August 12, 2022

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Gran Turismo Esports Stars See No Future in the Game

Image for article titled The Stars of Gran Turismo's World Tournament See No Future in the Game

Photo: Clive Rose (Getty Images)

Lewis Bentley really started to question things when the show ended.

Bentley had won the Pro/Am race at the Salzburg round of the 2019 FIA-Certified Gran Turismo Championships (FIA GTC) — a competition that paired each top-tier Gran Turismo player with an influencer, media personality or celebrity for a two-driver mini-endurance esports competition. Bentley and his partner, streamer Steve Alvarez Brown a.k.a. SuperGT, stood on the top step of the podium, beaming. Bentley was handed a Thrustmaster T-GT, a high-end sim racing steering wheel, as a prize.

“I was thrilled with this and you can see that on camera,” Bentley said.

His enthusiasm didn’t last long.

“As soon as the camera stops rolling and we step off the podium, the box is instantly taken off me,” Bentley told Jalopnik in a group-chat interview. “I’m told, ‘actually, that prize goes to the influencer.’”

It felt like a slap in the face, especially after the hundreds of hours Bentley had spent practicing to get to that point, as one of the 30 or so fastest GT Sport players in the world. The FIA Gran Turismo Championships staged lavish, globetrotting events, sending competitors to Paris, New York, Monaco, even the Nürburgring and Red Bull’s Hangar-7 in Austria. The winners of the Nations Cup and Manufacturer Series — two separate competitions that comprised the Gran Turismo World Tour — would attend the FIA’s annual Prize-Giving Ceremony in December and stand on the same stage as real-world motorsport champions like Lewis Hamilton and Sébastien Ogier. The best also received rewards from Gran Turismo brand partners, like TAG Heuer watches and BBS wheels.

2021 Nations Cup champions Valerio Gallo (left) and Coque López hold their Manufacturer Series trophies at the FIA Prize-Giving Ceremony in December.

Speaking with a number of those competitors, most seem to agree: They would have rather earned some money, or gotten support that might allow them to turn their passion into a career. Many high-level esports, including NASCAR’s own Coca-Cola-sponsored eNASCAR Series run through iRacing, offer prize pools — eNASCAR’s totals $300,000, with $100,000 going to the season champion. Venture outside sim racing, and esports payouts are eye-watering: Rocket League will hand out a combined $6 million in prize money in 2022 —and that’s just pocket change compared to the prize purses up for grabs in tournaments for games like Dota 2 or Counter Strike.

To some it might seem greedy for Gran Turismo competitors to moan about not getting paid to compete with the best players in the game. After all, Sony covers competitors’ expenses for those World Tour events — airfare, five-star restaurants and accommodations, the whole nine. Ask any FIA GTC participant and they’ll tell you how pampered they were on the road, which is easy to believe if you’ve ever watched one of these events streamed live. I was invited to cover the 2019 New York round, and I was immediately taken aback by the high production values. Sony and Gran Turismo developer Polyphony Digital spared no expense in staging and presentation, making each appearance feel every bit like the FIA-sanctioned event it was.

Scenes from the New York round in 2019, hosted at the former PlayStation Theater in Times Square.

Scenes from the New York round in 2019, hosted at the former PlayStation Theater in Times Square.
Photo: Adam Ismail

Given that, most drivers I spoke with were of two minds when I asked what they’d like to have received in exchange for their time commitment to Gran Turismo.

“Equipment-wise, I can’t really complain,” Florent Pagandet, who participated in World Tour events from 2018 to 2020 (including the pandemic year when the championship was entirely online) told me.

“Each time I went into a World Final, I received a Thrustmaster T-GT, which was, for GT Sport, the best wheel on offer at the time. Also the prize itself, for qualifying into either a World Tour or World Final, was pretty good. We were treated well, four- and five-star hotels and all,” he said.

“But outside of this, regardless of your own results, you’d get absolutely no money out of it,” Pagandet continued. And he pointed out a restriction unique to the world of Gran Turismo: players are barred from wearing any team or sponsor logos during competition. “The dress code was to wear GT’s jersey, gloves and boots on stage, and it was mandatory […] hindering the biggest opportunities to get something financial out of it.”

Coque López of Spain competes during the 2019 Nations Cup final in Paris.

Coque López of Spain competes during the 2019 Nations Cup final in Paris.
Photo: Clive Rose (Getty Images)

Cash is one thing. Arguably, allowing sim racers to promote their teams and sponsors on the grid is even more important, both for individual players’ careers and for the sustainability of the sport as a whole — something that Daniel Solis, a 2020 Manufacturer Series champion, elaborated to me.

“I think this is a deeper rooted issue than just Polyphony paying players,” Solis said. “If you take into consideration different winners’ prizes, such as the TAG Heuer watches and Sony Alpha cameras, the value of these items can actually compare to high-level tournaments in games with lower returns on investment, like Quake or Trackmania.

“I think the real problem lies with the lack of incentive to get major esports organizations involved. And while part of that problem does lie in Polyphony needing to find ways to get them involved, some of this is also down to the difficulty in promoting racing esports. If there’s a better way to invest in organizations, the organizations would reinvest in the players, and the economy would become more sustainable.”

