You might not know it if you’re not really into motorsports, but frequently, product purchases come with stickers that people often put on their cars, bikes, helmets, laptops, and pretty much anywhere you can imagine. When you see a car at the track with a ton of stickers, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily sponsored! It could just be that they’ve used decals to decorate their car and make it look more like a “real” racecar.
Advertising for companies for free doesn’t really seem to be the point, it’s just an intended side effect of the distribution of these decals. It seems more likely that it’s about customization, and the “look” of a racecar that folks are familiar with when they watch racing sports on TV.
In console racing games like Gran Turismo 4, it’s frequently the case that either your car comes with stickers, or it doesn’t. The way the upgrade system works, you can do a great deal of modifications (which may or may not reflect real life possibilities), but it doesn’t really give you the opportunity to customize your car by applying stickers from the mfgr’s you bought your in-game upgrades from. Forza Motorsport has a custom painting option, but unfortunately it looks like it might be hard to use, or too time consuming.
If I were a smart biz dev guy in the games industry, here’s what i’d do: work hard on selling each upgrade part available in the game to an automotive company that it corresponds to, and also work with them to obtain “stickers” that can be simply and quickly “stuck” onto the car’s texture in-game. When the car appears with that sticker in an online game, it’s advertising, and it can be marketed as a CPM opportunity to market their parts in an enthusiast game. Those stickers will work as tremendous reinforcement of identity as associated with the cars that people customize for online play. Boom, you’ve got some monetization of online racing gameplay, without charging the consumer — in fact, from their point of view, it gives them the chance to make their cars even more unique.
Sure, you’d face some challenges – some manufacturers would probably want to maintain some quality control over the adjustments to the in-game physics that their parts provide. That might provide some snags, and it would be tough to ensure that they don’t interfere with the development process too heavily. However, I think most of the tuner market would probably “get” this kind of thing, and would relish the opportunity to get their brands in front of the gamer market during online play.