GT Academy: have you heard of it? It’s a groundbreaking collaboration between Sony and Nissan: a global virtual-to-reality contest that lets Gran Turismo video gamers compete to become real-world race car drivers. You read that right. In 2011, Bryan Heitkotter rose through the ranks and became the first American winner of the GT Academy. Shortly after that win, Bryan sat behind the wheel of a real-world Nissan and started training at the track. If you follow Team Always Evolving, you know the rest of that story.
Being an avid motorsports fan, team owner and racer, I’ve followed the GT Academy from its infancy. When it debuted in 2008, I felt a “click” of history in the making. The whole “gamer to racer, virtual to reality” story felt like a first step in something special. But I felt there was always more…. It wasn’t clear what – but something was taking shape.
Then, a few weeks back, Bryan led the stampede and won back-to-back, both Saturday and Sunday, at Pirelli World Challenge in Utah. This former gamer raced against some of the best race sports car drivers in the world, piloting the Always Evolving Nissan NISMO GT3 GT-R in near-perfect form.
Watching him win, I felt another click. This time, though, I see where the future is heading.
Five years ago, when Bryan stepped out of the Academy and into the driver’s seat of a real race car, motorsports fans fell into two camps. That’s still true today. Old- school fans, people who have been coming to track events for years. The fans that wear their favorite team or driver’s gear, shout and cheer trackside or wake at 2am to watch Formula One live on linear television broadcasts. They grew up loving racing from the time when the cars themselves were the key technology innovations and they return for those real-world thrills. But we aren’t building them like that anymore…
The other type of fan, a group equally passionate about cars, drivers and racing: the virtual, or eSports, racers. They know the sound and strengths of the cars they love, the performance attributes of engines, brakes and more. They set up changes and follow their favorite drivers. But these are more than the drivers in the real race cars. The drivers they cheer for are racing from simulators all over the world – from their mom’s living rooms to Ferrari’s factory in Maranello, Italy.
This avid community of fans may never come to a real-world track. Yet they’re a rising force in our sport. Consider this: top draws like NASCAR can attract 150,000 fans or more to a track for a high-profile event. That many people sign into Gran Turismo 6 every day. The GT franchise has sold over 76 million copies. The next rev, Gran Turismo Sport, launches in the next few months. Depending on who you believe it’s estimated to sell between 10 and 20 million copies.
There’s a big gap between these two groups of fans and so far motorsport hasn’t found a way to bridge it. Hashtags and livestreaming aren’t going to cut it. Nothing we’re doing is enough to attract the interest of eSports players, immersed as they are in truly incredible virtual experiences that (as Bryan shows) parallel the hands-on excitement available to real-world drivers.
These potential fans are getting more and more involved in their virtual experience. What we offer in real life isn’t enough to lure them to the track. There are so many content publishers competing for eyeballs today, it’s difficult to attract the next generation of fans using the same old spin. As a result, the motorsports industry is feeling the pain of a slow decline. When an old-school fan “ages out” and stops coming to events, one more seat is left empty.
We have to do better, or the future is clear. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here again: Something has to change or automobile racing will be horse racing in another 10 – 15 years. Nobody will care about it except for the largest and well known spectacles like the Indy 500. That’s a lot of excellent races left by the wayside.
The first glimmers of AerNow started taking shape as I pondered this problem with motorsport producers. As we kept thinking, the early AerNow team saw an audacious opportunity – one merging digital innovation with motorsport fan experiences to create a whole new thing.
Looking across digital and virtual innovation, watching the rise of live video across a range of platforms and tracking the momentum of eSports, some big new thinking took shape.
We have a way to transform real-world motorsport through digital innovation and I felt its potential as Bryan roared around that track. In his car and across the track, cameras captured each moment of the race. Beacons and sensors monitored the data, tracking the performance of both car and driver. Those fans who post to social platforms shared their photos and thoughts. Meanwhile, remote fans watched what the livestream fed them, getting a flat, one-way experience that’s way behind the visual experiences we dream of. Same old thing. One less fan today. One less we can’t attract tomorrow.
In a world where eSports is rising, that experience isn’t going to cut it.
The key to “what’s next” is data. Not boring big data that nobody on the other end of the device cares about. But the data that could enrich, augment and radically transform audience engagement, creating relevance and immersion for the rising community of motorsports fans tuned to virtual experiences. Or as GT Academy says “Virtual to Reality.” They meant something different at the time. But, it’s damn good.
AerNow is currently working on game-changing ideas that will change the way fans can be a part of motorsports. We will be bringing the real world experience to the audience in a variety of ways. Step by step, we are working to truly bring virtual to reality. This will allow us to tap into the “new fan” and change the future of motorsports. If we get this one right, motorsports will never be the same…
I personally can’t wait to see the next great racer go head-to-head from a simulator in his mother’s living room against Bryan Heitkotter as he tears around a real track at some wildly-followed event in the not-too-distant future. I’m sure a few others would be interested in joining in. You think maybe?
That’s a whole new type of win.