Kenni Hansen stopped competing in Gran Turismo esports three years ago for the very reasons Solis mentioned.

“I always hope for a prize pool during live events,” Hansen told me. “Or, what I think is even more important: for [Polyphony Digital] to open up to esports organizations and teams, and allow for sponsors to be shown during live events, whether […] on clothing and team gear or liveries on the cars used at events, more mentions during the broadcasts, etc.”

A Gran Turismo event gives a very isolated view of the virtual motorsport landscape. Because drivers can’t rep their teams and sponsors while competing, there’s little incentive for esports organizations to invest, which makes it all but impossible for a competitor to turn success in Gran Turismo into a paying esports career.

Image for article titled The Stars of Gran Turismo's World Tournament See No Future in the Game

Photo: Clive Rose (Getty Images)

In other forms of sim racing, top-tier drivers can earn a full-time living racing with a team. Take Keegan Leahy, who won last year’s eNASCAR championship on iRacing while driving for Danny Hamlin’s 23XI crew. Leahy held a Reddit AMA last November, where one fan asked him about his parents’ reaction when they learned he could turn sim racing into a career. Leahy’s response describes a scenario that doesn’t seem feasible in Gran Turismo:

It was a really slow build up because it really did happen quite slowly. The prize pools kept going up, sponsor interest picked up, teams started paying, etc. The only single “moment” I could think of would be when I quit the warehouse job I was doing during University, to do driver coaching and content creation with Virtual Racing School.

Hansen hoped to follow a similar path in FIA GTC, but it didn’t come to pass.

“I joined an esports team at the end of 2018 — AS Monaco Esports — hoping for big things to happen the following year, [and see if] there was a possibility that this could turn into a job or career,” Hansen told me. “But nothing changed on this side of things, and my team ended up just giving up on Gran Turismo esports as they had zero return on investment, even though they saw great potential.”

Like Hansen, some players ultimately bowed out. In fact, six of the seven drivers I spoke with are no longer active at the top level (Solis is the only exception). For some, the time commitment got in the way of school or work. For others, practicing and competing occupied all their free time, pushing friends and family to the fringes. And these weren’t unsuccessful drivers, mind: Vincent Rigaud hung up his gloves after winning the 2018 Manufacturer Series. He estimates he spent 50 hours a week training that year.

“I started to compete in GT esports in 2017 in the first test season and stopped being active early in 2019,” Rigaud told me “It felt quite like burnout to be honest. I probably spent too much time focusing on it in 2018.” Changes to the championship format, plus the realization that no amount of success in GT was likely to open up full-time career opportunities, led Rigaud to quit competing at the top level.

“Some of us, me included, ended up being characters in GT7,” Pagandet told me. “I believe none of us got financial payment out of this, making it ‘paid in exposure.’”

Always count on Daniel Solis for the wildlife report at The Glen.

Always count on Daniel Solis for the wildlife report at The Glen.
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Indeed, if you boot up the latest Gran Turismo, you’ll find some of the very drivers quoted in this story. Names and photos of FIA GTC participants appear throughout the game, attached to text commentary between races or giving pointers during the game’s license tests. Solis, for example, appears as the player’s guide for the first set of trials; the game describes Solis as a “Gran Turismo driver for the North America region.” GT7 has many other characters, some of whom are actually Polyphony Digital event managers, including Rupert, who runs the in-game tuning shop, and Andi, your liaison at the used car dealership.

The drivers are there to inspire players to reach new heights in competition, and instill a sense of community around the GT brand. But when you learn they’re serving that purpose without compensation — and that many of them walked away from the game for that very reason — their presence in the game ring a little hollow.

“Sure, I love the idea of being in a game franchise I grew up with, but there’s always that little part of me saying ‘all those efforts and events for no money,’” Pagandet said. “It may sound greedy, but when we’re supposed to be the professional esports players of Gran Turismo, having no money on the line always puts in perspective all the efforts done, especially when visibility doesn’t give back much either.”

What Pagandet is asking for — the ability to make a living as a professional gamer — isn’t far-fetched. The top-earning Dota 2 player, Ilya “Yatoro” Mulyarchuk, raked in nearly $3.7 million in the past year, according to data from Esports Earnings. Dota 2 is, of course, exponentially more popular globally than any racing esport, but even with games like Call of Duty, Fortnite or Apex Legends, top competitors can expect to take home a quarter million dollars or more in a year. And none of those titles have the backing of a tech giant like Sony, which recorded almost $90 billion in annual revenue last year, or a prestigious sporting body like the FIA.

Image for article titled The Stars of Gran Turismo's World Tournament See No Future in the Game

Photo: Clive Rose (Getty Images)

Bentley went so far as to bring up the idea of paying drivers with a Polyphony employee over dinner in Austria. You could say the topic was on his mind — this was the day after the podium scene, where Bentley was presented with a Thrustmaster steering wheel that was snatched back the moment the cameras were turned off.

