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BMW Motorsport is winning a lot in esports, and here’s why

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The year got off to a pretty good start for BMW Motorsport. It scored a win at Daytona in January, the second year in a row its big M8 GTE came home best-in-class at the high-profile 24-hour race that really starts off the international racing season. Next up was supposed to be the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. But that visit to the bumpy concrete track that used to be a WWII bomber base in Florida bumped into the hard reality of SARS-CoV-2. The (hopefully temporary) end of public gatherings has driven real-world racers to compete on virtual race tracks for our entertainment as each professional racing series in turn spins up its own take on esports. And despite the shift, BMW Motorsport keeps racking up the wins.

IMSA has unlocked car setup

Most of the esports racing events, whether they be in iRacing, rFactor 2, or something else, have used standardized cars and locked down setups as a way to level playing fields. But IMSA’s sports car series has taken a different tack, allowing competitors to set their cars up to their liking. And right from the off, BMW Motorsport took full advantage, locking out the podium at a virtual Sebring with a 1-2-3 finish for the iRacing version of its M8 GTE race car. That’s because it has been treating sim racing like any other discipline in motorsport for a while now, says Rudolf Dittrich, general manager for BMW Motorsport’s vehicle development.

“Obviously the situation right now is a bit special with coronavirus, but even before that you could see that the interest in participants and but also in viewers and spectators has been growing a lot, so therefore it was obvious for us to investigate a bit more,” Dittrich told Ars. “And we thought it’s worthwhile to expand our activities and also try to really have a very structured backbone, like we would have in any other motor racing discipline; to really be able to work on this stuff the way we’re used to do in other programs.”

As a manufacturer, BMW’s involvement with a platform like iRacing starts early on, with reams of technical data and images for the M8 GTE race car supplied to the developers to ensure as accurate a model as possible. It has also been organizing its own professional sim racing series (the BMW Sim Cups), but for IMSA’s iRacing Pro series, BMW Motorsport’s role is as a competitor, and it’s approaching that the same way it approaches “normal” racing. “But there’s still a couple of differences. One is that testing is not restricted, and testing doesn’t cost much. Therefore, if you’re ambitious enough, you can spend the time and really try to figure out what your best possible configuration is,” Dittrich said.

In the sim, no one can hear you test

Despite the high fidelity of current racing sims, it’s not quite as easy as just using track-specific suspension or aero settings straight from the real-world M8 GTE. “The physics engine of iRacing is obviously just as limited as any other model of a car—we’re always talking about a model, be it our own in-house simulation model or be it the iRacing simulation model. The way you’re inputting the data is not exactly the same, and you need to understand why you’re doing it,” explained Dittrich.

The freedom to test in sim racing can’t be overstated. In real-world racing, testing is a highly regulated activity, and most series restrict the number of test days to a handful each year as a way to control costs. But with sim racing you don’t need to schedule a track, load up the trailers, or spend hours scraping knuckles, adjusting suspension setups between runs.

“Sometimes I’ll be thinking overnight ‘Okay, I have to try this tomorrow morning,’ and then I wake up first thing in the morning, I go in my sim and try something new on the setup, even if it doesn’t always work,” explained Bruno Spengler, one of BMW’s factory racing drivers and the winner of the first two rounds of IMSA’s iRacing Pro series.

If they wanted to, drivers could spend every waking hour practicing, and the aliens that dominate professional esports will have countless thousands of hours under their belts. But Dittrich is there to make sure his drivers are making the most of their time, just like in the real world.

“If you work as a team, like in the real world, you have at least two drivers out there working together. They can also exchange ideas, exchange data, and help each other—maybe with setup—which brings the team as a whole forward. So, that applies just like in the real world. And then beyond that likely like I mentioned, we try a little bit with the infrastructure and backbone to keep it structured to keep it together and also of keep a little bit of guidance if necessary,” Dittrich told me.

It’s not just setup: strategy is important too

One aspect that might surprise the sim racing newbie is the importance of ambient conditions like track or air temperature, conditions set by the race organizer.

“In the M8 GTE, conditions make quite a difference—and also in sim racing. Therefore, you’re also limited to what you can prepare because you don’t necessarily know what the exact ending conditions are, right? So what you do is try your tire pressures and [tire] degradation for a likely scenario of any conditions. But once the race is going on, you still have to see how the race evolves, like you do in the real world. I think that’s the thing—it’s not about having exactly the same [suspension or aero setting], but it’s more about having the same approach, the same methodology—how you react to what you encounter,” Dittrich said.

BMW Motorsport

The approach is obviously working. Last Thursday Spengler made it two from two in IMSA’s Pro iRacing series with a win at a virtual Laguna Seca, with his team mate Nicky Catsburg in third (separated by visiting Australian Supercar driver Shane Van Gisbergen, who also happened to be in a BMW).

