From console to car: How the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy turns gamers into real racecar drivers
Each new game console launch is promoted with the latest racing video games -- and for good reason. The advanced processing power of a new console is often best showcased with realistic driving games that replicate racetracks down to the millimeter, offering authentic simulations of exotic vehicles that often only professional racecar drivers get to drive in the real world. Nowhere has the accuracy of video game simulations been demonstrated better than the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy. Over the last six years, the worlds of video games and professional racing have converged with this hybrid online video game competition that begins with Gran Turismo 6 on PlayStation 3 and culminates with a reality TV racing experience that takes place at the legendary Silverstone race track in England.
Nissan and Sony have generated 12 GT Academy Champions, which doesn’t include the five newest drivers that will be officially crowned via a Spike TV reality show in December. In 2012 and 2013, champions from the U.S., Europe, Russia and Germany were entered into the pro racing program. This year, a new International Competition champion was added that combined the best gamers from Australia, India, Mexico, the Middle East and Thailand.
The competition has been fierce with over 4 million registered contestants feeling the virtual need for speed since 2008. But the reward is a fast track into a new career that many only dream of living. The winners of the worldwide competition graduate to become Nissan NISMO racing drivers, which begins with an intense three-month driver development program at Silverstone to be transformed from really good gamers to beginner racecar drivers.
While the winners are guaranteed to compete at the 24 Hours of Dubai endurance race as their first professional race, after that it’s up to their on-track performance. The team as Nissan NISMO evaluates each driver’s racing potential through various points including their ability to grow and be properly trained as a pro athlete. To date, all 12 drivers are still actively racing. Previous GT Academy champions are now racing in GP3, Le Mans 24 Hours, 12 Hours of Sebring and the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
Bryan Heitkotter, the first American GT Academy winner in 2011, drove in a Nissan NISMO 370Z in the Continental SportsCar Challenge in 2012 and earned the pole position and a 10th place finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was also part of an all-gamer team of drivers who competed in the 24 Hours of Dubai endurance race in 2011, where a third place podium finish was earned.
“A lot of the skills you learn in Gran Turismo will translate to a real car,” said Heitkotter. “All the basics, under steer/over steer, your line braking point and even race craft now that you can race online against other people in the game, all that stuff is valid in a real car. The difference in a real car, of course, is you feel the G Forces around you, but all the same principles apply, especially concentration. In a real car you have to keep a fairly high level of focus for an extended period of time, and in Gran Turismo if you do any of the endurance races you’ll know what that’s about.”
Ask just about any NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula 1 racer and they’ll likely talk about how using multi-million dollar driving simulators help prepare them for real races. But even on an older game console (Gran Turismo has not yet been released for PlayStation 4), professional drivers can literally learn to race through a video game.
Like most contest winners, Jann Mardenborough, the European GT Academy winner from 2011, had no prior racing experience before GT Academy. It was his first time in a sports car and Silverstone was his first race track. But to this day, he still uses video games to fine-tune his driving skills.
“I use simulators as a key preparation in my approach to a race weekend,” said Mardenborough. “At Le Mans this year, I used Gran Turismo as part of my training because of the level of detail in the game. I did a lot of night running on Gran Turismo to get references for me for real in the dark. I ended up using reflective boards in real life, which I had spotted in the game, for brake/turn-in references. I'm heading to Monza for a race weekend in GP3 and I used the simulator at Infiniti Red Bull to prepare for it. It's a massive part of a race driver’s preparation.”
Steve Doherty, the 2012 U.S. GT Academy Champion, was playing Gran Turismo long before he got behind the wheel of a real car. But at 18, he was racing cheap front wheel drive true stock cars. In 2005 he was a runner-up at a local track in Plainfield, IL and in 2006 he was track champion – a record that holds to this day since the track closed that year. He continues to use games to prepare for real races as a Nissan driver.
“Sims are becoming the ‘norm’ these days when it comes to preparation,” said Doherty. “I used GT to train for several tracks in the last year. The lap times from the game are usually within a second of what we achieve in real life. It’s awesome showing up to a track you've never been to and in the first session be on pace with guys who have been racing there for years.”
With Sony already demonstrating its new Morpheus virtual reality headset, Gran Turismo 7 could introduce virtual reality to the bestselling franchise that has sold over 70 million copies and counting. Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi, who is also a semi-pro racecar driver himself, embraced stereoscopic 3D gaming with GT6 and VR is the next big thing. The 2013 U.S. GT Academy Champion, Nick McMillen, believes the opportunities are endless for the franchise.
“Virtual reality is growing a lot and Gran Turismo would benefit greatly from it,” said McMillen. “Allowing the driver to get the feeling of being in a car where they can look around and realize the distance of objects will bring a great sense of realism to the game. Also, with the added processing power of the PS4 we will see even better graphics along with more realistic driving physics to give the player more ‘feeling’ of the car. I'm excited to see what (developer) Polyphony Digital has in store for the next game in the Gran Turismo series on PS4.”
Depending on when the new GT game ships, next year’s GT Academy competition could evolve into an even more realistic experience – with or without virtual reality. But even without the graphical upgrade, the game’s realism has been paving the way for gamers to go pro. It’s something that no other racing or sports simulation offers. Being able to pummel opponents in Madden won’t win you a tryout in the NFL. And good luck learning to skate with NHL 15. But driving is a whole different game. And one that’s providing real racing excitement for an annual graduating class of gamers.