Digital to driveway: Nissan’s longstanding link to video games
‘Gran Turismo’ is just one example of Nissan’s joint ventures in the gaming space
It takes years of steadfast dedication to develop a video game that accurately portrays the forested twists of the Nürburgring or the infamous "Corkscrew" at Laguna Seca.
The same can be said about producing a Nissan vehicle: every millimeter is the result of countless decisions made by dedicated employees around the world.
So, it's perhaps no surprise that Nissan has been a regular car brand in the video game space for decades.
The Datsun 280 ZZZAP. Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions, Inc.
Even before mainstream personal gaming consoles existed, Nissan was a pioneer in the arcade gaming scene. One of the earliest examples of a driving video game came in 1976 through a partnership with Bally Manufacturing. Under the subsidiary Midway, the company released "Datsun 280 ZZZAP," an arcade game that provided an entirely new experience to gamers: It featured a gear shifter, gas pedal and steering wheel to replicate driving the 280Z.
As part of the joint venture with Bally, Datsun created a 280Z ZZZAP Edition sports car, with only 1,000 units produced. All vehicles were finished in stunning Sunburst Yellow paint and included a unique graphics package with side, roof, hood and deck stripes, as well as rear window louvers and unique mirrors.
Twenty-one years after ZZZAP was released, the personal gaming revolution was well underway, and Gran Turismo debuted for the original Sony PlayStation in 1997. It was a knockout and has gone on to sell over 90 million units worldwide as of November 2022.
The original Gran Turismo featured several Nissan vehicles, including a Skyline GT-R, which was also included on the cover art. Since then, the relationship has only grown, and the Gran Turismo series features more Nissan vehicles than those of any other manufacturer.
"It just ignited interest in Nissan, Datsun and our racing heritage overall," said Mike Disser, manager, Social Media at Nissan.
GT Academy drivers Jann Mardenborough, Bryan Heitkotter, Jordan Tresson and Lucas Ordoñez.
In 2008, Nissan and Sony Interactive Entertainment looked to take that passion from the virtual world to the real one. Together, they launched GT Academy, which invited the best Gran Turismo gamers to compete at the world's top racetracks. A reality TV show was also produced and aired on Speed and Spike Channels. Disser, who was heavily involved in GT Academy as then-manager of Lifestyle and Sponsorship Marketing, said 75,000 people registered to participate the first year – a number that exploded to roughly 400,000 the second year.
"Watching these gamers go from couches and gaming chairs to behind the seats of real cars – it was fascinating," Disser said.
GT Academy found enormous success and expanded globally. It launched the careers of several professional drivers, including Lucas Ordóñez, Bryan Heitkotter and Jann Mardenborough. Many former contestants are still racing in amateur and professional capacities today.
Jeffrey Kowalczyk, executive director, Entertainment and Alliances at the advertising agency TBWA\Nissan United, said GT Academy is an example of what can happen when two seemingly disparate organizations make a bold move together.
"It had never been done before," said Kowalczyk, who was an integral part of the GT Academy team. "But when you marry the technology of Nissan with that of Sony and Gran Turismo, it was lightning in a bottle."
Jann Mardenborough with and the remotely controlled GT-R at Silverstone in 2017.
Nissan and Sony Interactive Entertainment both have reputations for daring to push the boundaries of technology and performance, and they didn't stop at GT Academy. In 2017, Mardenborough raced a GT-R around Silverstone's famed National Circuit using a PlayStation DualShock 4 controller. It was a world-first, and the car reached speeds above 130 mph.
The Nissan-Sony partnership was so remarkable, Hollywood took notice. In 2023, Sony Pictures released Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story in theaters worldwide, with Mardenborough as a main character in the storyline. The film is based on the unbelievable true story of a team of unlikely underdogs – a struggling working-class gamer (Archie Madekwe), a failed former racecar driver (David Harbour) and an idealistic motorsport executive (Orlando Bloom). Together, they risk it all to take on the most elite sport in the world.
"I always knew they would make a movie out of it because it was just too good of a story not to tell," said Disser.
The Gran Turismo film debuted at the top of the box office. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Filmed in Dubai, Budapest and Germany, the film tracks the origins of GT Academy, its rigorous vetting and training programs, and how it catapulted gamers to real-world racing success.
"The movie truly captured the essence of the GT Academy program," Disser said.
In 2019, Nissan continued to expand its video game ventures. It officially entered the world of esports by being the first automaker to partner with FaZe Clan and OpTic Gaming, two of the biggest international esports teams.
Bandai Namco's Minamo Takahashi (L) and Nissan's Hiroyuki Suzuki (R) collaborated to develop in-car sounds.
And in 2021, Nissan worked with Bandai Namco Group – the company behind Pac-Man and other famous arcade games – to develop in-car sounds for several new models, including the 2021 Nissan Rogue and Pathfinder. The purpose of the partnership was twofold: to enhance the SUVs' personality and character, and to communicate important information without distracting the user – just like sounds do in the best video games.
Much like the greatest video game developers, Nissan is constantly innovating to deliver the latest technology to customers. And partnerships with video game companies bring the unmatched excitement of driving a Nissan to gamers around the globe – sometimes even before they have a license.
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