Esports’ overlooked subgenre: Sports simulation games
Sport simulation games typically don’t receive the same amount of attention from esports fandoms, with their competitive scenes traditionally filled with clubs that partake in the physical version of the sport the game depicts.
However, news of the Olympic Esports Series — concluding during Olympic Esports Week — has brought more attention to the scene, for better or for worse. Amidst lesser-known simulation games are several standout esports ecosystems, most notably sim racing and football.
How do the various esports scenes of sports simulation titles operate? Who are the stakeholders, who’s involved and how popular, or not, are they? This article looks to provide a closer look and an overview, from the old guard to the emerging titles.
Image credit: YES Market Media, Shutterstock
Sim Racing is an ever-growing esports ecosystem in its own right, with several competitions involving popular and well-known IPs including eF1, Le Mans Virtual, eNASCAR, Alpine Esports Series and ESL R1.
The F1 Esports Series is populated with some of the biggest names in motorsports, featuring teams from Alfa Romeo, Alpine, Aston Martin, McLaren, Mercedes-AMG, Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams. F1 Esports supports tournaments for Xbox, PlayStation and PC across multiple abilities, from qualifiers to the Pro Championship.
The Le Mans Virtual Series also attracts notable names from both esports and motorsports, with the 2023 season featuring drivers such as F1 World Champion Max Verstappen. Team Redline #02 clinched victory for the 2022/23 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual, led by professional driver Felipe Drugovich.
iRacing is officially partnered with NASCAR and delivers ongoing seasons and esports leagues, including the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, the Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup, and the iRacing Rallycross World Championship.
ESL R1 includes two seasons and a €500,000 (~£440,000) prize pool for its inaugural 2023 season. Organisations such as G2 Esports, Furia, and Faze Clan meet Williams, Porsche Coanda, BMW M and Mercedes-AMG to battle for sim racing titles. For the series, ESL R1 utlises upcoming simulation racing game Rennsport. Currently in its Closed Alpha stage, the esports scene is a valuable avenue for the developers to receive feedback.
Motorsports is also included in the Olympic Esports Week, featuring racing simulation game Gran Turismo. Whilst a historic video game franchise, the game’s success has not historically translated into the competitive scene and does not benefit from a large esports scene like its competitors.
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FIFA has been an integral part of simulation football, dating back to the game’s launch in 1993. FIFA’s esports ecosystem features several tournaments and leagues, all slightly distinct in nature to attract traditional clubs, esports organisations and players.
The FIFAe Club World Cup is a 2v2 format tournament featuring both verified and unverified ‘clubs’. Popular esports organisations such as Fnatic and EXCEL field rosters in this competition. More reminiscent of the national representation seen in traditional football, the FIFAe Nations Cup features esports athletes representing their country in a 2v2 format.
Finally, the FIFAe World Cup sees the individual top 24 ranked FIFA players battle to become ‘the best FIFA player in the world’. The FIFAe World Cup 2022 peaked at 149,465 viewers across YouTube, Facebook, Twitch and Trovo.
Although FIFA is generally considered the most dominant football simulation esports scene, it faces competition in the form of long standing rival eFootball Championship Pro. The Konami title, previously known as Pro Evolution Soccer, features teams such as FC Barcelona, Manchester United, FC Bayern Munich, and Arsenal. These teams have signed esports rosters for eFootball’s competitive season.
Alongside eFootball’s professional teams are those playing in the eFootball Championship Open. Any player is permitted to enter the open and work through qualification rounds. Reaching the Online and World Finals is the ultimate goal of these tournaments. These two events merge Championship Open qualifiers with the professional teams. As of 2023, eFootball plans to hold its first offline World Finals in Japan.
Looking to the future, football simulation games will welcome a new competitor — GOALS. Announced in 2021, this simulation game will be playable on PlayStation, Xbox and PC, and free at point-of-purchase. Its free-to-play nature may place it in good stead to compete against established titans such as EA Sports, and further expand the football esports scene. The company itself assures that the game will be ‘esports ready’, and includes esports veterans amongst its team, including Founder and CEO Andreas Thorstensson, formerly Co-Founder of historic esports team SK Gaming.
Further developments in football simulation games include UFL by Strikerz.Inc, which has released alpha build gameplay footage and is set to release in 2023.
Image credit: NBA 2K League
NBA 2K has provided an immersive basketball simulation experience for two decades, with the NBA 2K League providing a $2.5m (~£2m) prize pool across all tournaments in 2023.
The league is dominated by NBA teams fielding signed esports rosters, with recruitment drives reminiscent of the traditional sport. Players must display a certain track record of success before submitting an application for the draft. Player salaries depend on whether they are drafted in round one or two, and teams build their roster from draft-eligible players only. 2022’s The Coinbase NBA 2KL 3v3 SLAM OPEN reached a peak viewership of 68,813 and total airtime of 48 hours, rivalling titles such as the ePremier League in popularity.
