Gran Turismo has long sought to bridge the virtual divide.
Series creator Kazunori ‘Kaz’ Yamauchi’s obsession for realism was evident in the original 1997 masterpiece on PS1.
Sony’s modestly powered hardware was pushed to the limit, delivering some of the most realistic-looking cars and handling seen in a videogame.
But this was just the beginning.
A few years later, the GT Academy launched – offering those who had mastered the game a chance of becoming a real-life race-driver.
Darlington-born Jann Mardenborough is perhaps the biggest success story, catapulted from his bedroom to racing for Nissan in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Today, the lines between the virtual and the real have never been more blurred.
Being a pro video-game racer is seen as credible as being a real driver – with teams such as McLaren and Red Bull signing full-time e-athletes to take part in competitions around the world.
Even F1 star Lewis Hamilton admits he prefers to use Gran Turismo over Mercedes’ state-of-the-art simulator to get a feel for the tracks.
“10 years ago when the GT academy started the objective was clear, it was to make a video gamer into a professional racer,” said Kaz at the glitzy FIA Gran Turismo Sport Championship in Monaco.
“It’s been ten years now and talking to the pros not all of them are looking at becoming professional racers, some of them are but it’s not everyone’s goal.
“If we didn’t have the ten years of experience we had built up doing the GT academy I don’t think we would have been able to bring the championship to this level.”
We are now at a point where sim racing is arguably as entertaining to watch as the real thing – offering all the thrills with zero risk.
“I think we have had to over the years recreate and remake the car models about five times now, it’s a big challenge every time,” said Kaz.
“Current car models are pretty close to the optimum level of modelling you could want in a game. I don’t think any higher precision is necessary anymore we are almost there.”
However, the hardest part isn’t creating realistic cars and handling – the GT team has 20 years’ experience in that. Today’s biggest challenge is about creating an entertaining broadcast, with Kaz admitting there is still more to do.
“I think the most difficult part of development was, of course, the sports part of it, the online racing, the broadcasts. We can be happy about the distance we have been able to come in this time but there is still more to do.”
Gran Turismo has become so indistinguishable from real life that Kaz believes it could one day replace some forms of racing – particularity as pressure to reduce resource consumption and operate in an environmentally sustainable manner increases.
“For racing with the really loud exhaust sounds and the exciting environment, I’m not sure how long that sort of racing will last,” said Kaz.
“It is a possibility that the classic old-fashioned racing with cars may become something that you only experience in Gran Turismo.”
Being a professional race driver at any level is incredibly competitive – but arguably the biggest barrier for entry is the financial investment required. There have been stories of teams spending upwards of $150,000 – and that’s just for one race.
Sim racing, on the other hand, is open to all – essentially an even playing field for the best players to stand out of the crowd for all the right reasons.
“That’s exactly what we are looking to do,” said Kaz. “You know things like street basketball is important, as not everyone can become an NBA player.”
To help build credibility, the GT team partnered with the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) to allow gamers to acquire a digital race licence – making them eligible to compete in some races, just like in the real racing events.
“Six years ago when we started development with the FIA the objective was to really find the next 100 years of motorsports together,” said Kaz.
“At the time the thought was it would probably be best to do this together with the group that has the experience of organising motorsports for the last 100 years. That in itself was a success it did help us make things better.”
As Brazilian Igor Fraga lifted the Nations Cup, it became clear that Gran Turismo is now no longer just a game, but a sport. And everyone’s invited.