“The conversation is pleasant for around 10 minutes until I offhandedly mentioned the possibility of players being paid in the future,” Bentley said. “The response I got to this — I remember it almost exactly — was, ‘well, I’m not sure why we still run these events to be honest, as they just lose us loads of money.’”

Bentley wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

“I just started getting more irritated and argumentative about why that’s relevant.” The company was clearly willing to spend millions of dollars on big, flashy events. Why not send a small portion of that directly to the players? “My argument got walled off at this point with, ‘look, you guys will get paid when we do.’”

In May, Polyphony announced the schedule for this year’s esports championship, the first to use Gran Turismo 7, which launched in March. So far, only one in-person event has been confirmed — a midseason “World Series Showdown,” again at Red Bull’s Hangar-7 in Salzburg. The days of GT events in multiple cities around the globe appear to be behind us, though given the ongoing struggles to contain COVID-19, perhaps that’s for the best.

The schedule isn’t the only thing that changed for 2022. Longtime fans will note there’s a new name: it’s now known as the Gran Turismo World Series.

Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment via YouTube

Indeed, the FIA is not mentioned once throughout the entirety of the studio’s press release. The FIA logo doesn’t appear anywhere in the trailer promoting this year’s events, except in footage from previous years, where it appears to have been digitally removed or blurred.

A few weeks after that announcement, the FIA publicized a new partnership with Assetto Corsa Competizione, a multiplatform sim, as the new basis for the governing body’s 2022 Motorsport Games — a position Gran Turismo used to hold.

I reached out to a PlayStation spokesperson to ask for confirmation that Gran Turismo and the FIA are no longer collaborating. The representative referred me to Polyphony’s previous press releases. (For what it’s worth, the FIA remains in GT7 in the Brand Central page alongside numerous automakers and motorsport firms.) I also asked if organizers have any intention of adding a prize pool to GT competitions, but I received no response.

Sim racing is bigger today than ever, but the genre’s household-name title — the one that launched racing sims into the mainstream 25 years ago — is all but absent from the professional esports conversation. Pro-level competitors are losing interest, and not just because of the championship format, or even the limited career potential. GT7 launching in woefully unfinished condition didn’t help things. The reigning Nations Cup champion, Italy’s Valerio Gallo, even said at one point that he wouldn’t defend his title until GT7 became “a proper game to play and esports ready.”

Almost a month later, Gallo decided to toss his hat back in the ring, noting that if he forfeited the first round, he wouldn’t be able to participate in any future competitions, including the Salzburg in-person event.

In June, Polyphony did finally update GT7 with the ability to change tracks in multiplayer lobbies — a critical feature that had been missing from the game since March, dissuading some pros from even playing casually with friends.

With little opportunity for career-level earnings, friendship and camaraderie is about the only thing keeping Gran Turismo’s top competitors involved. Pagandet recalled a favorite moment from his tournament days, one that took place far away from the glitz of the streamed competition. “One of the best days I’ve had in a World Tour was at Salzburg 2019, when we had a full free day and we grouped [in a hotel room] to play some old Gran Turismo in split-screen,” he said.

Enthusiasm for Gran Turismo as an esports entity is fading, based on what I heard from current and former competitors.

“I see no near-term suggestion of big change nor positive changes,” Pagandet told me, “which is a shame as I believe there’s so much potential to unleash. But it’s contained within the small circle of what they want to do/are doing with it. I want to remain hopeful, but I think that if they don’t do a big refresh, even on fundamental levels, on their esports scene, it will not help […] I’d be happy to be proven wrong.”

Image for article titled The Stars of Gran Turismo's World Tournament See No Future in the Game

Photo: Clive Rose (Getty Images)

“I wonder to myself whether or not there’s too much of a push on trying to make GT like the virtual replica of real-life racing,” Solis said, noting that Polyphony is “trying to bring on partners from real life rather than bringing in sponsorship from the esports world. Because it’s obvious there’s no push whatsoever for the gaming sponsors from the esports side of things.”

To Solis, the GT situation is painfully reminiscent of real-world motorsport, where it takes a huge amount of funding to enter the top levels of competition. “They’re following the culture of a sport that literally only cares about people with money, and that’s bad for the accessibility they want to promote,” Solis said. When sim racing first arrived, it was promoted as a way for everyday people to get involved in the world of motorsport. Today, it seems Polyphony has no interest in pursuing that opportunity.

Next year, Sony reportedly hopes to release a Gran Turismo movie, possibly to be directed by Neill Blomkamp. The prospective plot, per Deadline, “is the ultimate wish-fulfillment tale of a teenage Gran Turismo player whose gaming skills won a series of Nissan competitions to become an actual professional race car driver.”

It’s inspired by the story of Lucas Ordóñez, who won the inaugural GT Academy competition in 2009 and springboarded from Gran Turismo into real-life racing, competing at a range of global sports car championships including the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011. Such a career trajectory was truly the stuff of Hollywood — until Gran Turismo, “the real driving simulator,” came about. Ironically, that dream, of gaming your way into a real racing career, has never been more attainable than it is right now. Just maybe not through Gran Turismo.