And how has it earned such respect? Thanks in part to a racing simulator called Gran Turismo. A simulator that has sold over 75 million copies across all of its installments, and of which we would like to introduce you to the latest: Gran Turismo Sport.
It's important to understand the position that the president of Polyphony Digital has within Sony to understand Gran Turismo Sport. Since the era of the first PlayStation, Gran Turismo has been the crown jewel of Sony's catalogue, demonstrating installment after installment of the graphics that each console generation is capable of. This status was maintained through the PlayStation 3 years, where Guille gave us a spectacular review of Gran Turismo 6. And now that two and a half years have passed since the last instalment, the competition couldn't be fiercer. We have Forza Motorsport, we have Assetto Corsa, we have Project CARS. All vying to be the definition of racing simulator in the current generation.
And what's the new Gran Turismo's answer?
Leave the graphics on the back burner. According to Kazunori they will continue to work on them, but with less emphasis. What's important now is to bring the thrill of motorsports to the couch through Gran Turismo. Working more on driving physics, and opening the door to a new concept: e-Sports.
Don't panic. Gran Turismo Sport will still have the single player mode that has defined the series. Featuring 137 cars and 19 tracks. But the emphasis will be on online play. With two competitions, one at country level and one at manufacturer level, both certified by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, better known as FIA.
Polyphony Digital and the FIA announced a partnership agreement in 2014. That agreement manifested itself as an official FIA stamp of approval for several tracks in GT6, which had been released a few months earlier. At the time it was rumored that the agreement would allow for the inclusion of the World Endurance Championship, or WEC, of which the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a part, in the next installment of Gran Turismo. As of today, this rumor has not come to fruition, but we will have the GT3 category represented in Gran Turismo Sport (GR. 3 pictured above). What no one foresaw is that Gran Turismo would embrace e-Sports with the FIA's seal of approval.
The two FIA competitions will be running continuously, with daily races, and a system will continuously judge players, especially in the case of overtaking attempts causing an accident, where players will both be penalized. This encourages all players to drive cleanly, according to Kazunori. For those who don't wish to participate, they don't necessarily have to miss out on the action. There will be a spectator mode available, which even promises to have live commentary during the final stages of the competition, which will be held on weekends. As if that wasn't enough, the spectator mode features a smart Instant Replay mode to help viewers quickly follow the action.
The idea of going to a bar to watch a video game instead of an actual event broadcast on TV may sound strange to many. But the key here is not our generation, but those that follow us. The generation that succeeds the Millenials, Generation Z, is the generation that consumes the fewest hours of traditional television. Instead, they spend most of their time connected to social networks. For them, there is no difference between a European Championship match on TV and a video streamed live on YouTube. And the numbers back up the growth of e-Sports. The global e-Sports audience in 2015 was 226 million people, with revenues of $325 million. For 2016, revenue forecasts improve by 42% to $463 million.
Unfortunately, among the most popular e-Sports genres are not racing simulators, but there are still no professional competitions of Forza Motorsport, Assetto Corsa, Project CARS or rFactor that have a good predisposition for e-Sports. Because even though some video games became e-Sports by accident, most of them nowadays are conceived with that goal in mind to build the game around. And it is not easy to make a video game accessible to everyone and at the same time complicated enough to require professional dedication to master it. iRacing is certainly the one that has tried the most so far, but it has not managed to make an impression with the general public.
Filling this gap is what Yamauchi-san wants to do with the arrival of Gran Turismo Sport. To grab a piece of this pie. To take advantage of the fact that it is an ever-growing phenomenon. And to bring the passion for motorsport to the next generation.
The FIA's commitment to the new Gran Turismo Sport online competitions is such that the winners will receive their prizes at the FIA's annual awards gala. The same one where all the winners of all FIA competitions are crowned champions. Yes, we're talking about the same ceremony that crowned Lewis Hamilton as Formula 1 champion last year, Sébastien Ogier as World Rally Champion, and Mark Webber as World Endurance Champion. And the award for the Gran Turismo Sport champions will be presented by Charlie Whiting himself. The one we remember so much when it rains in Formula 1.
Asked if he saw Gran Turismo becoming the football equivalent of the FIFA series thanks to the deal, 'Kaz' replied:
"That's a good question. Football has a lot of fans. The fan population of motorsport is much, much smaller than football fans. And it decreases over the years. We have a sense of urgency about this decline - both myself and [FIA president] Jean Todt."
