Motorsport Games — a relatively young publisher of racing games that holds the NASCAR Heat franchise — announced late last week it had acquired Studio 397, the developer of rFactor 2. Motorsport Games, it should be said, is a subsidiary of Motorsport Network, which operates Motorsport.com, Motor1 and Autosport, among other brands.
Now, Motorsport Games and Studio 397 have worked together before. Last year, Motorsport Games organized the Formula E Race At Home Challenge and the 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual events through rFactor 2. The latter also involved a partnership between the publisher and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the sanctioning body that runs the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Earlier this year, Motorsport Games announced it had secured “a ten-year rolling license” that will continue its collaboration with the ACO, so that the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be featured officially in the publisher’s own games going forward.
There is a lot to unpack here. Racing games, like all sports games, are not unfamiliar to exclusivity deals. For more than two decades, Porsche cars were forbidden from appearing in titles not published by Electronic Arts, unless the publisher in question had EA’s blessing. This is why Porsches were present in some installments of Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport and not others. In 2016, this contract expired, which is why today you can drive Stuttgart’s vehicles in many, many more games.
But what Motorsport Games is treading upon is something different. The link between sim racing and real-life racing has been strengthened through the rise of esports. Motorsport Network, to its credit, moved swiftly to capitalize on this opportunity with vertical integration long before the old guards of the industry thought to do so. Recently, among all its moves, the company started a new website called Traxion.gg which considers itself “a collective of racing, esports and gaming enthusiasts.”
In addition to Motorsport Games inking deals with racing series, like NASCAR and the British Touring Car Championship, we’ve now entered the era where individual events, like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will be subject to these same agreements, sometimes with exclusivity involved. And that’s assuredly going to sound terrible to any sports car-racing fan and sim racer that prefers the driving feel of, say, iRacing to rFactor 2.
We are already watching this play out, as iRacing’s 2021 Special Events calendar, which typically includes a 24 hour-long endurance race at the Circuit de la Sarthe, notably does not include such an event at the time of writing. A spreadsheet calendar shared in a thread on the iRacing members forum notes at the bottom that iRacing is “looking to add an additional endurance event in France at some point in 2021.”
Presumably, this race will not be permitted to run under the 24 Hours of Le Mans label, and may require a change in length or scheduling to avoid clashing with the exclusivity agreement Motorsport Games and the ACO have. It may not be viable at all. Nobody exactly knows yet, and we’ve reached out to Motorsport Games, iRacing and the ACO for clarification on where things stand.
Last June, when both iRacing and rFactor 2 were running their respective 24 Hours of Le Mans events, the ACO evidently felt it necessary to release this cryptic statement on its website, saying that “Video games that feature the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans under ACO licence” (in other words, the track the race is held on) “do not have the right to invite sim racers to take part in, or give the impression that they are the organiser of a virtual 24 hours of Le Mans.”
This is a big change from the way licensing previously behaved in this genre. Before, if a developer put the Circuit de la Sarthe in its game, it could do practically whatever it wished with that environment. Perhaps it couldn’t directly call its race the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but it could come up with some other title for the same event in nature, and the ACO never went so far as to sue the publisher in question.
But now, there’s a clear delineation between the rights to a circuit and the events held on it, because esports have made the latter equally relevant.
And so, we’re watching a new precedent form before our very eyes. You have to figure that if iRacing could be forbidden from operating a 24 Hours of Le Mans event, that restriction will affect the likes of Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo and practically every other title in the racing genre, too. While Forza and GT never ran an online 24-hour Le Mans event, both titles typically have some version of that race appear in their offline single-player campaigns.
If there’s a silver lining to this, I suppose it means an officially backed World Endurance Championship game may be in the cards down the line, built with Studio 397's expertise. Personally, that’s an exciting prospect, because I’ve dreamed about the possibilities of such a title for nearly two decades at this point — really, ever since Infogrames’ excellent Test Drive Le Mans back on the Sega Dreamcast.
However, if such a game comes at the cost of every other title outside rFactor 2 losing the world’s most celebrated endurance race, the genre will unquestionably be worse off for it.