I never understood the appeal of watching “professional” gamers in competitions. I think I’ve found the exception.
TrackMania. What in the world is this game? To be perfectly honest, I really didn’t know. I had vague memories of speeding along labyrinthine tracks in TrackMania Nations Forever, but other than it being a racing game, I really had no clue what it’s about, why it has the dedicated following it does, or why I’m so incredibly enamored while watching it. Through this article, I want to answer these questions and share a gaming culture that I never knew existed. Specifically, I’m talking about top-level TrackMania.
The TrackMania series has a pretty long track record (pun intended), first launching in 2003. The current iteration, simply titled TrackMania but a remake of TrackMania Nations, was launched in July of 2020. Mechanically, the game is nothing short of an art. A wide variety of surfaces challenge players to learn finer aspects of controlling their cars, as each surface changes how the car handles. Expert players maximize ground time and synchronize their motions with the virtual car’s automatic gearshift. Some find shortcuts that save a fraction of a second (which can make or break a race), while others find ones that save multiple hours. It’s a game of pure skill, speed, and adrenaline.
Making Serious Racing Fun
Aesthetically, the game is supremely self-actualized. It has an effortless, energetic look that flawlessly sells the users on the wide variety of tracks available. Though the game’s mechanics are extremely crisp and refined, TrackMania relishes in wild courses and effects: toy cars, racers that can fly up magnetic walls, death-defying jumps, speeding around loop-de-loops, and all the other fun stuff real race cars can’t. Boosts, engine-off blocks, trampolines, reactor boosts, and probably many other blocks let you engage with the track in a completely fantastical way. It’s a game that many players take very seriously, but that doesn’t mean it’s a serious game.
Unlike Mario Kart or Burnout, there’s no way to crash other players or slow them down. There are no kill-cams or taunts; just the fastest speed possible. This is probably why the game is so popular: it’s all skill but no edge. Winning is your responsibility. Aside from this very attractive feature, I’d also like to acknowledge that there’s a great deal of variety. In fact, one popular tournament is called “Cup of the Day,” with a new map every time. The game is also free to play, though I must admit the subscription fee is seems necessary for those who plan on joining the upper echelons of international digital racing, as it includes access to the more intense competitive features.
A Pleasure To Watch
So why is this so enticing? Why do I find myself cheering along to racers in a game I really know nothing about, nor have I played? Again, I find the answer is in the game’s simplicity. I have a distinct memory of being at a friend’s house and watching a League of Legends tournament. I know nothing about League of Legends, besides the basic concepts that construct a MOBA. After every exclamatory cheer and outburst of excitement, they had to tell me why what I just saw was so freaking cool. A game like League is inseparable from the complex mechanics that underscore the highest levels of competitive play. A game like TrackMania isn’t.
TrackMania takes the opposite approach, engaging with what some might call “the monkey brain.” Car go fast. Zoom zoom. Be faster than the other car. Win. It’s so amazingly simple and easy to understand that you really don’t have to know what’s going on to enjoy watching skilled players do their thing. In fact, TrackMania is one of the few games where it gets easier to understand – and more enjoyable to watch – the higher level the play is.
While novice players bumble around, slipping over ledges and flinging themselves hopelessly into walls, the skilled players drive their cars with breathtaking accuracy. While some might see a maze or an impossible jump, more experienced players often expertly navigate the courses with an intuition that speaks for itself. The viewer is drawn in by the precision and agility and sheer velocity of the race. There’s a sense of near-tranquility to the viewing experience. The audience waits in anticipation for the racers to reach the finish. Will this be the flawless result that we hope for?
The racers blaze past the finish – all under 57 seconds for this technical track. I don’t need anyone to explain why what I saw was so intense.