That sense of urgency is clearly reflected in this new installment, and that's because in addition to the FIA-sanctioned online championships, Gran Turismo Sport's main attraction will be the chance to earn an official racing driver's license. Called the FIA Gran Turismo Digital License, this license will be valid on real-life circuits. With the participation of 22 countries among which for now Spain is not included. There are no exact details about how this license can be obtained within the game, or what championships can be played with it. But we can get a general idea of the process from Yamauchi-san's words:
"The FIA Gran Turismo Digital License is something we have been discussing with automobile clubs and the FIA for the past three years. Little by little, things have been moving forward, and during the World Motor Sport Council a few months ago there was a vote to allow the announcement of this project. It's not something we are approaching lightly. What the programme actually entails - the licence is only granted once you overcome various issues that cover your on-track behaviour, safety issues - and the player's behaviour is judged on aspects that are necessary for real-life racing. Once you meet the conditions to be eligible, the information will be shared from Gran Turismo with the relevant automobile clubs. From there, it's up to those clubs to decide how they will handle this."
It may sound crazy, granting a racing driver's license to people who have trained with a video game. But if we look at Gran Turismo's track record, it should come as little surprise. And if you look for examples, you won't stop finding them. We're talking about a series that spawned the GT Academy, a pioneer in turning gamers into racers, although as Guille explained to us, those who win tend to have had a racing background. Whether in karts or in some Formula Championship, they didn't get to the top just because they spent hours and hours in the armchair, so it's understandable that something similar will happen with this license. Common sense also dictates that the car clubs will do some real testing of the contenders before granting such a license.
GT Sport features other minor improvements but they also deserve a mention. We'll have an extensive editor with which to vinyl the cars to our liking, and after reproducing our favourite classic livery or designing one we're proud of, we'll be able to share it with other players. Or at the same time, we can use the livery designed by another player.
The photo mode, meanwhile, has received a lot of attention, and there will be 1,000 scenarios available in which to take photos, where we will have total control over the lighting conditions. As has been the case in other games as well, the photo mode reproduces both the scenery and the cars with better graphics. This is because all of the PS4's resources can be dedicated solely to reproducing the best possible graphics in this mode, rather than having to also take care of processing the AI of the other cars and loading and drawing various parts of the track when racing or watching a replay. And if you're curious as to why Gran Turismo has put so much emphasis on photo mode over the years, it's because Kazunori himself is a lover of photography.
In closing, I'd like to emphasize two important details. The first is the surprising amount of involvement the FIA has in this new installment of Gran Turismo. Over the years, we have had many video games officially licensed by the FIA. Especially the Formula 1 and Rally World Championships. And despite all the years that the FIA has collaborated with other big developers, it's Polyphony Digital and Gran Turismo that seem to have their full confidence and support going forward. Of course, it's not a vote of confidence they have gained lightly. The collaboration of the manufacturers, especially the Japanese, since the first release in 1997 supports this vote, so will we be talking about FIA Gran Turismo in a few years time instead of just Gran Turismo? Only time will tell.
The last thing is to emphasize something that Guille insisted on a lot: being a driver is not cheap, and depending on the modality, the costs are only going up. There are very few who have the combination of talent and resources necessary to get to the point where they can make a living from racing. So one question we must not forget is: how many young Spanish promises have been left by the wayside? If you are one of those who listen to every interview of the great drivers we have in our country, you are aware of the stories of the competitors they had in lower categories who could not continue for economic reasons.
It is possible that Kazunori is trying to promote motorsport because it is his personal crusade. But there is no doubt that along the way, he can give a chance to those who deserve it but haven't had it. He has already shown that with the GT Academy. Now it remains to be seen how much more he can change the landscape with Gran Turismo Sport and its successive installments.
But I would venture to say that this is just the beginning. What if, like GT Academy, this digital license is replicated by other racing simulators? We don't need Gran Turismo to be the one that captures Generation Z, we need a racing sim to do it, regardless of the franchise. And if that happens, we may not remember Kazunori Yamauchi as the "father of Gran Turismo" in a few years time. But as the one who managed to make new generations fall in love with motor racing. The one who managed to break down the barriers between dream and opportunity.
Gran Turismo Sport will be available for PS4 in Spain from the 18th of November this year.