Video game tournaments are notoriously boring affairs. As fun and addictive as I find many games, watching someone else play those same games is the entertainment equivalent to watching my grandparents play bridge. The mind-numbing effect of spectating a game tournament is only multiplied when the viewer doesn't know the game, as was my situation at the US GT Academy finals this week. As I mentioned to the rest of the media at the event on Wednesday afternoon, I haven't picked up a Gran Turismo title since GT2 and I wasn't any good at that game, anyway.
But this event wasn't for me (shocking, I know). It was for the 32 competitors – mostly young guys with a couple of standouts – who had bested some 53,000 other drivers in an online Gran Turismo 5 tournament and now stood a chance at winning a trip to Silverstone, entering the next phase of the GT Academy competition, the outcome of which could dramatically change their lives. In part, that's what sets GT Academy apart from other video game tournaments. In most cases, the winners walk away with a new gaming rig or an oversized check, but it's rarely the sort of thing that dreams are made of. In the case of GT Academy, virtual racing enthusiasts are given the chance to get behind the wheel of a real life race car and, if they can beat the rest of the contestants in a physical competition, earn a spot on Nissan's racing team.
Just in case the press had any doubts that the system worked, Nissan made sure we got plenty of face time with Lucas Ordonez, winner of the first season of GT Academy in Europe and current Le Mans driver. Prior to winning GT Academy, Lucas was a pretty normal guy. He had done a little kart racing as a kid, he was in school at the time for an MBA – in essence he was your average young gearhead with a knack for virtual driving. These days Lucas spends his time with the Signatech Nissan team, behind the wheel of an LMP2 car racing the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. He is a race car driver in every sense of the job. He's willing to try dropping the e-brake in a $90,000 car just to get a little kick off the line, even if it overheats an extraordinarily expensive transmission in the only Black Edition Nissan GTR currently in the United States. He walks with the swagger of a guy whose profession puts him on the verge of not only destroying a $1 million race car but also potentially killing himself. The press and the virtual racers present all treated Lucas with a mix of reverence and camaraderie; he is at once their hero – the embodiment of what seems an unattainable dream – and the link between two worlds that have, up to this point, been wholly separate.
On Tuesday night we were taken to Playstation World inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports, a staggering sports complex within the Disney grounds. Sony and Nissan had constructed a gaming lounge on the gymnasium floor of Playstation World, featuring a Nismo 370Z and the first Nissan GTR that had ever been in the US (still had a right-side steering column). The centerpiece of the lounge was the racing room, which hosted 8 custom-built Gran Turismo racing sleds. Each sled had its own flat-screen TV, an adjustable bucket seat, and a mounted Logitech racing wheel and pedal set. The competitors raced those sleds in 4-man heats, the results from which would be used to trim the field from 32 players to 16.
Shortly after our arrival, we were offered spots in the sleds, racing against the other media in one of several multicolored GTRs. As I mentioned before, I haven't played Gran Turismo in ages. It showed. The media was starkly divided between the guys who play GT regularly and those of us who don't. The four guys from physical media joints were absolutely slaying the web guys. It was a little embarrassing, though I was able to hold my own against the other web editors. I spent most of the races bouncing off walls and trolling other players with the horn, typically finishing somewhere around sixth place.
Sitting in the sled gave me a visceral sense of the excitement the virtual drivers would experience on Wednesday afternoon. I was sweating and, despite my lack of skill, trying to do everything in my power to catch the player in front of me (note: turning on the wipers does not increase speed). I also realized why watching Gran Turismo is so god damn boring. Success in GT is a mostly invisible achievement to the viewer. I couldn't clearly see when the top players backed off the throttle or how hard they hit the brakes.
The skill required to win a race in Gran Turismo is subtle, born of an intimate knowledge of not only the track but also the in-game mechanics of grip, sliding, braking, and the kind of exact acceleration that drives you to the edge of spinning out. It's for these reasons that I also do not follow live racing. I have what could be generously described as a cursory understanding of what puts one driver in front of another, save the occasional pileup. As with the GT sleds, it was the hands-on experience that suddenly brought the world of racing into focus.
On Wednesday Nissan took us out the the Disney Speedway for some autocross driving with the guys at the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Over the course of several hours, the entire media crew made multiple runs around the course in a Nissan Juke, a Nismo 370Z, and the 2012 GTR. Again, I had never done such a course, so I was a little out of my league when compared to the other media guys. I was able to shave a few seconds off my second-lap times, though, and perhaps more importantly start to understand how lane position, even when the lane is just inches wider than the car, can make or break a lap time. In a way, we were fielding our very own GT Academy between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. It was interesting to see how some of the better virtual drivers in our group lacked the control necessary for solid, real-world lap times. It was exactly the kind of experience the GT Academy finalists will have when they head over to the Silverstone circuit this summer.
The event wrapped Wednesday night with the following 16 players earning a spot on the GT Academy reality show this summer.
- Bryan Heitkotter
- Christopher Roberts
- Jason Miller
- Andre Gomes
- John Wilding
- Christopher Morton
- Kris Norris
- Gregory Russell
- Connor Clifford
- Phillip Arscott
- Nick Fontana
- Rich Pratt
- Glenn McGee Howle
- Steve Driscoll
- Sean Johnston
- Jose Cedeno
I'd like to offer my thanks to both Nissan and Sony for setting up the event. It was a rare look inside one of the gaming industry's most innovative competitions. We wish the best to the competitors and look forward to seeing the winner driving alongside Lucas Ordonez in the near future.