2020 was a special year for virtual racing, as it partially served as a replacement for motorsports when the real cars were not allowed to race. But did the boom actually help the scene?
Photo credit: imago images / Hoch Zwei Stock/Angerer
2020 is nearly over and the year marks a special period for esports racing. The global pandemic destroyed many markets and businesses, whereas for other sectors, it opened new doors to show their potential.
But was 2020 a successful year for esports racing? There are many factors that play into this question. For this article, we are going to turn back time and look at how many viewers and players various racing games reached in 2020 and why the numbers changed. First, we are going to take a look at the selling figures of racing games with a focus on one of the flagship series, F1 by Codemasters, to see how many active players there are.
Then we will investigate how many people were consuming content in 2020 by assessing the development of racing games on Twitch, especially in iRacing. Once we have compared the numbers regarding players and viewers, we can examine one of the reasons behind the change. With special tournaments that mixed the worlds of virtual and real-world racing, the esports scene experienced a new height. Celebrities outside motorsports contributed to the popularity. A conclusion will summarize the 2020 esports racing year.
The player numbers
Let’s start by comparing the bare numbers regarding the player counts. We chose the F1 series by Codemasters to represent the simcade genre, as it is an annually released title and counts as one of the most popular games.
2020 was a great success, as we can observe a huge rise in the player count. As a short side note: in the first half of the year, F1 2019 was the most recent title of the series, until F1 2020 was released in July.
When comparing the overall number of players from all of the various PlayStation 4 games, the 2019 version made a big jump. Nearly twice as many fans played the 2019 game compared to its predecessor. The current number for the 2020 title is of course still low in comparison, but keep in mind that it has only been playable for six months so far.
PlayStation 4 total player count until November 19, 2020:
|F1 2015||F1 2016||F1 2017||F1 2018||F1 2019||F1 2020|
The F1 games are primarily played on consoles. Nonetheless, the Steam player count shows the impact of the pandemic visually. For most nations, the first complete lockdown started around March, which is where F1 2019 for PC registers a surge of 202.23% in their player count which led to a peak of 12,736 users. F1 2020 started its release with an even bigger boom, as there were 23,766 peak players in July on Steam.
Reliable statistics for the active player count don’t exist for all racing games. However, at least those titles that are available on Steam and are listed in the official steamcharts all show a plus in their playercount from March onwards. Trackmania, DiRT Rally 2.0 and Assetto Corsa Competizione all close the year with a higher number of active players then in the beginning of 2019 on Steam.
Awards support the success
The great success of Codemasters’ most recent titles also shows in the fact that F1 2020 was nominated for several game awards. The VCO Simmy Awards nominated the game for Best Platform, The Game Awards included two titles in their vote for Best Sports/Racing Game (F1 2020 and DIRT 5), and the Golden Joystick Award shortlisted the edition for Ultimate Game of the Year.
Virtual racing was quite popular in various award shows this year. The prestigious Autosport Awards even added their own esports category for the first time: Esports Driver of the Year. Speaking of esports racing, let’s take a look at how the competitive scene developed in 2020.
The viewer numbers
Playing casually at home is one part of the virtual racing world, competing in events against each other is the next story. Not only did games rise in popularity, but the esports scene experienced a boom as well. As a true simulation, we went for iRacing to demonstrate the growth as it is the sim racing platform with the most tournaments and users overall.
When comparing the statistics from 2017 until December 2020, we can see an incredible increase in numbers. The graph below shows the peak viewers of all Twitch-channels that streamed iRacing combined in green bars. The purple bars represent the combined hours watched in the iRacing category. Keep in mind that the purple bars do not use the same metric as the green viewership.
As a general guideline, you can use the marked numbers for March 2020: the green viewer count bar peaks at 55,317 spectators, the purple bar in the same month shows a watchtime of 1,835,397 hours – both significantly higher figures than ever before. A comparison across all platforms would be an interesting task, but this would require the publishers to reveal player numbers at the end of the year.
2020 was without doubt the most successful year for iRacing on Twitch. From February to March, the overall hours watched increased by 106%, and from March to April there was an additional growth of 42% on top of that. While the numbers declined after the big boom, the trend is still higher than in previous years.
iRacing is not alone with its peak. When looking at the Twitch stats for rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa Competizione, the games both experienced a peak around May and kept drawing in more viewers after the boom was over than the months before. Other titles such as Forza Motorsport 7 and Gran Turismo Sport could already register high numbers in previous years. In the first half of 2020, the viewercount was nowhere near these former stats, so the esports racing hype around May catapulted the games back again into popularity on Twitch.
