From its humble beginnings in 1982 with Namco’s Pole Position, sim racing has grown astronomically in the 40 years that followed, spawning endless titles and amassing millions of players worldwide. This may leave many wondering how popular sim racing has become and whether it is still growing.
The popularity of sim racing has increased in recent years, largely due to the effect that the global pandemic had on the cancellation of real-life motorsport events. The improvements in gaming technology have also made sim racing a cheaper and more viable alternative to real racing for many.
Despite its growth in popularity over the years, sim racing is still sometimes regarded as a more niche genre of gaming. In this article we will discuss why sim racing is popular, the effect that COVID-19 had on its popularity as well as naming some of the most popular dedicated sim titles.
4 Reasons Sim Racing Is So Popular
1. It Is Affordable
There is a huge disparity between the one-time price of purchasing a sim racing setup and the ongoing costs of taking part in real-life motorsports. If you were to try your hand at motor racing you would have to factor in the cost of the clothing, including a helmet and a HANS device, track and race insurance, mechanic fees and more.
This is before taking into account the cost of getting to and from the race venue and potential overnight accommodation should you be racing at a faraway track. In short, the ever-mounting costs of real-life racing just aren’t affordable for a lot of people, and it can make even a high-end sim racing rig look reasonably cheap.
2. Sim Racing Is Accessible And Safe
Finances aside, sim racing is also a lot more accessible and easier for people to get involved in than real-life motorsport. Instead of travelling across the country to attend races, sim racing makes it possible for you to drive around the streets of Monaco in the morning, before taking on the intensity of Indianapolis in the afternoon. All without leaving the comfort of your home.
Although the safety regulations at racetracks across the globe are constantly improving, there is no hiding from the fact that anyone who gets into a car to race will be fully aware of the dangers that it brings. Many drivers will see this as part of the sport and may even make a case for it adding to the excitement and adrenalin of motor racing, but for many, the risk will be too off-putting.
One of the beauties of sim racing is that players can feel like they are getting their fix of racing, all the while knowing that if they crash they can simply press restart, without the risk of injury. Oh, and they won’t have to pay the car’s repair bill.
There are numerous sim racing titles covering pretty much all motoring bases, from DiRT 2.0’s rally cars, to the beauty of track racing in Project Cars 2, as well as the drama of the official F1 game. Sim racers can try out all forms of racing in multiple different cars, depending on what they feel like at the time.
There are also options in-game to change different settings, such as the time of day or the weather. You can also make changes to the specifications of most cars for a truly customizable experience.
4. Realism And Hardware Options
Advancements in game coding and the power of modern PC’s and consoles has made sim racing more immersive and realistic, and therefore more appealing to new racers. The graphics have now developed in a way that brings the beauty of racing into the homes of players. You can almost smell the pine trees of the Ardennes Forest as you speed around Eau Rouge at the Spa circuit.
In addition to the graphics, improvements to in-game physics in several titles means that you can feel the intricacies of each car, especially with a good quality sim racing rig. Force feedback in racing wheels is reminiscent of the real thing, and racers can add extra accessories such as gear shifters, pedals and handbrakes to their setup for ultimate realism.
The fact that you can have all these hardware options in your own home for a reasonable price has greatly attributed to the rise in popularity of sim racing.
How The Pandemic Affected The Popularity Of Sim Racing
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc among the sporting world, causing cancellations and postponements of leagues and tournaments across the globe. Motorsport was no exception, with all the major racing seasons being postponed.
This caused a huge headache among the organizers of the different events as it put them at risk of losing major sponsorship deals, which would have had huge financial ramifications. However, the motorsport world did find a way to keep fans engaged and sponsors happy, and so began a surge of broadcasted sim racing events, boosting the popularity of the genre.
The Rise Of Formula 1 Sim Racing
Formula 1 was one of the first motorsport franchises to announce an all-virtual championship in response to the suspension of the racing season. F1 was established in the esports world long before the pandemic, but in March 2020 it announced the launch of its new F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix (EVGP).
The series went on to achieve huge popularity, gaining 30 million views across TV and digital platforms, including the official F1 YouTube channel, Twitch and Facebook. The profile of the event was boosted by the participation of actual F1 drivers, including Lando Norris, George Russell and Alex Albon.
March 2020 saw the F1 2019 game peak in terms of player numbers and saw a 202% increase in downloads on Steam. This was no doubt as a result of both the beginning of various lockdowns worldwide and the success of the EVGP.
