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How ‘Gran Turismo’ Became a Gateway to Real-Life Racing

Twenty years after its initial release, the franchise billed as “the real driving simulator” is helping gamers move to the driver’s seat

An image of a race car from ‘Gran Turismo’ Sony Computer Entertainment/Ringer illustration

Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts will be paying tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talking to the people who made them, and analyzing both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Our series continues today with Gran Turismo, the driving simulator that is now helping gamers transition to real-life racing.

Twenty years ago, video games changed. Graphical updates to consumer consoles that allowed for more engaging 3D rendering moved video games closer to simulations of the real world. No, the dawn of the PlayStation era didn’t do much to convince parents that video games were much more than toys running from the arcade and invading the basement, but some kids could have sold their pastimes as part of a larger dream: Yes, grinding away at that racing game really could help the kids at the controllers become professional race car drivers.

When Gran Turismo landed stateside in 1998, it was billed as “the real driving simulator,” a counterpoint to the racing games that tilted toward the comical: cartoon characters driving around wacky tracks with speed boosts and power-ups. Kazunori Yamauchi, attentive to detail and interested in reality, wanted the world to know that his racing game was different.

In 1993, Yamauchi was a producer for a small video game development team at Sony Music Entertainment. There, he met Shuhei Yoshida, the current president of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide. The two quickly formed a bond, and Yamauchi was brought in as an adviser for the creation of the original PlayStation console, which came along with the opportunity to pitch ideas for PlayStation games.

At the time, the idea of creating a mass-market racing simulator as a recreational game made top brass at Sony skeptical; “it was hard to convince executives to give it a go,” Yamauchi said. So “Kaz” improvised and pitched Motor Toon Grand Prix, a colorful, cartoon-style racing game in the vein of Mario Kart that was easier for the executives to digest. MTGP, a Japan-only release for Playstation in late 1994, was a successful endeavor, selling more than 100,000 copies between two games, while earning Kaz the trust of the execs at Sony. Then he pitched Gran Turismo, a game he had been working on in secret during the development of MTGP.

“In those five years, we could not see the end,” Yamauchi said in a 2009 interview with Autoweek. “I would wake up at work, go to sleep at work. … I estimate I was home only four days a year.” After starting with just five people, the team finished the development of the game with nearly 20.

The game was met with critical praise. IGN called GT1 “one of the most exquisite racers ever to hit the PlayStation. Its alluring features will keep you glued to your seat for months, if not years. In fact I haven’t driven my real car in three weeks.”

Gran Turismo became the all-time best-selling game for the original PlayStation console with nearly 11 million units sold, outselling the now-legendary Final Fantasy VII by more than one million units. Polyphony has since released six more Gran Turismo games that have combined to sell more than 80 million units, making Kaz’s passion project the best-selling PlayStation exclusive franchise of all time.

GT’s calling card was an attention to aesthetic detail, physical realism, and a massive selection of cars. The first outpaced all existing racing games by including 175 playable cars. (The series still holds a world record for “Most cars in a racing videogame” for the 1,237 vehicles included in Gran Turismo 6, which was released in 2013.) GT also featured 11 original race tracks, and future games in the series included maps based on real-life locations. From a technical standpoint, there was nothing like Turismo; it paid close attention to the realistic mechanics of driving, having tires follow the camber of the road and react to curves and bumps. Yamamuchi’s creation focused on visual details as well; no game had ever shown the reflection of the race track in the windows of the cars.

Each car took into account actual measurements and design parameters that were incorporated into the game itself; add a specific type of tire, and a car would become more oriented toward speed or traction. Add a spoiler, and heavy winds would increase drag. Kaz recalls one of the first playtests of GT, when a handful of eager gamers constantly crashed into walls on sharp turns because of their inability to brake at the right moment. GT also utilized speedometers modeled after those in real cars, forcing gamers to focus on their speed and gear changes. Like in real racing, there was a complex rhythm needed to excel, and gamers were able to achieve it only through countless hours of gameplay.