Listing image by BMW Motorsport

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Patent detects in-game “collusion” by tracking “external connections”

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Enlarge / Call it a hunch, but something tells me these two players are working together…

Do you ever feel like your opponents in a free-for-all online game are trying to get you, specifically? It might not just be paranoia; it might be collusion among your opponents. And in a newly published patent, Electronic Arts details some potential tools and data points—both inside and outside the game—that it could use to detect and root out this unfair practice.

EA’s simply titled “Detecting Collusion in Online Games” patent, published earlier this month, defines collusion as when two or more players/groups that are “intended to be opponents” instead “contribute to a common cause” to “gain an unfair advantage” over others. In battle royale shooter, for instance, a small group of players communicating outside the game could stay together and gain a decided firepower advantage against their single opponents.

Many of the patent’s potential methods for discovering this kind of collusion use simple and obvious in-game data. If two or more ostensibly opposed players or teams show abnormal amounts of “time spent in proximity… without engagement,” for instance, there’s a good chance they’re working together. Even if those players show some cursory opposition at points, metrics like damage per second can be compared with the average to see if this is just opposition “for appearance sake.”

Dropping items that another team or player consistently picks up is another potential sign of collusion, as is the same player or players showing up on opposing teams consistently in match after match. Colluding players may also tend to finish in similar ranked positions during their matches, especially “once the unfair advantage provided by colluding is nullified” as some of the colluding players are eliminated.

Big Brother is watching (for collusion)

Beyond easy-to-detect in-game data, though, EA’s patent details other signs of collusion that can be gleaned from things like “social relationships and communications” and “third-party system connections and interactions” outside the game. That kind of data ranges from simple relationships like a “friends list” provided by the gaming platform to completely external relationships like “social media connection data.”

The patent mentions “a cross team shared community metric” that counts “the number of group or community memberships… where players from both teams are members.” Things like “the number of posts by a player in a particular community” shared with another player could also signify potential collusion.

Just some of the internal and external factors that EAs patented method could use to detect collusion among players.
Enlarge / Just some of the internal and external factors that EAs patented method could use to detect collusion among players.

Even “the content of extra-game communication” could be fed into the algorithm, according to the patent, such as “messages to a forum which players from both teams are participating.” A “machine learning algorithm” could be used to glean any collusion-related context from this kind of out-of-game communication, or a simple keyword search could be used, according to the patent.

To be clear, the patent is upfront in saying that any player data used in any of these detection algorithms “would be in compliance with privacy policies that respect players’ privacy, and in accordance with player privacy settings or preferences.” That said, there’s something a little Big Brother-y about the prospect of a publisher like EA scanning your Twitter posts and Reddit community memberships to see if you’re trying to coordinate cheating in their online game.

Then again, in a world where players will go to extreme lengths to hide their cheating using external devices, maybe this kind of external social graph analysis is needed to root out some of the worst colluders (or at least some of the least-careful ones).
In any case, having a patented design doesn’t mean EA is (or ever will) use this kind of system in the wild. For now, it’s just an interesting look at how one company is thinking about potential ways to detect the human side of online cheating as well as the technical side.

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Report: FTC “likely” to file suit to block Microsoft/Activision merger

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Enlarge / Just a few of the Activision franchises that will become Microsoft properties if and when the acquisition is finalized.

Microsoft / Activision

The Federal Trade Commission will “likely” move to file an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft and Activision Blizzard to block the companies’ planned $69 billion merger deal. That’s according to a new Politico report citing “three [unnamed] people with knowledge of the matter.”

While Politico writes that a lawsuit is still “not guaranteed,” it adds that FTC staffers “are skeptical of the companies’ arguments” that the deal will not be anticompetitive. The sources also confirmed that “much of the heavy lifting is complete” in the commission’s investigation, and that a suit could be filed as early as next month.

Sony, the main opponent of Microsoft’s proposed purchase, has argued publicly that an existing contractual three-year guarantee to keep Activision’s best-selling Call of Duty franchise on PlayStation is “inadequate on many levels.” In response, Microsoft Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has publicly promised to continue shipping Call of Duty games on PlayStation “as long as there’s a PlayStation out there to ship to.” It’s not clear if the companies have memorialized that offer as a legal agreement, though; The New York Times reported this week that Microsoft had offered a “10-year deal to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation.”

Numerous statements from Microsoft executives, including Spencer, have suggested the company is less interested in bolstering its position in the “console wars” and more interested in boosting its mobile, cloud gaming, and Game Pass subscription offerings. Beyond Call of Duty, Politico reports that the FTC is concerned over how Microsoft “could leverage future, unannounced titles to boost its gaming business.”