The virtual NASCAR series eNASCAR began on 22 March 2020, and had a TV viewership of 910,000, a huge increase on the usual 400,000 viewers for previous virtual NASCAR events. The race took place on iRacing and included notable drivers such as Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
The eNASCAR event was treated as though it were a normal race weekend, with the build-up being broadcast, as well as racing analysis and full-race replays going out on various digital platforms. iRacing also benefitted from a 30% increase in downloads during March 2020, and a 60% increase during the following month.
24 Hours Of Le Mans
rFactor 2 hosted the virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans race, organized in collaboration with the FIA. The show was broadcasted to an overall audience of 14.2 million worldwide on mainstream channels including ESPN and Eurosport. The race was organized to be as close to the real thing as possible, with 200 drivers taking part.
The pandemic shone a very bright commercial light on the world of sim racing and helped introduce a whole new demographic of fans that may not found themselves invested in virtual racing otherwise. There wasn’t only an increase in people watching sim racing content, but also a boost in the amount of people taking part in it.
During 2020, the number of subscriptions for one of the PC’s most popular titles, iRacing, increased by almost 50%, starting the year with 110,000 subscriptions and ending it with 160,000.
How Many People Play Sim Racing Games?
There can be as many as 50,000 people playing sim racing games at the same time across the major sim racing games on PC. This is just a snapshot of the total number of players. The Gran Turismo series has sold 80 million units and is one of the bestselling PlayStation franchises.
The number of people playing sim racing games is constantly fluctuating because of certain trends, such as the virtual F1 Championship mentioned earlier in the article, or because of large scale releases such as Forza Horizon or Gran Turismo pulling in large numbers of players on their opening weekends.
Numbers also differ depending on the platform in question. Consoles tend to have larger player bases than PC, simply because there are more console owners. Both Forza and Gran Turismo have different marketing strategies than most PC racing games as they are built to be appeal to a mass market, rather than a dedicated sim racing audience.
The Number Of Sim Racers On PC
As sim racing is a niche genre, the number of simultaneous players may pale in comparison to first-person shooters or fantasy games. However, there are certain PC sim racing titles that pull in consistent numbers daily.
iRacing, one of the most popular sim titles, averages around 5,000 to 10,000 players online at any one time. Assetto Corsa generates similar numbers, peaking at around 10,500 simultaneous players in April 2022. rFactor 2 and Project Cars 2 don’t have as large of a player base and tend to peak with around 1000 players online at the same time.
The F1 2022 game is understandably popular due to the size of the franchise it represents, and usually peaks at around 13,000 simultaneous players, meaning you won’t usually struggle to find a game online.
The Number Of Sim Racers On Console
Measuring the number of players playing console sim racing games at any one time is more difficult than PC because of the different generations of console being used. The sales of the latest games in the Forza franchise and the Gran Turismo franchise are huge, with Forza Horizon 5 selling over 15 million copies, making it the number one biggest selling Xbox game of all time.
The sales figures for Gran Turismo 7 have yet to be released, but the Gran Turismo series as a whole has sold over 80 million units, making it one of the biggest selling franchises in PlayStation history. These two franchises have been referred to by many as ‘simcade’ games rather than out and out sim racing games, due to their arcade style gameplay.
What Is The Most Popular Sim Racing Game?
The most popular sim racing game on the PC market is iRacing, with its meticulously crafted realism, and exceptional in-game physics. Its iRating system filters out anyone who doesn’t take the art of racing seriously, meaning the quality of online racing is second to none.
iRacing was released in 2008 and undergoes regular updates to try and refine it even further. It is a subscription service with some expensive downloadable content which dampens the experience for some, but overall, it is very much loved and respected within the sim racing community.
Other notably popular dedicated sim racing titles on PC include Assetto Corsa, known for its variety of tracks and great game physics, Project Cars 2, lauded for its beautiful graphics and great VR compatibility, and rFactor 2, a sim racing mainstay driven by the community.
As far as console racing games go, there are the obvious front runners of Forza for Xbox and Gran Turismo for PlayStation. For the purists who will dispute whether these two games qualify as dedicated sim racers, popular titles on console include Project Cars 2 and Assetto Corsa. DiRT 2.0 is another hugely popular, and hugely enjoyable racing sim on console.
Sim racing is very popular, and it is only becoming more so as time goes on. The genre has a strong core fanbase, evident with the high number of daily players. The COVID-19 pandemic handed sim racing a platform to expand and grow, an opportunity that the industry has grabbed with both hands.
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