Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Gaming Gremlins

Compared to NASCAR and Formula 1, the history of IndyCar video games is very scattershot.

Sure, there are a couple of highlights. Consoles and arcades in the 90’s had the solid Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat and Michael Andretti’s IndyCar Challenge.

Papyrus, the legendary predecessor to the current iRacing development team, got its teeth cut in 1989 with Indianapolis 500: The Simulation; perhaps the first very realistic racing game, or at least as realistic as the MS-DOS could get.

Papyrus would also develop IndyCar Racing and IndyCar Racing II, before the open wheel split led them to focus only on NASCAR for their licensed game offerings.

The split came at the worst possible time for the series, as it made licensing the series a bit of a nightmare. Do you license CART or do you license IRL? Codemasters went with IRL for two games in the early 2000’s, and that was about it, while CART made one appearance in Sony’s 1997 CART World Series on the original PlayStation.

IndyCar has not had a dedicated video game since IndyCar Series 2005 came out in 2004, mainly due to the series still struggling for popularity in the years right before and following reunification. At best, IndyCar licensed vehicles appeared sporadically in series such as Project Cars and Forza off-and-on throughout the 2010s.

In 2021, IndyCar signed a deal with Motorsports Games for a new video game, due out in 2023. At the time, this seemed like a positive move for the brand, moving them more in line with NASCAR as far as regular annual releases being the norm instead of the exception.

What’s more is that video games can be a very powerful learning tool. Madden NFL , the franchise everybody is chasing, is a great example of this.

In the 80’s, John Madden, the Super Bowl winning coach turned star broadcaster, was approached by Electronic Arts for his license for a sports game. Madden, saw the teaching possibilities video games brought to the table through hands-on learning. You can show kids a playbook and how the game is played, or you could put them on the field virtually and let them figure it out.

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The only issue, reportedly, was that Madden demanded full 11 on 11, 22 man football. After being approached for the project in 1984, John Madden Football would take four years to finally come out thanks to this. SB Nation did a very deep retrospective a few years ago on the first game.

Madden’s theory of the game being a great learning tool has been borne out in the years since. Sure, most fans probably wouldn’t be able to read their favorite team’s playbook. But football fans have a a great understanding of how the game works, and that’s in part thanks to spending their formative years playing the game with their eyes and fingers.

Motorsports Games seemed like a decent partner for IndyCar to team up with. The NASCAR Heat games were okay the last few years with Monster Games developing and MG publishing. NASCAR Heat 5 was developed by MG as Monster Games moved on to other things, the first non-mobile game the team had developed.

Motorsports Games also acquired Studio 357 and thus manages rFactor, giving them a great benchmark when it comes to realistic physics. Most manufacturer/team simulation builds use a modified version of rFactor, due to the game’s flexibility and customization.

But Motorsports Games has been in trouble for a while. The financial side of the business seems to be struggling. It’s a messy subject that can be better read elsewhere. However, it generally does not seem like a good time when a company changes CEOs in March, with the incoming CEO saying the company doesn’t have enough money to last the year.

rFactor is the exclusive partner of the virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans. This event happened in January and was such a mess as far as the servers staying up and network connectivity problems that the biggest name in the race, Max Verstappen, went off on his stream about the “clown show”.

Now, it should be mentioned that Studio 357 did release a statement on this entire situation. But it should also be mentioned how iRacing has been able to do big endurance events like this for years with few, if any, major issues such as this.

But besides all of that, you can also look at the failure that was NASCAR Ignition in late 2021. A broken game that had no reason to be released in the shape it was in besides appeasing a yearly agreement with NASCAR. Just look at it right before release.

There were updates in 2022 to make the game somewhat playable, including an update that added stages.

Yes, it took months for the game to have one of the most fundamental NASCAR rules for the five years prior to the game’s release.

Last year, MG decided to skip 2022 and put out paint schemes for Ignition, even though Ignition is using the old car at this point. It’s May of 2023 and there has been no news about this year’s NASCAR game, which seems to be the only game on the docket for MG.

The most direct blow dealt to IndyCar was at the very start of this year. Due to IndyCar’s contract for the now delayed-to-2024 video game with MG, iRacing lost the rights to broadcast races featuring IndyCar machinery on the service.

What this means is that iRacing players can still test their IndyCar racecars or race them in private sessions with friends. But they are no longer used in official iRacing events for ranking, and cannot be streamed by a network or content creator.

The backlash on this issue has been fierce among the iRacing user base, and is generally seen as a very bad move. There are going to be a number of hardcore racing gamers who aren’t going to want anything to do with whatever MG spits out next year.

IndyCar seems pretty oblivious to all of these problems with Motorsport games. IndyCar put out a nothing statement to Racer over the iRacing game that basically amounted to “You can still drive the car in iRacing, buy our game.”

Even after the game was delayed by a year, IndyCar President and CEO Mark Miles put out some very inspired comments to the Indianapolis Star at Long Beach. The most telling being “I think [MG] has meaningful resources and assets, primarily in the form of some of their (video game) contracts, so they’ll find a way for that to attract capital.”

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Meanwhile, in the background of all of this, is Monster Games and they’ve turned out a very solid SRX game in 2021 and followed it up with a great World of Outlaws game in 2022. iRacing acquired the studio and the future seems stable over there.

That’s not to mention the still solid Codemasters F1 games, the best year-to-year release for racing games. It’s just incredible how there are series with much smaller followings getting much better video games over the biggest open wheel series that primarily runs in America, and the biggest racing series in America.

In my opinion, IndyCar looks at its video game offering in a very basic view. It’s a piece of merchandise they can put out to make money.

That’s not entirely wrong. But this isn’t a hat or a flag. There needs to be actual care put into the product. Something MG has demonstrably shown not to be in the business of doing, nor even able to. They won’t even put something as simple as a credits roll in their games, making it harder for contractors to verify their work on those games for resume-building purposes.

And, as Madden observed almost 40 years ago, video games can serve as the ultimate merchandise. It can turn people into fans for life, with a deep understanding of the sport they are playing. It’s time for IndyCar to realize that and stop looking at the fleeting glitz and glamour that one company offers. The brightest t-shirt isn’t worth much if it fades away after a few washes.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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