Esports: Kiwi sim racer Simon Bishop on how COVID-19 changed virtual motorsport

Motorsport 'sim' racing has been one of the few sports to flourish during the global COVID-19 shutdown.

While others were forced to close down their real-life promotions over the past few months, Formula One, Nascar, IndyCar and Aussie Supercars were among those to embrace the virtual world during the lull in world sport. 

Kiwi Supercars stars Scott McLaughlin and Shane van Gisbergen proved they could transfer their skills from the track to their living rooms, competing successfully alongside the likes of Formula One stars Lando Norris and Max Verstappen, and Nascar speedster Joey Logano. 

One of New Zealand's premier simulator racers believes the lockdown period provided a breakthrough opportunity that could see virtual motorsport explode over the next two years.

Simon Bishop is the country's top-ranked Gran Turismo Sport racer and will compete at the upcoming Logitech McLaren G Challenge against some of the best sim racers around the globe.

"The lockdown was huge for sim racing," Bishop tells Newshub. "With the lack of sport available, people had to find alternatives and Esports - and motorsport in particular - took that unique opportunity.

"Sports like rugby don't have a virtual equivalent. You can't exactly have 15 All Blacks trying to play Jonah Lomu Rugby at the same time. 

"There are a wealth of online slim racing games that people can take part in and series like the Supercars one have really brought it to the mainstream."

Simon Bishop
Simon Bishop Photo credit: Supplied

The old-fashioned stigma of gamers being 30-year-old single men who still live with their parents has diminished. The Fortnite World Cup finals saw gamers compete for a prize pool of US$30million. 

Serious business brings in serious investment. While sim racing has a way to go to live alongside the global phenomenon of Fortnite, Bishop believes corporate backing is coming and professional sim racing will be a big part of Esports future. 

"You are starting to see a decent amount of corporate sponsorship, because they have seen they get a fair amount of exposure for their investment. 

"I think the Supercars Eseries has been massive in breaking that stigma in New Zealand and Australia. People saw it for what it was - a compliment for real racing - as opposed to a competitor. 

"It enables people to get a foot in the door that otherwise wouldn't have a chance."

"Take New Zealand as an example. If you are a young kid wanting to get into racing, you are looking at $50-60,000 a year, with potentially no return on your investment. 

"How do you justify that for say five years? You can't. 

"If you're good enough to make Formula One - and we've had like two or three guys in history crack that - you might make some money. It's so limited. 

"Sim racing is really starting to open doors for young drivers who aren't financially backed." 

Esports: Kiwi sim racer Simon Bishop on how COVID-19 changed virtual motorsport
Photo credit: Supplied

"Degree of acceptance"

More importantly for Bishop, the growth in sim racing has legitimised the talents of motorsport gamers among their real-life counterparts. 

The Dunedin local points to van Gisbergen, whom he rates as the best sim racer in New Zealand, as an example of how the virtual world can co-exist with and benefit the real world. 

"It's reached a degree of acceptance that I don't think was there before.

"There are people in even regular motorsport that had dismissed sim racing as an option, but now that they have been somewhat forced into it, they realise the value in it.

"They can test out tracks, keep their skills sharp, but also have fun, which I guess, in professional sports, can be lost sometimes, because of the risk and what's at stake.

"Shane is highly regarded in the sim racing world. He and F1 driver Max Verstappen are probably two of the best you will see in sim racing. 

"That's such a good advertisement for sim racing, because it shows that people from real-life motorsport can cross over and be just as good in the sim world, but it also shows that sim racers would be good, if it went back the other way. 

"There are guys like Lando Norris, who races all the time on the sim and has been for years, and he is one of the very best F1 drivers on the grid. 

"He has gained knowledge and skill from constantly competing on sim racing.

"There is a guy in Nascar [William Byron] who was signed to a team because of how good he was in the iRacing [online racing sim] Nascar series - that's crazy. 

"These stories are becoming more and more common, and I think it will continue to grow."

As for his kit, Bishop keeps things pretty simple. A top-of-the-range steering wheel, a Kmart swivel chair and a coffee table is all he needs to compete at a high level.

"When I started, I just did it on a standard controller, but it became apparent pretty quickly that if I wanted to compete with the best sim racers, I had to get a rig similar to what they have at events.

"I run with a NZ$1000 steering wheel and a $5 table, but there are some ridiculously expensive sim set-ups out there. Scott McLaughlin's set-up retails at about $26,000, so you can go that route if you want to, but you can still compete with a fairly basic, cost-effective package."

Next up for Bishop is the Logitech McLaren G Challenge, where he hopes to qualify for the Oceania finals and earn a trip to hang with one of the world's top drivers - both virtually and real life. 

"Obviously, McLaren has a pretty famous history with New Zealand, which is pretty cool.

"Players can play on the Playstation, XBOX or the PC, and enter through the Project Cars 2 game. Qualification is based on a time trial, and then there are finals and what have you, with the winners flying to the McLaren home base in the UK and spending the day with Lando Norris."

Not a bad prize for a retail assistant at a Dunedin electronics store.