Mark Bowles and Darren Cox of SCEE and Nissan respectively discuss the ultimate driving competition.
SCEE's PS3 Brand Manager Mark Bowles and Nissan European Interactive Marketing Manager Darren Cox, two of the key figures behind GT Academy, talk to PlayStation.com.
What is GT Academy?
Darren Cox: We ran the first GT Academy in 2008 and had 25,000 people from 12 different countries taking part. Essentially, GT Academy was an experiment conceived between Nissan Europe and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. We set ourselves the challenge to see if we could unearth a real racing driver from the virtual world of computer games. In the end, I think we proved that we could.
After a national selection process we ended up with a group of 22 gamers driving cars at Silverstone. It turned out that there were many good drivers among them and we had a tough job eventually selecting the two guys who went on to qualify for an international race licence.
In the end, only one of them made it all the way to drive in the Dubai International 24-hour race. Lucas Ordóñez, a student from Spain, was our man. He showed such promise that we were able to secure him a season-long drive in a Nissan 370Z in the European GT4 Cup and he came a very close second and won the team's championship. I think that was proof enough.
The whole process was so good that we sat down with PlayStation and decided to do it all over again.
Mark Bowles: The format for GT Academy 2010 will be very similar. It is essentially a five stage process to discover our racing driver. On 17 December 2009 the online stage went live. Anyone eligible and from the countries taking part can download the GT Academy Time Trial from PlayStation Store.
For stage two we take the fastest 20 gamers from each country and invite them to a national finals event. From there, 20 competitors will be invited to the GT Academy. This is a like a racing driver's boot camp.
After five days of different challenges, our panel of expert judges will choose two winners who will enter an intensive, eight-week training programme to qualify for an international race licence. One of those will then be selected to race a Nissan 370Z in the European GT4 Cup season. We shall find out then if we have discovered another star.
Were you pleased with the results of the first GT Academy?
DC: I think everyone involved in the project was delighted with the way things turned out. There was a lot at stake for both Nissan and PlayStation. We were convinced in our own minds that we could unearth some real talent from the gaming community, but proving the point was another matter.
To emerge at the end with a guy like Lucas was a real vindication for us. He has proved to be a great competitor in the car and has just got better and better. He is also a great guy and has become an ambassador for both brands - he will be working with us throughout the GT Academy 2010 programme.
MB: From a PlayStation perspective, GT Academy was a very successful project. The Gran Turismo series is the most successful race simulation game in the world and Kazunori Yamauchi, its creator, has always set new benchmarks in realism with each version. I think he was personally intrigued to see what would happen and has been very happy to watch Lucas' progress.
GT Academy also fitted in well for us in terms of highlighting the online capabilities of Gran Turismo and PlayStation 3. We had 25,000 people playing the game online during the first stage. This year, we anticipate many more, creating a huge international community of online players. It is very exciting.
What has changed for 2010?
MB: As PlayStation we are naturally more involved in the gaming stages of the GT Academy process. A fantastic development for us is that Polyphony Digital, who develop the Gran Turismo games, have created an online Time Trial version for GT Academy.
This means that the online stage of GT Academy is open to anyone with a PS3 system, providing they live in a participating country. They simply have to register on PlayStation Network and download the free Time Trial from PlayStation Store.
We are also opening the competition to even more countries this year and, most notably, Australia and New Zealand will join the European countries taking part.
DC: I would say that we managed to get the first GT Academy just about right, so it is really just a few little tweaks and improvements. One difference is that people who already hold, or have held, a national or international racing licence will be excluded from progressing in the competition. In 2008, there were a few guys that made it to Silverstone who were already involved in racing, while most of them had no experience at all. It turned out not to be a big issue, as those with natural ability soon stood out. However, we just feel that it will add to the purity of the virtual to real racer experiment if we keep it to those who have not raced.
We shall also introduce the drivers that make it through to the final stages of GT Academy at Silverstone to a real, fully-tuned race car with sequential gear box and slick tyres. The jump to this type of car from a standard road car is likely to demonstrate who can go all the way.
What are your hopes for GT Academy 2010?
DC: Quite simply for us to repeat our success last year and unearth another racing talent.
MB: For more people to take part and become involved in the ongoing story. We want to build a community that gets behind our national champions and follows the process to the end.