Over 53,000 racing fans competed for the chance of a lifetime in Sony and Nissan's first ever American Gran Turismo Academy event last week at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The prize? The opportunity to be sent to the prestigious Silverstone racing school in England to learn to become a real race car driver.
This isn't Sony and Nissan's first time around the track. The companies have been partnering up for GT Academy starting in Europe back in 2008, and since then two racing game addicts have been crowned champions. First was Madrid native Lucas Ordonez in 2008 and then Jordan Tresson from France in 2010.
Erich Marx, Director of Marketing for Nissan told G4, “We sent [Lucas] to a real racing school and sure enough he’s had great success over the past two years. He’s now a real professional driver with sponsors and he’s on his own now. In fact, he was just part of a team that raced 12 hours of Sebring and they finished second place. That was eye-opening for us.”
The competition is unique and unlike any other in competitive gaming. The first half features a speed test contest in Gran Turismo 5 while the second half involves real life driving tests. The American tournament kicked off its online portion with 53,000 GT5 players, and the 32 competitors with the fastest speeds were all sent to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida for the national finals to test their racing chops against one another in person amidst media and personal pressure.
Those 32 finalists faced off against one another in groups of four, competing in identical racing sleds equipped with high end Logitech Driving Force GT steering wheels, vying for a spot in the final 16. The guys were all assigned a specific car each round; all the driving assists were off, and they couldn’t change any settings except the race camera view.
First the racers had to do one four lap circuit alone to decide where they'd be placed in the actual race based on their speed. Then they had to race against their three group mates, and only the fastest drivers get to proceed. The 16 speediest will be flown out to Silverstone, England in June to compete in a different sort of competition where video games turn to reality and they learn what it takes to become a true race car driver.
And that doesn't only include driving the cars. Racers at their peak need to be in excellent physical condition, so GT Academy made everyone go through a physical examination as well. You might not think it at first, but especially for endurance racers (like the ones GT Academy is searching for) fitness is a top priority.
“Certainly with the 12 hours of Sebring and 24 hours of Dubai, there’s an endurance element. Even though you aren’t driving the entire time you’re competing in those, there’s still intense heat and stress and nerves and everything that goes into being a top level athlete. It’s a prerequisite for success, and there’s an element of that in the Silverstone training,” said Marx, when asked about the intense level of fitness training that happens at Silverstone.
Aside from the fact that the competition is taking people from the real-world into the drivers seat, the most interesting and inspiring thing about GT Academy are the players themselves, many of which confess that Gran Turismo 5 is the only game they even own.
John Wilding, 35, one member of the final 16 said, “I would never consider myself a gamer.” This sentiment is echoed by a lot of other competitors, even though they find themselves practicing GT5 for months on end during the tournament for their chance to “win the lottery” according to Marx.
“One young kid here has never been out of the state of Iowa, never been on an airplane before. He got on an airplane for the first time to come to Orlando to be a part of this,” said Marx, “We have a 38 year old gentleman, married with kids and he’s here competing looking for the chance of a lifetime. We’ve got everything from 18-year-olds to 42-year-olds here and they are as thankful and as thrilled and grateful for the opportunity than as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
And the opportunity they get if they win truly is like winning the lottery according to Lucas Ordonez, winner of the first GT Academy in 2008. “When I won GT Academy 2008, I was a normal guy living in Madrid. I was going for my MBA, and now my life is completely changed. I’m traveling every week, everywhere, doing lots of racing every year in every part of the world. It’s a totally different life.”
From a gaming and eSports perspective, the GT Academy tournament is something very special because few competitive games, or even games in general, also double as extremely precise simulators, so nothing like this has ever been practiced before. A gamer can't go from playing Madden to the NFL or from playing Call of Duty to being a Marine, as those games aren't built to facilitate that jump. Although both of those are good reality show ideas that I would watch.
“Three years ago we called it a game,” said Marx, “and now if you talk to these finalists that are here today, they’ll look right at you and tell you it’s not a game it’s a simulator. They believe in their heart of hearts that this is a true barometer for real driving ability, and two years in a row in Europe, it’s proven to be true and so we’re hoping to find that same success here.”
And if Nissan and Sony's partnership continues to find success with GT Academy, that kind of huge sponsorship can only bode well for the future of competitive gaming. With such lucrative companies coming together to support gamers who are so passionate about what they do, and trying so hard for a spot in these competitions, it will bring more awareness not only to the entertaining games they play but they'll show other companies that might look towards sponsoring these types of events that it's a good idea.
Have you been following GT Academy over the past two years, or even throughout the American tournament? What do you think of Nissan and Sony giving one gamer the chance to become a real race car driver? Let us know!
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