtual racing. Suddenly there were some even heated discussions between them and PC fans about which platform has better racing games. But unlike in other cases, in racing, it is far more complicated to achieve the same experience across all platforms. And that’s something I hope to explain in the following paragraphs.
Virtual and sim racing
There is no doubt that 2017 has been a ground-breaking year for virtual racing. It has never been closer to be officially adopted in the eSports world. In January, we had a chance to witness the biggest event yet known as Vegas ePrix. Since then we have had the World’s Fastest Gamer Competition and now also the official Formula 1 eSports competition joined the roster.
As we have so many events now, it is important to understand a difference between virtual and sim racing. While virtual racing might involve sitting on a sofa, playing with a pad and doing short races for fun, sim racing is a completely different thing. Joining a fairly good league requires a decent amount of skills and experience. It requires hours and hours of hard work, dedication and practice. All assists are forbidden and a good steering wheel required.
Just like it suggests, there is a huge difference in the game itself. While the F1 eSports competition is currently filling the headlines, it is not a simulator. More a great balance between a fun game with some authentic features. But only Vegas ePrix and the WFG qualify as proper sim racing competitions because they use rFactor 2 and iRacing – the two most realistic simulators you can buy.
What is a simulator?
The very basic idea of a simulator is that it is using the most advanced physics models to simulate as many variables as possible. It means that behind every simulator there are some very sophisticated mathematical equations running calculations of car physics, tyres, weather and track conditions. As a result, cars do behave like they do on a real track. Teams and drivers, therefore, use simulators to practice and collect data for research, development and car set-ups.
Obviously, these simulators used by teams require a massive amount of computing power and therefore versions that are being sold to gamers are slightly less precise. These games are not for car development, so there is no need to go into the tiniest details. But the basic code remains the same, so drivers who won’t feel much difference. Anyway, it is like reducing computing from every inch to every 4 inches on a virtual track.
All this would be possible to do on modern consoles as well, but of course, there is more to this. Sim racing games like rFactor or iRacing overwhelm players with an incredible amount of options and customization. You can set tiny little details like cameras, seats or motion blurs. But most importantly you can change a set-up of your car. And by that I mean you can adjust almost every single virtual nut. And it will affect your car.
Of course, to really get the most out of it, you need a telemetry. And I remember my surprise when I discovered that you can connect your game with a professional telemetry software. Back in my days, it was an application called MoTeC, which is also used in real Motorsport. It worked very well with the rFactor, gathering and interpreting all the data from my laps. Then you could exchange data with your teammates and compare. Astonishing.
It is tools like this that will help you to fully understand simulators. While in the real racing world you would have a team of engineers, here it is all up to you. To learn how to read data, process data and how to learn from them. If you want to be amongst the very best, do not expect just to drive, but you have to do some sort of engineering too. You have to be an expert in everything.
The level of customization then goes into very tiny details. For example, setting HUD exactly as you wish. Every driver prefers a different amount of data on the screen. And while sim racing games usually offer some tools, sometimes drivers wish to have something different. That’s where a support for third party (community) plugins play a key role. You can choose from many variations and put exactly what you need on your screen.
Moreover, these plugins are also made for broadcasters. They offer nice graphics overlays, more on-screen information TV broadcast-alike and even options to use keyboard shortcuts to control cameras. But in order to install these plugins, you need a PC as you have to access game files. A great example here is Assetto Corsa. It offers everything mentioned above on PC, while a console version you don’t have these features.
As you can see, these little details can make a huge difference. Gaming consoles have always targeted more casual players. Developers may have tried to add some sim racing aspects, but you simply cannot get to the same level of customizability as on PC. And that’s why consoles are still a bit behind in the world of sim racing. It’s not about performance like in the past.
However, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel – Project CARS 2. An incredibly packed game, made for eSports and with what seems to be a spot-on physics. It’s coming out for PC and consoles at the end of September. I had a chance to play a preview version and while it is very promising, it is only one game and it will face some tough competitors on the PC market. So, if you are thinking about competing as a serious sim racer – a gaming PC would be the best investment.