Austin Ogonoski: Cheating in PC racing sims is alive & kicking

We follow PretendRaceCars legend Austin Ogonoski on Twitter and on occasions converse about this and that; thus when the Callum Cross2 expose went viral this past week it was obvious to tap him up for his opinion

Sim racing has a big problem if they cannot catch “hobby” cheaters who rip up their game for the fun of it. The on the ongoing cheating saga comes along amid the big bucks boom in sim racing from games to hardware, sponsorships, manufacturer and official race series involvement.

A great deal is at stake here in terms of the integrity and spirit of simming as in eSport as it becomes mainstream with the potential to become very big business.

In the first of what we hope will be more contributions from him, this is what Austin had to say on the matter:

So I take it that a lot of you have seen the infamous Callum Cross video by now.

Long story short, a complete random in iRacing with no eSports background whatsoever, went absolutely beast mode during your standard ranked GTE race, blowing the doors off a Twitch streamer who was left like a sitting duck in second place.

If you’re obsessive enough with sims to consistently compete in the top split of online races, you know damn well when someone’s car is doing something that it shouldn’t, and the streamer’s remarks of potential hacks at play warranted a pretty prompt confession by Callum on social media that he was, in fact, cheating.

For an entire year.

Undetected.

For those new to the world of sim racing, especially thanks to 2020 bringing a ton of new people into the hobby, the concept of cheating in a modern sim might come as a complete shock.

Cheating is something you remember from the glory days of PC gaming in the mid 2000s, where you’d go and grab a trainer from MegaGames that let you blast around NFS Most Wanted at a billion miles per hour.

Every major developer in the industry has assured its customers that this kind of stuff is a thing of the past, and regardless of whether the game is on Steam or using its own first-party launcher, there are preventative measures in place to keep something like this from happening.

Here’s the reality; some of the guys nerdy enough to get into sim racing and ascend to the top of the eSports ladder, or just dick around with the games on a semi-serious level, are also IT guys, software developers, or amateur coders.

Essentially, the exact kinds of people with the technical know-how to bust a game wide-open and circumvent any security measures with the sole purpose of going faster, are in abundance here. I can assure you that cheating in PC racing sims is still alive and kicking.

However, you have to really dig to find evidence of this stuff.

A great example of this can be found in the build notes from earlier this year on iRacing. A simple line mentions “added a delay in telemetry output,” or something to that effect. To the average person, this means absolutely nothing aside from the devs merely cleaning up a few coding oddities that are a very natural part of software development.

Here’s where I tell you that some of the road eSports teams had gone into the iRacing.exe through the telemetry output channel, and had written their own traction control and ABS systems that were more efficient than the in-game ABS/TC systems for each car.

Another good example comes from a few years back, in a prestigious Porsche Carrera Cup rFactor league. Tim Heinemann, yes, the sim racer turned real-life GT4 driver, basically found a way to fool the server into thinking he was an administrator, and whenever he needed it, could turn on invulnerability for himself or completely turn off fuel consumption.

Heinemann is an excellent driver to begin with, so it was nigh impossible to spot when he was doing a great job of conserving fuel versus when he was actually cheating, and if not for a freak accident in which one of the stewards realized he didn’t receive as much damage he should have after a major crash, Heinemann would have never been caught.

Read about the saga here>>>

Obviously, this kind of stuff poses a serious problem to any sort of competitive environment where worldwide brands are putting up six-figure prize purses for online competitions that occur solely at home, and not on a soundstage with identically prepared equipment that can’t be tampered with.

The question then becomes, how do you prevent this stuff?

Unfortunately, you don’t.

As mentioned above, there will always be an abundance of IT guys and other miscellaneous computer geeks in the hobby, and no matter how robust the anti-cheat measures are, somebody will find a way around them eventually. I think it’s more important that we focus on what drives these people to cheat in the first place.

With the prize money being put up, as well as the belief from some camps that sim racing eSports will eventually explode in popularity and those who invest now in building their “eSports persona” will receive some sort of financial windfall at a later date, I think a lot of people’s moral compasses are starting to fall to the wayside just a bit.

Callum stating that he’s already been approached by eSports teams is proof of that. The return on investment for cheating is insanely high. If you figure it out or write your own program that’s successful and continues to fly under the radar, you’re sitting on something that prints a nice chunk of play money for you.

But here’s some food for thought; without the crazy high purses and the MLS-style business plan of anticipating a future payoff, would cheating still be rampant?

I really don’t think it would be. So I think the solution is to somehow nix the ROI for cheating.

In real life, this is what keeps racing from getting totally out of control at the grassroots and amateur levels. Sure, you can pour in an obsessive level of cheater parts into your local oval track or SCCA car, but when payouts cover just a fraction of what you paid for your cheater parts, is it really worth the hassle to begin with? Here’s a spoiler: it’s not.

I definitely appreciate that brands like Porsche, McLaren, and Coke have taken even a passing interest in sim racing, but when you put up six figures in a world of introverts willing to spend long hours in front of a computer and win by any means necessary, the results are pretty predictable, no?

I think this goes a lot differently if we all raced under a completely different payout structure, and I know that for a fact because I’ve seen it.

Over on the Assetto Corsa side of things, the competitive app a lot of us used received sponsorship from the CD key site Gamivo. Each championship paid out around $30 CDN if you won, and while you’d think this would turn the competitive scene into a wasteland of cheaters looking to make a quick buck for a relatively short amount of driving… it didn’t actually change anything.

And with almost every championship offering payouts, it wasn’t a bunch of people stepping on each other’s toes and writing their own ABS systems or running invulnerability hacks to qualify for “the big cup.”

You ran the league you wanted and treated it like a normal sim race, and if you won, you had a couple bucks to by some games on Steam. There wasn’t the obsession with breaking the game via cheat engine because I’m pretty sure everyone realized we were racing for thirty bucks at the end of the day.

I think the solution going forward is to simply adopt this kind of payout structure. If Coke or Porsche are going to put 100k towards sim racing, let’s not have people stepping on each other’s toes and going overkill to hack the game just to have a shot at qualifying for one championship reserved for a handful of people.

Imagine every single race for a given season, and I mean every single race, down to each individual split, pays out $5 to the winner.

Will some people still cheat? Probably. But the return on investment for cheating in this environment is really, really low, to the point where most people – even the hardcore guys at the very top of the leaderboard – just aren’t going to bother.

And over time I think the community would start to police itself on its own accord and actively mock or ridicule cheaters for being petty enough to hack a game in pursuit of five dollars.

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