Microsoft “is prepared to address the concerns of regulators, including the FTC, and Sony to ensure the deal closes with confidence,” spokesperson David Cuddy told Politico. “We’ll still trail Sony and Tencent in the market after the deal closes, and together Activision and Xbox will benefit gamers and developers and make the industry more competitive.”

Plenty of speed bumps remain

The reports of a potential FTC lawsuit add to a growing list of troubling signals about the proposed purchase from various international governments. Earlier this month, the European Commission said it was moving on to an “in-depth investigation” of the deal. In the UK, a similar “Phase 2” investigation by the country’s Competition and Markets Authority has scheduled hearing for next month.

Those international investigations are expected to wrap up in March, ensuring the proposed deal won’t close before then and giving the FTC some time before it would have to file suit. Any such lawsuit would need to be approved by a majority of the four current FTC commissioners and would likely start in the FTC’s administrative court. And whatever the outcome, legal maneuvering in the case could easily delay the planned merger past a July 2023 contractual deadline, at which point both companies would have to renegotiate or abandon the deal.

An FTC lawsuit in this matter would also be a the strongest sign yet of a robust antitrust enforcement regime under FTC chair Lina Kahn, a big tech skeptic who was named to the post in June. Back in July, Kahn announced an antitrust lawsuit against Meta (formerly Facebook) and its proposed $400 million purchase of Within, makers of VR fitness app Supernatural.

Three months after Microsoft’s proposed purchase was announced in January, a group of four US Senators wrote an open letter strongly urging the FTC to take a close look at the deal. Last month, merger news site Dealreporter said FTC staff had expressed “significant concerns” about the deal. And this week, the New York Times cited “two people” in reporting that the FTC had reached out to other companies for sworn statements laying out their concerns about the deal, a possible sign of lawsuit preparations.

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Crypto and NFTs aren’t welcome in Grand Theft Auto Online

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Enlarge / Cold hard (virtual) cash only in GTA Online, please.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs have been formally disallowed from Grand Theft Auto Online‘s popular role-playing (RP) servers. That’s according to a new set of guidelines posted on Rockstar’s support site last Friday.

In the note, the game’s publisher says its new RP server rules are aligned with Rockstar’s existing rules for single-player mods. Both sets of rules prohibit content that uses third-party intellectual property, interferes with official multiplayer services, or makes new “games, stories, missions or maps” for the game. This means RP servers based on re-creating Super Mario Kart in the Grand Theft Auto world, for instance, could face “priority in enforcement actions” from Rockstar.

But the new RP guidelines surpass the existing single-player mod guidelines in barring “commercial exploitation.” That’s a wide-ranging term that Rockstar says specifically includes selling loot boxes, virtual currencies, corporate sponsorships, or any integrations of cryptocurrencies of “crypto assets (e.g. ‘NFTs’).”

It’s all been done before

The new guidelines seem to directly respond to “The Trenches,” a role-playing community launched in September by OTF Gaming and rapper Lil Durk. That server advertised integration with both “endemic and non-endemics brands in the gaming space” and a “Trenches Pass” NFT drop to access specific on-server content.

“We’ve been asked to cease all operations of Trenches,” OTF Gaming said in a statement on social media. “We have no choice but to comply with their demands, as we intend to do right by Take-Two and Rockstar. We will be working with them to find an amicable solution to this matter.”

If this situation sounds familiar, it might be because developer Mojang similarly barred NFT integration from its online servers in July. At the time, Minecraft-based crypto project NFT Worlds said it was hoping to work with Mojang to “find an alternative outcome that’s beneficial to the Minecraft player base.”

Days later, though, NFT Worlds said it gave up on that and began work on a new game that will be “based on many of the core mechanics of Minecraft” but which will be “completely untethered from the policy enforcement Microsoft and Mojang have over Minecraft.”

In Minecraft‘s case, Mojang said that the “scarcity and exclusion” inherent to NFTs “does not align with Minecraft values of creative inclusion and playing together.” That reasoning applies less to GTA Online, though, a game that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually by selling in-game currency and exclusive items for use by players.

If anything, things like NFTs and loot boxes could be seen as competition for GTA Online‘s official monetization efforts. With that competition cut off, though, Rockstar sounds eager to allow RP servers to continue to operate within reason.

“Rockstar Games has always believed in reasonable fan creativity and wants creators to showcase their passion for our games,” the company writes. “Third-party ‘Roleplay’ servers are an extension of the rich array of community-created experiences within Grand Theft Auto that we hope will continue to thrive in a safe and friendly way for many years to come.”

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