By The Washington Post · Gregory Leporati · BUSINESS, ENTERTAINMENT, SPORTS
The premium sports-car company announced last week the launch of its first-ever esports series, called "The Real Race," in collaboration with the video game "Assetto Corsa Competizione." The new sim-racing series, open to gamers of all skill levels, consists of five qualifying weekends, starting from Friday May 29 through August, with Lamborghini flying the top drivers to Italy in September for an in-person finale.
"This is completely aligned with Lamborghini's strategy to be closer to brand lovers and the younger generations," said Katia Bassi, Lamborghini's chief marketing officer.
Lamborghini's cars, which are priced anywhere from approximately $200,000 to $5 million, are not exactly affordable to the general public, so Bassi believes esports can serve as a way to further popularize the brand among a variety of demographics - as well as a useful way to gain marketing data.
"We sell 8,000 cars per year," she said. "The reality is that in terms of brand awareness and participation, for sure this is going to be a good element for us to grow. . . . And, honestly, to have data to create predictive marketing. The more we know what our fan base would like to see from us, the better it is, because we want to be even more accurate than we are right now."
Lamborghini is not the first manufacturer to launch a one-make esports series - a virtual racing league in which every participant drives the same model or same brand of car. In 2018, Nissan partnered with Gran Turismo to host the Nissan GT Sport Cup, BMW and Porsche have launched their own iRacing series, and, according to its esports website, Ferrari is developing its own series as well.
According to Joern Buss, a partner at consulting firm Oliver Wyman's global automotive practice, these one-make racing series have become increasingly appealing to car brands for a host of reasons.
"The biggest one, and it's very attractive, is licensing to video games," he said. "We're talking double-digit margins, easily - more than any car company makes on any car that they're selling. In that regard, it's easy money: you lend your logos and lend your scans."
But Buss notes that control is another major factor. By sticking with one racing platform, like Lamborghini with Assetto Corsa, the manufacturer can limit who scans their cars and has more input on the quality of the sim-racing product.
And, of course, the manufacturer is guaranteed to have one of its own virtual cars win the race.
"Studies show that customers of sim racing prefer to have a wide range of cars," Buss said. "At the end of the day, that's the fun: I can bench one brand against another, like in the real world . . . but car companies might not want that. It exposes them too far."
Experienced sim racers have seen this type of manufacturer politics play out for years. Matt Bussa, an eight-year veteran of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola series, points to last year's iRacing update as a prime example, when Porsche stepped in to replace Formula 1 as the platform's top-level road world championship and instantly became the platform's fastest, and most desired, car. Bussa notes that manufacturers are eager to gain exposure on a game like iRacing, since even regular races can turn into de facto one-make competitions.
"There are always debates about which cars are the best on each track," Bussa said. "You end up with 75 percent of the service using that one car that people agreed online was fastest, and the other cars don't get any love."
Given sim racing's explosion in popularity after covid-19 - "astronomical growth," Bussa calls it - and a variety of new sim-racing leagues popping up in the last few months alone, is there enough room for a one-make series like Lamborghini's to succeed? Bussa thinks so.
"A series from only one manufacturer is actually better," he said. "It brings a lot of exposure to esports, which is great, and I don't mind watching a bunch of the same car going around and around. The competition aspect outweighs everything."
One-make series may very well be the future of sim racing, but more questions remain: will they actually help manufacturers' bottom line? Will they attract millennials and Generation Z, an audience that some analysts suggest is less inclined to like cars? And - the literal million-dollar question - could it lead a gamer to actually purchase a Lamborghini, especially when they can enjoy the virtual experience right from home? According to Buss, only time will tell.
"We see this as a double-edged sword," the consultant said. "You do this at the safety of your home environment, and so maybe I don't need a car and can just rely on this virtual-reality aspect. But the growth opportunity and marketing opportunities outweigh those long-term concerns."
Andrea Caldarelli, a Lamborghini racer and champion of the 2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona, is optimistic that the series will gain Lamborghini some new fans. He will be participating at various points throughout "The Real Race"'s qualifying rounds and believes that the allure of sim racing could, in fact, persuade a gamer to buy a Lamborghini - or, at the very least, get them to dream of buying one.
"One of the most important factors of a racecar, I always say, is the noise," said Caldarelli. "If you put a headset on in the game, you can hear our V10 engine, and I don't think any human can resist it. So there will be a lot of people playing this who want to drive our real car."