NZ sim-racer Simon Bishop reveals how to improve your motorsport gaming experience

Beating Formula One star Lewis Hamilton is hard enough for the best motorsport drivers on the planet, let alone a 42-year-old journalist, whose biggest claim to athletic fame was winning the fifth division of the local football league.

But thankfully, sports gaming can provide a brief, immersive glimpse into a world you can only dream of.

Be it NBA, NFL, UFC, NRL or WWE, several leagues are represented in 'simulated' sports, which have now become a lucrative business and massive money earner for those talented enough to compete at the highest level.

But perhaps the most immersive sports-gaming experience is motorsport, which has exploded in 2020, thanks mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supercars, F1, IndyCar and NASCAR were all able to stay relevant during a three-month sporting hiatus earlier this year, thanks to the evolution in sim-racing.

Twenty-three years have passed since the first true sim-racing game launched on the original Sony Playstation  - Gran Turismo, a gaming genre that has since seen the launch of steering wheels, in-home car rigs and simulators used by the best drivers in the world.

During the global lockdown, motorsport stars like Lando Norris, Shane van Gisbergen, Max Verstappen, Scott McLaughlin and Charles Leclerc were able to show off their home sim-racing setups, showing fans that even the most elite drivers find time to delve into the gaming world.

But for an average Joe, the thousands of dollars of investment needed to emulate their heroes is daunting - but it might not be as expensive as you think.

Dunedin-based Simon Bishop is one of New Zealand's top sim-racers and world-ranked in Gran Turismo, competing in international events all over the globe. 

A finalist at the 2019 Asia-Oceania Grand Turismo Sport world championship, Bishop is also a former member of the Esports+Cars virtual race team, headed by former Nissan Motorsport boss Darren Cox.

Simon Bishop (left) - New Zealand's leading Gran Turismo sim-racer
Simon Bishop (left) - New Zealand's leading Gran Turismo sim-racer Photo credit: Supplied
Participants at the Logitech McLaren G-Challenge in 2019
Participants at the Logitech McLaren G-Challenge in 2019 Photo credit: Supplied

Bishop began flirting with sim-racing nearly two decades ago on a simple controller and insists you can still have an enjoyable experience without graduating to a steering wheel.

"A lot of the games are geared towards allowing people to play with whatever gear they have got," Bishop tells Newshub. 

"Gran Turismo and Project Cars, for instance, have optimised control systems for standard controllers, which is cool, because you can compete on a semi-equal playing field.

"Wheels are obviously far more intuitive, but that still enables people who don't want to make a massive investment on something they are not 100 percent sure they want to spend a lot of time or money on to be able to compete with everyone.

"There are a few simulator games where it's pretty pointless if you don't have a wheel, but for the majority, most people can have a pretty satisfying experience regardless of whether the game is 'arcadey' or realistic." 

But if you do want to get as close to the real thing as possible, Bishop says many affordable options don't involve filling your living room with a virtual car chassis.

The 30-year-old retail worker points to his own set-up as proof that minimal investment is required to compete at the highest level.

"I have a high-end wheel that is purpose-made for Gran Turismo - that retails at about $1200. 

"But my rig is a fold-out $5 table and a swivel chair. That's fairly affordable for most people and it doesn't really get in the way of day-to-day living. 

"Several relatively low-cost options make it fairly achievable to make the change. There is no need to spend $20,000 on a racing rig or buy a cockpit that moves around.

"You can attach a wheel to a desk you already have at home and use chairs you already have at home.

"As long as the desk doesn't move about, you can have an awesome, realistic experience.

"You can get a pretty basic wheel for $200, but you can spend a lot more and the more you spend, the better your experience will get."

But if you are looking for the true, immersive experience that puts you in the cockpit at Monaco, battling the Hamiltons and Verstappens, a quality steering wheel is a must.

"For many, they are looking for that immersion in a racing car game - experience that fantasy of driving cars they will never have a chance of driving. That immersion is near impossible with a controller or low-end wheel - it kind of takes you out of the moment.

"When you do spend a little bit of extra money and invest in something quite good, like the Logitech TrueForce, the experience is great and it's a true, significant step forward.

Bishop in action
Bishop in action Photo credit: Supplied
Logitech TrueForce racing-rig
Logitech TrueForce racing-rig Photo credit: Supplied

"You go from playing a game to properly racing. You have this initial period when you have to figure out what's going on and it does feel foreign when you first make the switch from the controller. 

"But as soon as you begin to treat it like you are driving your car and let your instincts take over, all of a sudden, you realise just how cool it is.

"The racing experience - be it with your friends, online or even racing the AI - it becomes so much more fun and immersive, and you'll find the hours literally fade away. 

"The new Logitech G923 wheel gives you that realistic experience - it has that force-feedback technology that indicates to the driver what the car is doing on the track and makes the adjustments you need to go faster."

Top tip for would-be sim-racing superstars graduating from controllers to wheels - have fun and be patient.

"There will be an adjustment period where you will actively be slower than you know you can be with a controller. 

"You will be in the middle of a race and you know you're good enough to be higher up the field with a controller, but that will change. There is a crossover point and from there, you can improve your lap time up to 3-4 seconds. 

"Secondly, don't go out and spend a heap of money initially. You can spend $500-800 and compete at the very top level internationally. 

"You also have to put in the time, but make sure you are having fun, because that's why we play games, right? 

"Don't get frustrated and make sure you enjoy yourself."

Lookout (virtual) Lewis Hamilton - this overweight, sport-watching couch potato is coming for you.