More than ever, I find it hard to concentrate. I blame a combination of social media’s instant gratification and access to anything in the world via my smartphone. Oh, and YouTube. Love YouTube and podcasts, both preferably on 1.5x speed.
A few things that do get my focus are driving down the spectacular countryside roads of the Yorkshire Dales, that mix of butterflies and adrenaline before a double drop on a roller coaster and online racing in the FIA Gran Turismo Championship within GT Sport. I step up a level.
The rest of the world is momentarily suspended as I zone in, desperately trying to set the fastest lap or gain the next position. I’ve just finished a 22-lap go-kart race around the short Red Bull Ring as I write this and I’m absolutely spent.
It’s one thing practising, it’s another playing online with friends, but when a leaderboard and a virtual competition is involved, it elevates you to a higher level. Thanks to the ranking system putting you into a race with equally skilled drivers, you are up against 19 other hungry and competitive individuals – in my instance from around Europe – and even though you don’t know them personally, you want to beat them into submission.
The FIA events in GT Sport are split across two main series. One entitled Nations Cup – which sees competitors from around the world represent their country – and the second entitled the Manufacturer Series which is focussed on car brands. For the Manufacturer races, you select from one of the marks available and sign a virtual contract to then use those Gr.4 and Gr.3 cars in the events.
There is a calendar of races, the Nations Cup and Manufacturer Series having one race on each alternate week. Ultimately, this all boils down to the best GT Sport drivers in the world duking it our for glory during a live event.
Historically, the World Finals have been held in Monaco, with commentary, a snazzy studio and live streams. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these physical finales have been cancelled, but the events are still happening online. At the time of writing, we are in the middle of the 2021 Exhibition Series.
The distinguishing here is accessibility. Anyone with a PS4 or PS5, a controller or a wheel, an internet connection, GT Sport and an active PlayStation Plus subscription can take part in an FIA sanctioned event. Considering the game has 9.5 million users so far, that opens up the competition to a huge number of entrants and thanks to the relatively affordable costs of PlayStation consoles, the barrier to entry is low.
Now, of course, while everyone can compete, only the best of the best gain entry to the finals. There is a thorough in-game ranking system and only those who scale the heights to rank S driver rating (DR) and S safety rating (SR) have a realistic chance of making it into the top sections of the leaderboards and therefore through to the next stage. After the initial rounds of events, there’s a special series of races for just the top tier to whittle them down.
But, for even those at the lowly levels of ‘A’, you feel like you are contributing to your nation’s or manufacturers’ overall score. You can also check the regional leaderboards, staggeringly down to the city you live in.
I live in Leeds, England, and I can see how I rank within this city. I’m currently 4th and I’m pretty proud of that. Then I can check the country where I’m located, 489th and less proud, and then within the Europe/Middle East/Africa region. I’m all the way down in 2,955th for that one. Trying to get as high up as possible is intoxicating.
When the date comes around of each FIA event, there are five set times of the day when the races will happen, between morning and evening. You need to be online during one of these time slots, or you’ll miss out. If you enter a race though, it will always find a lobby for you to compete in though, so don’t worry about over-subscription. If you happen to have the free time, you can sneakily compete early on in the day and try again later for a better score too.
But, it’s the racing that keeps me coming back for more. With the matchmaking system putting me into a lobby with drivers of the same skillset, I experience clean racing and critically, mightily tense battles. I understand that lower down the ladder, there is some scrappy racing and the penalty system regularly comes under criticism – but stick it out, keep progressing and you’ll find some of the fiercest racing around.
Another criticism of this system is the lack of prize money for the top competitors. I’m in two minds about this because I think there is space for an approachable esports tournament. As soon as big prize money pots get involved, those who are esports professionals will surely flood the entry list. Whereas, as it stands, an 18-year-old in their bedroom has a genuine shot at becoming an FIA champion without the need for an expensive rig. It’s a tricky balance.
If you are paired up with a competitive field, the racing is just epic. I love it, the most fun you can have racing on a console. Provided your interpretation of ‘fun’ is not blinking for 20 minutes and sweating profusely as your wrestle for tenth place…
Truthfully though, now the series has been happening for three years, I’m starting to wane just a little. No significant game update has arrived for well over a year now as the Polyphony Digital team rightfully switches its efforts towards the upcoming Gran Turismo 7. I just hope it arrives early in 2022 and integrates this online competition system with a few refinements.
GT Sport may be close to running its course now, but these FIA events are keeping me coming back for more. If you happen to own the game and have not properly tried the Sport mode or the FIA events, then what are you waiting for? Set aside an evening and at least give one of the races a bash. If you win, you’ll feel like a hero.