Fresh from seeing an inspiring Gran Turismo movie, Randall Haywood got a rare chance to see a real Porsche racecar exhibition — and he won $15,000 in a Gran Turismo 7 esports tournament at the same time.
Haywood was one of 16 finalists who traveled to the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca track for the Porsche Esports Challenge USA. And the 22-year-old won the esports competition for the second year in a row.
“The experience was great,” Haywood said in an interview with GamesBeat after the victory. “I’m happy that I became a double champion again. Yeah, I will be happy to come back here.”
I made it out to the Porsche Rennsport Reunion 7 racing exhibition at the Laguna Seca track near Monterey, California. More than 91,000 people attended.
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It was a fun festival full of Porsche enthusiasts, pro and amateur races from vintage and modern Porsche cars, and oddities like Porsche tractor racing. And it was nice to see this event of racing icons intermixed with an esports event attended by video game fans of Gran Turismo 7, which is part of a franchise that has sold more than 90 million copies to date on Sony PlayStation game consoles. FaZe Clan, the esports and creator company, also had an arcade with esports pros at the event. The hope is that one day we’ll have racing and esports fans going to the same events.
This time, the event featured the Bose Esports Arena right next to the track. In an interview with GamesBeat, Haywood said it was exciting to be part of the whole Porsche experience at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California.
Haywood of Forrest Park, Illinois, clinched the championship in a nail-biting finale in the closing minutes of the second race in the finals.
Ayesha Coker, vice president of marketing at Porsche Cars North America, congratulated Haywood on his triumph, in a statement, “We are incredibly proud to crown Randall Haywood the champion of the 2023 Porsche Esports Challenge USA for the second year in a row. This competition not only showcases the extraordinary talent within the Esports community but also strengthens the growing connection between virtual and real-world racing.”
Haywood’s victory came after accumulating the highest number of points across two challenging tracks: Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps and Daytona International Speedway Road Course. Competing in different Porsche models, including the Porsche 911 RSR and Porsche 917, he showcased his versatility and mastery behind the virtual wheel.
The races all took place in the Gran Turismo game with simulator machines equipped with a gas pedal, brake, steering wheel and Recaro racing chairs. Haywood said he enjoys racing with the simulators because he is getting accustomed to controlling the game with the steering wheel.
He edged out Robert Heck, a 23-year-old from California City, California, who took home a $10,000 prize. And 22-year-old Donavan Parker from Fruit Cove, Florida, secured the third-place position with $5,000. The winners were personally congratulated by Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of Gran Turismo.
Haywood said that he would love to be a pro racer one day, but he hasn’t had as much time to dedicate to that as he would like to. He holds down a regular job and practices Gran Turismo when he can. But it’s no longer a crazy notion that a video game driver can become a pro racer. In fact, the Gran Turismo film is based on the true story of Jann Mardenborough, who started playing the game and became a pro racer.
In an interview with GamesBeat, Yamauchi noted that five players have now become professional race drivers after starting out playing Gran Turismo, which he tries to make as realistic as possible. Yamauchi also told me that the AI has become very competitive when it comes to racing against the best human drivers. He noted that the human drivers are beginning to learn things from the AI, which debuted in February 2023 as AI racing agent GT Sophy.
Haywood is quite convinced that AI will beat human drivers. Right now, he can beat the AI racing agent easily and he thinks the best competitors are still human drivers.
“Sometimes you can use the AI to help you because it helps you see how much slower or faster some of the strategies are when you’re testing them,” he said.
A long road
The journey to the championship began in June and July, with over 36,000 participants from across the U.S. competing in qualifying rounds held within the game Gran Turismo 7. Additionally, offline qualifying rounds were conducted at the Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles, Porsche Experience Center Atlanta, and four U.S. Porsche Centers.
Among the thousands of contenders, sixteen finalists were selected and flown to Laguna Seca, where they had the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of a live audience. The top three winners were also awarded a prestigious TAG Heuer Connected Calibre E4 Porsche Edition Watch.
The 2023 Porsche Esports Challenge USA exemplified the growing intersection between virtual and real-world racing, highlighting the talent and passion within the esports community.
Haywood has been playing Gran Turismo for about eight years. Regarding the movie, Haywood said he listens to calming music to get ready for races, just as Marborough listened to Kenny G songs the night before races.
“I would love to be a pro race,” Haywood said. “For me, unfortunately, racing is expensive. The money isn’t enough for me to make this a full-time thing, so I work a normal job. Other people may put in more time to practice, but I don’t have time to do that because I’m working.”
But he competes because he enjoys customizing cars and enjoys being competitive with other racers. Lately, he has been flying around the world. Like in the movie, Haywood’s family was concerned about the time he put into the game and the traveling. But now they’re very supportive.
He has won or placed in a number of other esports events. He said it’s rare for him to get out to physical racetracks, as he doesn’t live close to many of them. He said it took time to get used to playing the video game while hearing the roar of real cars on the track.
“You can hear it and you have to try your best to ignore it,” he said.
Haywood said he was surprised that so many people showed up for the esports races and didn’t know so many people accepted it. In the Gran Turismo movie, it took time for racing pros to accept that someone who learned how to drive in a video game could be a safe driver on a real track.
“A couple of years back, people denied games were a good thing,” he said. “Now they’re taking it seriously.”
He said it was gratifying to hear the real crowd rooting for him when he passed others during the race.
“That was a nice feeling,” he said. “It was the biggest crowd I raced in front of.”
He also enjoyed seeing the competitors in person, as he said, “We have respect for one another.”
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