Image credit: Zwift
Featured in the upcoming Olympic Esports Week, cycling simulation games have a unique esports scene. The Union Cycliste Internationale and ZWIFT collaboratively hold the annual UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, currently with three event categories. Competitors battle ‘The Punch’, ‘The Climb’, and ‘The Podium’. Unlike most virtual scenes, Zwift heavily relies on physical ability, using exercise bikes in place of controllers or VR equipment.
Simulation cycling has produced a diverse set of winning athletes. This includes rower Jason Osborne being one of the two overall winners in 2020. As a result, the esport prides itself in its ability to both support established athletes and reveal perhaps unexpected talent.
Image credit: Tennis Esports
Tennis simulation games are widespread, featuring titles such as Full Ace Tennis Simulator, Tennis World Tour, and AO Tennis.
The esports scene for tennis simulation games is rapidly evolving with the introduction of Virtual Reality and the Metaverse. Tennis Esports has a rolling global leaderboard where competitors battle to the top with the Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. Integrating VR with simulation tennis games is increasing hybridity with physical sport.
Image credit: NHL
The NHL Gaming World Championship notably returned for 2023, giving players the opportunity to play for a share of its $100,000 (~£80,200) prize pool.
Image credit: WBSC
The WBSC runs a Virtual Cup, with its inaugural tournament spanning Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and the United States.
Partnered with Konami, the WBSC released WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros — the governing body’s official game, released in February 2023. The game will be featured in the Olympic Esports Week in 2023.
Screenshot via Chess.com
Although chess may not be the first game that comes to mind when someone says ‘sport’, the esports scene for chess is expansive, particularly as online chess platforms continue to gain momentum. Featuring Collegiate Chess Leagues (run by Chess.com), chess gaming and esports streamers as well as international esports competitions, the esports scene is thriving.
Most chess esports leagues are hosted via Chess.com or checkmate.live, which combines the game with a broadcasting platform for the esports scene. Official tournaments usually adopt the same ‘Swiss Style’ as traditional chess competitions, and typically remain online until a live final.
The sport’s increased popularity has landed chess a spot in Olympic Esports Week, alongside other simulation games.
Image credit: Ubisoft
A staple of many childhoods and adulthoods alike, Just Dance has provided entertainment and a test of physical skill since 2009. Alongside the more retro Dance Dance Revolution, these dance simulation games provide the backbone of the competitive esport. Despite tournaments being independent from the game developers, the introduction of Just Dance into Olympic Esports Week by the International Olympic Committee has been accepted as the simulation game’s confirmation as an official esport.
Image credit: Virtual Regatta
Virtual Regatta is the exclusive esports partner of World Sailing, and one of the selected simulation games to feature in Olympic Esports Week. The eSailing World Championship (ESWC) has been held annually since 2018, with many European national teams finding success in the tournaments.
Virtual Regatta’s Offshore game mode attracts 1.5m registered players with 50 races held per year, making simulation sailing an under-recognised, yet popular game. However, its selection by the International Olympic Committee will likely draw more attention to its esports scene.
Image credit: Virtual Taekwondo
Traditional esports fighting games (often referred to as FGC) have a long history of success in the scene. Games such as Street Fighter even contributed to the birth of esports in the form of arcade games. However, there are many martial arts that have simulation games, providing gamers with differing experiences.
The UFC Esports League launched in 2019 and is the most popular martial arts simulation esport, despite lacking attention from the wider esports scene. Its esports ecosystem is still developing, with plans to feature high-level gameplay in competitive games played by both gamers and professional UFC athletes. December 2020 saw UFC partner with Esports Fight League to launch the UFC Esports Championships, with the latest Team Season Grand Finale (January 2023) offering a $3,000 (~£2,400) prize pool.
Taekwondo simulation game Virtual Taekwondo is set to feature in Olympic Esports Week as a part of the Olympic Esports Series. Despite this, the esports scene for Virtual Taekwondo is smaller than other simulation sports. The game uses full-body motion tracking to provide a mixed-reality experience, where virtual games merge with physically demanding sports.
Other martial arts simulation games include United Battle League, another which blurs the lines between physical sport and video game, in that it involves fighters donning high tech vests known as armour and competing in taekwondo. The armour sends live feedback to the health bar and critical hits impact the virtual arena too. Away from martial arts and in boxing, Undisputed – formerly titled ‘Esport Boxing Club’ – also focuses on fine-tuned graphics reflecting the physical sport, and is in its early access phase.
Image credit: Topgolf Entertainment
The World Golf Tour (WGT) Top Golf Live Series offers a monthly simulation golf esports tournament series, featuring prizes and points contributing to the Live Series World Ranking. Produced in association with Super League Gaming, the tournaments are often live-streamed on Twitch and YouTube.
Golf Simulation first ventured into esports in 2019 with the European eTour, and has since grown from strength to strength, now featuring tournament series such as the WGT and DreamHack produced DP World Tour, announced in 2022. The WGT has also since partnered with The Open to present ‘the e-Open’, offering gamers the opportunity to compete online on the most famous golf course in the world.
Hannah is a freelance journalist specialising in esports, gaming, and tech. Alongside writing, she studies an MA in Digital Culture and Society part-time.