While researching for the game, Yamauchi hopped in real-life drivers’ seats to get a better idea of the experiences he would try to simulate when mapping out Gran Turismo. Kaz picked up on the counter-steering physics of a race car and the immense pressure of the car’s brakes. The idea of re-creating those concepts in a video game seemed absurd at the time, but Kaz persisted. By release, the game not only matched real-world counter-steering physics, but the braking dynamic was so realistic that Kaz and his team decided to simplify the physics to avoid alienating the average consumer. Yamauchi has spent so many hours behind on both virtual and realistic racetracks that today he is a real-life racer himself. Over the last decade, he’s competed on and off in the 24 Hours Nürburgring, a four-member team endurance race that spans a full day. Which raises the question: Can playing Gran Turismo make you a skilled driver?

When I asked Yamauchi, whether he believed at the time of release that his game could turn people into actual race car drivers, he said, “I would have believed it, because since I was working on the first GT, I had this conviction that you could learn real driving techniques through this game. After that, it took 10 years for the start of the GT Academy Program, but for me 10 years was longer than I had expected.” Kazunori Yamauchi’s dream became a reality in the form of the aforementioned GT Academy, a school where gamers could be transformed into professional race car drivers.

In 2008, Nissan in Europe and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe collaborated to create the GT Academy. But unlike other sporting academies, where students qualify by proving their worth in the field of competition, the GT Academy would accept the best Gran Turismo players and look to convert them into real-life racers.

To find members of the inaugural class, Sony invited gamers to run test laps around a track on their PlayStations at home. More than 25,000 players participated, and the top 20 finishers from each of 12 eligible countries were invited to their own National Finals. From there, the group was whittled down to 22 drivers who would be invited to the Academy. Three years later, Nissan launched a reality show called GT Academy that documented the paths for every eventual Academy student from PlayStation to the racetrack.

In the first televised season, the 16 members of the Academy’s third class were sent to the Silverstone Circuit in England to live and train like professional racers and compete for a pro Nissan racing contract. The contestants raced daily and competed in physical challenges while being critiqued by a panel of three former racers. The challenges on GT Academy were generally racing-related, but contestants were thrown off-balance by driving on different tracks and in different vehicles ranging from souped-up cars to tiny go-karts. Due to the physical nature of race car driving, there were also fitness challenges that forced the 16 former gamers to put on their running sneakers. At the end of each season, the four final competitors raced each other for six laps on the Silverstone Circuit for the show’s prize.

In Season 1, 30 year-old Bryan Heitkotter outlasted his competition to become the first GT Academy champion. Heitkotter has now raced extensively throughout the U.K. and the U.S. Most recently, he raced in the Pirelli World Challenge, a North American auto racing series, where he notched two race victories.

“Ever since I was a little kid it was always my dream to race cars,” Heitkotter told me via email. Although professional racing seemed to be a fantasy out of reach, the GT Academy gave him the opportunity to make a jump that would have been impossible just 20 years earlier.

Just two weeks after winning Season 1, Heitkotter went to a six-month driver development program meant to fully bridge the gap between the virtual and real worlds. At the end, Heitkotter and three other students from the GT Academy entered the 2012 edition of the Dubai 24 Hours, a day-long endurance race involving nearly 12 classes of race cars held annually at the Dubai Autodrome. It was the first time a team had a driver lineup consisting entirely of gamers turned racers. “The four of us... drove to a 3rd place finish in class over 24 hours, which was a really satisfying result as a proof of concept for GT Academy,” Heitkotter said.

Ricardo Sánchez, the 2014 international GT Academy winner, like Heitkotter, loved racing as a child, but never expected that he would be able to pursue the sport professionally. “It’s been a pretty big and sudden change,” he said. “Being on a race car with my name, flag, flying around the world and then getting into the podium after a couple of races is still hard to soak in, even after four years.”

Recently, gaming as career-building has become a mainstream concept thanks in part to the success of esports and streaming. But unlike those industries, where the stars earn their living from gaming chairs, Gran Turismo created a lane for gamers to leave their native habitat. It will always be a recreational video game, but it’s also found use as a tool. Kazunori Yamauchi always envisioned his creation as something more than just a racing game, and, after 20 years, that’s what Gran Turismo has become.