“It’s been very surreal, I can tell you that much,” Broadbent said from his home in the United Kingdom. “But we’ve been putting on a good show for the fans, and as I’ve said before: The cars might not be real, but the racing is.”
A longtime sim racer, Broadbent has been a fixture of F1’s Virtual Grand Prix series, which features a mix of real-life drivers, celebrities and esports veterans competing in Codemasters’ “F1 2019” video game. Broadbent has made the most of the opportunity, placing in the top 10 twice and outdueling the likes of Norris and 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button.
“One week you’re watching these guys on the telly, and the next you’re punting them off the circuit,” he said.
In the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, streamers such as Broadbent have suddenly become minor celebrities. With professional drivers now participating in virtual competitions each week, sim racing has been thrust into the spotlight, garnering a whole new level of attention — and legitimacy — that longtime fans and participants hope will last.
“These are unfortunate times regarding the pandemic, but in the sports world, it’s a dream come true for sim racing,” Steven Steffen, a devoted sim racer for more than two decades, said in a phone interview from his home in North Carolina. “Never did we expect that NASCAR Cup drivers would be competing in iRacing on Sundays.”
For Steffen, the past month has served as validation of his beloved iRacing, a subscription-based sim racing platform founded in part by John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox. In March, Steffen participated in NASCAR’s The Replacements 100, a virtual event held in place of the canceled race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and finished third — five spots ahead of two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“It’s awesome to hear the real-life drivers say afterward, ‘This is really hard,’ ” Steffen said.
With virtual events happening each weekend — and a handful of smaller races cropping up throughout the week — real-life drivers are quickly adapting to sim racing, and the technology has been met with positive reviews. Many have transitioned smoothly, and even those with little to no sim experience, such as seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, have shown improvement each week. Steffen says this is a testament to how realistic sim racing has become.
“The only real difference is that iRacing is completely visual,” he said. “You can’t feel when your car is about to step out from under you, so you need to pick up the visual cues, and real-life drivers will get better at that in the next few weeks.”
As Steffen pointed out, sim racing occupies a unique space in the esports landscape and is perfectly suited for this moment. Other video game series, such as Madden or NBA 2K, simply re-create their sports through button presses and joystick motions. But sim racing requires the same skills as real-life driving.
“You’re not mashing buttons in a sim,” Steffen said. “You’ve got pedals and a wheel, and it has accurate force feedback. It’s a workout, and after a 200-lap race, sim drivers are exhausted. Compare that to watching LeBron [James] sit on his couch playing NBA 2K: He’ll never break a sweat.”
And with virtual races now bringing in millions of viewers each week from telecasts and streams, sim racing is capitalizing on the moment. iRacing, in particular, has benefited from the exposure as stir-crazy sports fans seek new forms of entertainment.
“You could say we’ve been a little bit busy,” Kevin Bobbitt, iRacing’s director of marketing and communications, said in a phone interview. According to Bobbitt, iRacing now has nearly 150,000 active accounts, with 10,000 new sign-ups in the past three weeks alone.
“Everyone’s trapped at home and looking for things to do,” he said. “We certainly didn’t predict that it would happen this way, by any means, but we’re glad to provide something for people to enjoy during these times.”
Bobbitt said that iRacing has been preparing for this moment ever since its launch in 2008, slowly developing its server infrastructure to handle the influx of new users. And the longtime sim racing community, Bobbitt noted, has welcomed these new members with open arms, as evidenced by a recent post on one of iRacing’s private message boards.
“Someone posted to say that we should expect to see a lot of new folks these next few weeks, so let’s be patient with them,” Bobbitt said. “I loved seeing that because it shows what this community is all about.”
Steffen has been delighted by iRacing’s surge in popularity. In many ways, he owes his career to sim racing: He befriended Earnhardt through online racing in 2004 and now works in an administrative role for Earnhardt’s company, JR Motorsports. Steffen remains cautiously optimistic that the sim racing community can keep up this momentum even after the pandemic has passed.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I want to see sim racing get as popular as it can be,” he said. “If the pro drivers keep doing it — even after we go back to real racing — then we can stay at this level of excitement. Even if we can carry over just 20 percent of this momentum, that would be tremendous.”
Broadbent is similarly optimistic. The 28-year-old has been a professional streamer and content creator for the past three years, a career move that helped him escape his day job stacking shelves in a grocery store, and his recent numbers have been overwhelming: His F1 sim streams bring in just under 30,000 concurrent viewers, and his YouTube videos regularly pull in hundreds of thousands of views. One video quickly catapulted to over 1 million.
“More and more people are learning that we’ve got this wonderful opportunity here,” he said. “There’s a huge financial barrier to get into real-life motorsports, but sim racing lets you drive the car of your dreams against the big boys from the comfort of your own home, and that’s the magic of it.”
As people across the globe brace themselves for more social distancing — with no clear end in sight — the sim racing community may continue to grow. Broadbent is just trying to enjoy the moment, recognizing that his fame as an F1 star might be fleeting.
“I won’t be aggrieved if they tell me soon, ‘Look, Jimmy, Lewis Hamilton wants to race now, so you’re getting the boot,’ ” he said, referring to the British F1 star. “I’m just incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity at all. It’s been a fun ride.”
Gregory Leporati is a freelance writer and photographer covering esports, tech and travel. His recent work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Engadget and Ars Technica. Follow him on Twitter @leporparty.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Steven Steffen's name as Steven Steffens.