Every one of the major titles in esports racing benefitted from the pandemic in terms of Twitch viewers. For some, the viewercount drastically increased to never-before-seen heights, while other titles simply went back to their old glorious days. But why is there such a big spike for a few months? Because of the special tournaments that took place, so let’s head over to the events in 2020.
Unique tournaments fill the void
The corona pandemic forced the usual offline tournaments to be cancelled, such as the ADAC SimRacing Expo 2020. Nonetheless, it was also an opportunity, as well as a challenge, for organizers to provide events that were held completely online. iRacing was not the only platform to benefit from the breaks, as new tournaments blossomed in all of the important titles.
Virtual racing was in a unique position among all esports titles. As the motorsports scene suddenly had to stop operations and cancel live events around the world, esports racing was on hand to step in and pick up the baton.
Formula 1 fans were greatly entertained during the break, as their drivers competed against esports racing personalities in various events. There was the Not the GP series by Veloce for example, and the Formula 1 Virtual Grand Prix which was the cherry on top of the exposure esports racing received in 2020. According to Formula 1, the event amassed a record-breaking 30 million views across TV and digital platforms during the lockdown.
Especially the younger generation of F1 drivers was extremely active in promoting esports racing. Red Bull rookie Alexander Albon, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and most notably Lando Norris from McLaren provided a lot of content for their fans. They demonstrated that games could be used for both entertainment and as a means of practicing for real-world races.
Another mammoth event in 2020 was the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual. The legendary annual endurance race had to be postponed, so a virtual edition was created. 50 teams from all over the world participated, each consisting of an esports racing pro and a motorsports driver. This created line-ups such as F1 stars Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello driving together with sim racers Olli Pahkala and Jarl Teien. The mega-event was a great success, as it gathered over 14 million views for the race broadcast and 8.6 million views online, according to Autosport.
👉 2 times winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Fernando Alonso will be there for the #LeMans24Virtual with the team FA/RB Allinsports!— 24 Hours of Le Mans (@24hoursoflemans) May 29, 2020
Check out the lineup :
➡️ @JarlTeien#LeMans24 #wec #RaceAtHome pic.twitter.com/b9eulyRJa8
Celebrities get involved
Several top tournaments with new formats were created that mixed the virtual and real-world scenes. The motorsports stars that were forced to take a break filled their free time by competing online. Esports pro racers joined the mix. Other types of sports were on a hold as well. And so, even non-motorsports celebrities participated in the events, such as Real Madrid footballer Thibaut Courtois and golfer Ian Poulter.
The craze around virtual racing spread through the world and also reached stars from other fields outside of sports. YouTuber and rapper Noel Miller participated in the Not the GP Series. Former One Direction singer Liam Payne sat behind his sim rig for the F1 Virtual Grand Prix. Mixing all these various personalities into esports racing in these dimensions would not have been imaginable in the previous years.
And the new concepts were quite the success. Motorsports fans stormed the virtual grandstands for the replacement events. As some series were even aired on national television, the shows attracted never-seen-before numbers: according to ESPN, the debut race of the IndyCar iRacing event reached 600,000 viewers in April. NASCAR even exceeded this with over 1.3 million viewers in cooperation with Fox News.
Speaking of these broadcasts, esports racing achieved another milestone in 2020 as it was broadly covered by mainstream media thanks to the involvement of the celebrities. From TV stations to motorsports online news pages, social media, magazines and general news covering companies, a plethora of outlets put esports racing into the limelight.
Overall, 2020 was a big boom for esports racing. The lack of motorsports events due to the pandemic led organizers to provide a virtual alternative for their events, which shed the limelight onto the esports racing scene in general. With celebrities and real-world stars joining the tournaments, virtual racing events attracted millions of viewers worldwide and found their way into mainstream media.
It seems like the exposure was not only a short-time trend, as sales figures of platform subscriptions and games are on the rise. In regard of the most popular sim platform iRacing, the overall unique viewership numbers went down after the boom in March and April, but they are still higher than before the pandemic. On top of that, the overall watchtime increased. For other titles such as rFactor 2 and Assetto Corsa Competizione, an increase can be observed as well, leading to higher numbers even after the hype.
Some motorsports drivers who were unfamiliar with the virtual genre before are now aware of its potential and promoted the sim racing platforms by participating in virtual events. Overall, there is a higher awareness of esports racing among fans and drivers at the end of the year than when it started. The outlook for 2021 is positive, so the upcoming mission for the scene is to use the newly gained attention and participation and turn it into long-term progress.
Did you discover esports racing in 2020 due to the boom, or are you a long-time fan? Tell us on Twitter at @overtake_gg!