2020 in Review – Racing games and the rise of esports

On the face of it, 2020 has delivered a steady stream of new and interesting racing game titles across various sub-genres, but little in the way of breaking new ground. Despite this, this year has been a landmark moment for racing and motorsport video games.

There are a couple of key reasons for this, the first of which is that the entire video game market has continued to lean towards games as a service through online modes, esports, DLC and free updates.

Even as Polyphony Digital gear up for Gran Turismo 7 on PS5, 2017’s GT Sport received a couple of new cars, additional GT League events and weekly fresh online Sport Mode races. Despite this, I’ll probably never reach level 50. Then there’s Forza Horizon 4, which was optimised for Xbox Series X, saw multiple new cars added and even received a Super7 community mode to let you create your own challenges. Wreckfest is now into its second season of added content, with more cars still to come well into 2021, while DiRT Rally 2.0 witnessed the addition of a rather superb Colin McRae: FLAT OUT expansion.

The second reason has been the accelerated rise of esports. The general awfulness that is Covid-19 led, as we all know, to the cancellation and postponement of pretty much all sporting events in the spring, and esports were there to pick up the slack. Motorsport series across the globe rapidly turned to games and simulators to provide their audiences and sponsors something to watch.

From the Virgin Australia Supercars using iRacing, to the FIA World Rallycross Championship using DiRT Rally 2.0, Formula E and the 24 Hours of Le Mans on rFactor 2 and F1 utilising, well, the official F1 game of course. Officially backed and promoted series were ten a penny.

During the lockdown periods, I enjoyed watching Jonnhy Herbert cut the first corner in an online F1 race, my dad discovering esports on TV and, the weekend before Christmas, we watched the slickly produced Gran Turismo 2020 World Finals. Overnight, new online racing communities were spawned, as esports thrust the racing genre into the spotlight.

It wasn’t without controversy, however, and in particular when real-life racing drivers failed to adapt. There was outrage online as Simon Pagenaud looked to deliberately take out race leader Lando Norris in an officially sanctioned online IndyCar race. Formula E racer Daniel Abt was fined, and later lost his actual race seat, thanks to cheating in an esports event by secretly switching himself with a simulator specialist.

No matter, these were simply growing pains. While the real world racers have now returned to their racing formulae, virtual online racing is here to stay and will only grow in popularity. It can cost tens of thousands of euros to do a season of European karting, but anyone can enter a number of esports events using an affordable wheel peripheral and a PlayStation. A whole new generation will grow up with esports glory as a realistic target.

Speaking of new generations, DIRT 5 set out a stall that promised arcade-style off-road fun and largely delivered as it bridged the PS4, Xbox One, PS5 and Xbox Series X|S . A lack of online flexibility lets the side down a little, but both current and next-gen versions provide plenty of door-rubbing, chasm-jumping and gravel-spewing action.

F1 2020 arrived earlier in the summer to give My Team career was a breath of fresh air for a series that’s starting to feel in some areas like re-heated leftovers. Being able to have greater control over team liveries, names, management, upgrade paths and driver contracts delivered an engrossing experience. For these two games and a variety of other factors, it was a successful year for Codemasters, so much so that it was then purchased by Californian loot-box extraordinaire, Electronic Arts, for $1.2 billion. Wowsers!

A title newly associated with Codemasters is WRC, as in June it was announced the licence will move from Kylotton by 2023. Which now seems a bit of a shame, because 2020’s edition, WRC 9, is by far the best World Rally Championship game in over a decade. When making a racing video game, getting the vehicle handling right in the most important aspect, and it was with an element of surprise that the latest instalment manages just that. Since the initial release, the PS5 next-gen version offers smooth framerates, DualSense feedback and rapid loading times to place the cherry on the snow-filled cake.

If WRC 9 was refreshing and F1 2020 was consistent, Ride 4 felt a little stale. There is no doubt that developer Milestone has taken giant leaps forward in track selection, motorcycle recreations and sound design, but a derivative campaign and decidedly 2007 online options leave it on the starting grid with a clutch.

Also left in need of a push was the console version of Assetto Corsa Competizione. The focused simulator made an awkward transition from PCs to last-gen hardware, mere months before the new and more powerful consoles were available. It was left with sometimes sub-30 frames per second gameplay, no private online lobbies and pre-order DLC that wasn’t ready for the launch. Oh dear. Thankfully, a thorough road-map of updates and DLC is on the way, and it runs at 60 fps when played via backwards compatibility on Xbox Series X and PS5. All is not lost in this case.

By far the worst game of 2020 in my opinion, sadly, was Fast & Furious Crossroads. Vin Diesel has an unfortunate association with video games. Back in 2009, there was a decidedly sub-par open-world driving game featuring the husky-voiced star as the lead. Even eleven years later, Wheelman is better than Crossroads. Mind you, having a tooth removed without local anaesthetic is also more fun than playing this turgid mess.

2020 has been a mixed year when you look solely at the new racing games released, but thanks to the continued support of popular games, bourgeoning communities from esports taking a step into the mainstream and the likes of new F1, Supercross, Gran Turismo and Forza games on the horizon, this segment of the games market has never had it so good.

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