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Ever since the dawning years of the nineties of the past century, when sim racers started to get more serious and got their hands on wheel and pedal kits, the same old question has been asked and discussed over and over again: is sim racing a sport? Or is it merely a game?

I don’t expect this debate to ever end, because there will always be non-believers who will dismiss each and every argument, regardless of its validity. Despite this certainty of failure, I would like to add my two (euro)cents to the discussion. The following text is written with the online league racer in mind, because, in my opinion, online league racing is what present, and future, sim racing is all about. I will try to provide proof to silence at least a few more of those brothers, wives, fathers and others who doubt the fact that sim racing is a sport and deserves to be recognised that way.

What exactly is a sport?

To determine whether sim racing is a sport, we should first find out what a sport actually is. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English describes a sport as: “A game, competition or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and / or as a job.”

That’s an impressive definition, but a definition is just a starting point on the road to truth. Definitions need interpreting to become useful. So what does this definition really mean? What are the definite criteria we can use to determine if some activity should be regarded a sport, in the truest meaning of the word?

What this definition comes down to is, basically, that a sport is a way of spending time with the goal of having a nice time or earning valuable things, while competing with either other human beings or yourself. Also, it says that you’re using (parts of) your body when exercising a sport, and that you can develop skill regarding this activity. Finally, there are rules involved, which makes it an identifiable and repeatable activity.

To summarize: spending time for a reason, competing, using body parts, using skill, playing by rules.

So does sim racing qualify?

Now that we’ve got the meaning of sport sorted out, let’s use this knowledge to explore the world of sim racing. I will deal with each criterion one at a time.
Spending time for a reason

When sim racers are exercising their passion, they’re certainly doing it for a reason. There probably is not a single sim racer on this planet who does not enjoy running fender to fender at Talladega, or slamming over the curbs at Spa-Francorchamps. Enjoyment ranks as the number one reason for taming the virtual track.

There even are a few sponsored sim racers, guys who receive either money or goods for their sim racing activities. A good example of this last group is the Team Redline sim racing team, with drivers using gear from BallRacing Developments, paid for by BallRacing Developments, who in return help this company build better sim racing controllers by providing feedback through real sim racing experience. It would be foolish to say that these drivers only race for the financial benefit of it. But the fact that companies are willing to spend money on sim racers’ careers is interesting to say the least.

This criterion is proven without a doubt. Sim racers engage in their hobby for a reason: enjoyment is number one!
Competing

The foundation for about all online racing leagues is providing a place for close competition. Online racing leagues put the driver on the track with 20 or more other human beings, all trying to finish the race on the top spot. Week after week, the drivers battle it out. Much time is spent preparing for races and looking back at them, all with one goal in mind: doing better, finishing higher, the next week. Being a stronger competitor.

Competition is what sim racing is all about!
Using body parts

The meaning of this criterion is very broad. Especially if you take a look at other activities which are called sports, it’s obvious that many, many ways of using body parts are involved in the collection of sports that exist and are recognised that way. A competition swimmer is using almost every muscle in his body, and gets exhausted physically. On the other hand, a darts player is only using his arms, does not get exhausted physically, but gets exhausted mentally instead. Both swimming and playing darts are considered sports.

A sim driver fits somewhere in the middle. He’s not using all muscles in his body, but his upper body (chest, back, arms, hands) and the lower parts of his legs, including his feet, are being strained through the major part of a race. This may exhaust him, especially when it’s hot outside, there are only a few yellows, and he’s doing a 250-lap Bristol race using a heavy controller and pressure modulated braking system.

Above all: mentally, a sim racer is tortured in a long league race. Racing inches away from your direct competitors for two hours forces you to be concentrated to the max, every split second. Concentration is so incredibly important, that many league racers are pretty much numb after an involving, long league race.

So this criterion is proven as well, with the mental exhaustion factor as an added bonus.
Using skill

Now we’re heading into really advanced territory. To summarize: recent racing sims require such an incredible amount of skill, that it’s simply unbelievable that good races are possible. All sim racers are handicapped compared to real life racers: sim racers don’t have the ‘seat-of-the-pants’ feeling that real life racers have. But still, current sims, like Nascar Racing 2002 Season, are modelled to include everything that is present in real life. But the car must be piloted by someone only able to rely on his eyes, ears and, when using force feedback, his arms (but the latter in a seriously handicapped way).

Now, taking this handicap into account, let’s take a look at the incredible performance of these drivers in a typical league race: a 50% race at Dover Downs International Speedway. This race runs for 200 laps. A typical league race at this track has about 20 drivers competing and about four caution periods.

Now let’s do some math… 200 laps for 20 drivers means 4000 laps are run. Every lap has two corners (forget the American counting system for now), so 8000 corners are made. With four caution periods, that means that, on average, each driver makes a serious mistake only once in 2000 corners! Of which every corner is run in a fully simulated stock car, while not having the seat-of-the-pants feeling, and usually inches away from direct competitors. If this doesn’t fit the definition of skill, I don’t know what does. How many mistakes does a darts player make in 2000 throws?

Is skill used? Definitely!
Playing by rules

This criterion doesn’t need much explanation. Most league races are guided by an extensive set of rules, in which all actions of the drivers are covered. Modern sims have many rules implemented into the software as well. Some leagues have rule books covering ten, twenty, thirty pages. And if drivers don’t play by the rules, their sim racing career is usually very short.

The rules that are used make sim racing, just like Real Life ™ racing, a highly identifiable and repeatable activity.

So yes, we’re all playing by the rules, and many of them.

Conclusion

I think I have pretty much proven the fact that there is no doubt at all that sim racing, especially league racing, should be considered a sport and be recognised for it. It may, usually, not be as physically exhausting as for example playing tennis, but the skill involved in sim racing, the mental strength and the control of your reflexes that is needed so badly to be competitive in a race, or to even finish a race, places sim racing right up there with the most recognised and amazing sports around.

A few months ago, well-known Nascar Winston Cup driver Dale Earnhardt jr. joined a league race in the Virtual Racing World league, managed by Nim Cross. He was amazed by the incredible competition on the track and the skill of the drivers. He enjoyed himself a lot and certainly wants to join some more races soon, if his busy schedule allows him to. I assume Dale knows what he’s talking about.

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