Simulation racing has real consequences—ask Bubba Wallace

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The allure of video games is their immersive escapism, the chance to enter a world so captivating that you can forget about the connection between gaming and reality. Maybe the virtual world amplifies a person’s traits, or maybe it frees players to be their unshackled selves—either way, the digital world hosts fascinating human behavior on a such a wide scale that those virtual actions become the subject of casual memes and more serious psychological studies.

Today, we’re talking about rage quitting. In short, this behavior is defined as ungracious losing, often in the form of melodramatic or destructive means. It’s an act of frustration that can happen to the best of us, and usually, the consequences are a simply a mild ribbing by friends or a dent in the ego. But as esports establishes its own culture of professional competition—along with the star power, sponsor obligations, and prize winnings that leave “keyboard warriors” with stacks of cash that’d make cage fighters blush—the consequences of once-cathartic behavior are more real than ever. 

Just a few days ago, during NASCAR’s iRacing Pro Series Invitational, Bubba Wallace executed just such a “rage quit” maneuver before an audience of nearly a million—and lost a real-world sponsorship in the process. 

First, some context: NASCAR fans and critics have been asking for a more personable set of drivers, craving the rough-cut days where everyone told it like it was without a filter for the sponsors. Now NASCAR has that edge again, especially in the new generation of drivers like Bubba Wallace. As we’re about to find out, gaming is more real to people than most think; observe the growth pains of esports as it attempts to carry fans through the unprecedented days of COVID-19.

What we’ve seen would’ve played out in similar fashion behind the hot pits on any other given day; we’re simply seeing in a novel environment thanks to the iRacing stage and NASCAR’s incredible reach in the U.S.

The last straw

Several weeks ago, NASCAR announced that it would replace its live racing broadcasts with iRacing invitationals. Whether it was to fill those valuable Fox Sports time slots or to answer the calls of the younger generation that’s so conspicuously missing among grandstands, it was the right answer. The virtual setup brought together both fans and a contingency of savvy racers who were already planning on replacing a weekend at the races with at-home sim racing setups. Notably, iRacing has for a long time hosted not just casual events but special sim racing events with professional drivers and … well, any average gamer who could qualify. 

Esports has fought an uphill battle with traditionalists, who don’t feel that the competition in video gaming is legitimate as the physical experience of motorsports. Players aren’t actually muscling around turns and fighting oversteer, the dissenters argue. True, gaming tournaments have existed since the first ill-gotten gains of Pong; but the current attitude towards virtual racing has warmed greatly over the last ten or even five years, when home sim racing was still something of a secret weapon against more Luddite drivers. 

Last weekend these two contingents, supporters and dissenters, finally clashed. Ten laps into the iRacing Pro Series Invitational at the “virtual” Bristol Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer and Bubba Wallace began trading paint at the top of the apron. Really, Bubba was squeezed into the wall, and when Bowyer came back up into Bubba, the 26-year-old hung up his headphones. Bubba rattled on in frustration via Twitter that he didn’t take sim racing seriously and peaced out. He was on the last of his resets after being involved in an earlier incident, but something about that hit from Bowyer, who claimed he “got Bubba’d,” just sent him off. Rumors have it that Bubba’s known for rage quitting in private gaming sessions, but stakes this time around were higher. The iRacing Pro Series Invitational happened to have brought along sponsors … including topical pain relief brand Blue-Emu, whose logo was splashed across the hood of Bubba’s race car as he shut down his Twitch stream.

As Action Network describes it, this left Blu-Emu’s executive vice president, Ben Blessing, steaming: “On Sunday afternoon, Ben Blessing was in his home in Tennessee, running around his living room screaming, ‘I ain’t paying him a cent.’” Blue-Emu’s response to Bubba was succinct: 

“I grew up right as gaming was starting,” said the 35-year-old Blessing on Fox Sports Radio. “And I have fond memories of throwing controllers at video game screens and my father taking [the system away.] So I understand it, I’ve seen my son do it.” Ben had picked up Bubba along with another young NASCAR driver, Landon Cassill, to sponsor their iRacing efforts. Both cars had Blue-Emu’s name skinned onto their virtual stock cars, so it was as “real” as it gets for both parties when Ben saw Bubba’s car disappear from the race. 

“You know what it’s like to look at your kids as they go, ‘Where’d your car go, dad?'”

“I don’t know, he just quit!”

Racers have had sponsors drop after fights or other temper tantrums, but it was when Bubba mocked his critics when BluEmu pulled the plug. Bubba didn’t see that people held him to the same standards of commitment and character as they would at a live event.

“The mere fact he put out what he did [on Twitter],” Blessing continued in the radio interview, “… I felt it was disrespectful to the e-Racing community. It’s not just a game to Tim Hill, [and] I’m pretty sure William Byron was found through iRacing—it’s not a joke for him.”

This incident legitimized esports more than national TV ever did

The personal concerns of a marketer aside, the fact is that this situation has brought more legitimacy to esports than even NASCAR’s own efforts in broadcasting it on prime-time television. How can a game not be “real” when what transpires inside it produce real-life consequences ? This new broadcast format for NASCAR has already brought up discussions about how to include it alongside the speedway spectacles we know and love, and the technology behind the video games that power these sim racing series have been blurring the lines between reality and escapism for longer than many realize. You can remind people all day that something new is going to upset the norm, but until there is tangible evidence of it happening, it’s difficult to paint that picture. For the automotive world, sim racing just became as real as it’s ever been.

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