Luxury likes video games

We spent a day at the final of the Gran Turismo World Series in Barcelona, Spain, to see how the seemingly disparate universes of Bulgari luxury and the Kazunori Yamauchi-created esports video game successfully collaborate

Kazunori Yamauchi
Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of Gran Turismo and director of Polyphony Digital, in Barcelona, Spain, during the GT World Series, wearing a Bulgari Aluminium X Gran Turismo Special Edition watch.Vicens Gimenez
Xavi Sancho

In 2008, the Nissan brand launched a project called GT Academy. It was an annual program that prepared the best players of the Gran Turismo video game to make the leap to professional driving in the real world. By then, the game that Kazunori Yamauchi, 56, had created for Playstation in 1997 was already a phenomenon that had sold more than 80 million copies. Its hyperrealistic approach, both in the design and performance of the vehicles and in the finely tuned reproductions of the circuits on which they competed, made people think that if a kid was good turning at full speed in a pixelated Porsche on the Nürburgring circuit in his living room, he could also be good with a real car. It was a success for the years it lasted, to the point that it disappeared in 2016 because of overbooking aspiring drivers. The first GT Academy winner, Madrid-born Lucas Ordóñez, made the leap to professional competition and went on to finish second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Circuit.

Eight years later, the relationship between the real and virtual worlds has changed a great deal. Esports is now a global phenomenon, professionalized and attractive to brands seeking new sponsorship opportunities and creative partnerships. Above all, the virtual world is no longer so much a B version of the real world, but rather a consolidated space with its own idiosyncrasies. All of this became abundantly clear during the Gran Turismo World Series that took place in Barcelona between December 1st and 3rd. We attended the event with the help of Bulgari, a company that belongs to LVMH. The sold-out event was where the hundred-year-old company chose to present its Aluminium X Gran Turismo Special Edition watch, a reworking of Bulgari’s 1998 model; the watch is available with yellow numbers (1,200 pieces) and black numbers (500 pieces).

A scene from the final of the GT World Series in Barcelona, Spain.
A scene from the final of the GT World Series in Barcelona, Spain.Vicens Gimenez

The watch pays tribute to speed. It integrates a tachymeter, and its engine is the automatic B381 caliber with chronograph. In addition, all those who pay the device’s €5,200 ($5,625) cost will have the chance to unlock an exclusive car in GT7 with the same name of the chronograph. The car’s design, in which Yamaguchi participated, is inspired by the Italian sports prototypes of the late twentieth century and the aesthetic codes of the watch itself.

The Japanese creator of Gran Turismo is a key figure in the development of the universe of video games, but he is also tremendously important in the automotive industry and even in the promotion of tourism, as reflected by the fact that the city of Ronda in Málaga, Spain, thanked him for including its streets in GT6 by naming a promenade in the town after him. Now, he is also relevant in the luxury business. When the latter is mentioned to him on the morning of the final day of the competition, he smiles. “All these years, we have worked with the industry, we have shared users, we have evolved together. GT is educational and the industry knows it. We all learn together,” he notes. He is a car fanatic and has even driven in a race at 24 Hours of the Nürburgring circuit, perhaps the world’s most dangerous track. “At the age of three, I could name all the cars that passed in front of my house,” Yamauchi recalls.

The Fira convention center space is divided in two. At the entrance, there’s a large showroom of vehicle models from the fascinating to the quirky related to Gran Turismo. There are also a couple of dozen simulators on which attendees play GT7. They are mostly parents, who crowd the available steering wheels along with their pre-teen children. It seems that, before teaching them how to ride a bike, they were shown how to drive in GT. “If you want to see a lot of women playing, you have to go to the Middle East,” says Yamauchi.

The prototype on display in front of the stands in Hall 2 of the Fira de Barcelona convention center.
The prototype on display in front of the stands in Hall 2 of the Fira de Barcelona convention center. Vicens Gimenez

“I have spent many hours of my life at full speed in GT,” notes Fabrizio Buonamassa, 52, the executive director of product creation at Bulgari and the driving force behind the alliance between the Italian luxury brand and GT. The official story tells of Buonamassa and Yamauchi’s fascination with automotive designer Fabio Filippini’s book Curve, an ode to aerodynamics that oozes passion for the car’s beauty. Filippini himself put the two in touch, and he attends the presentation in Barcelona. He wanders around the room with Buonamassa. Together they stop at several of the models on display. When Filippini disappears, Buonamassa sits down at a simulator and plays a game of GT. His face lights up.

Meanwhile, backstage, the drivers from the 12 countries participating in the final (three drivers per team) lounge on sofas. On the tables, there are cans of energy drinks and bags of snacks. In the background, there’s a single ham and a dejected slicer. All my life going to luxury brand events and nearly needing to get violent to have some ham, but today... “Take a piece, please,” the lone slicer tells us. “I can’t leave until it’s over,” he finishes as the public address system announces that the Bulgari car is about to be unveiled.

Attendees at the GT World Series final play on one of the simulators.
Attendees at the GT World Series final play on one of the simulators. Vicens Gimenez

The brand created a life-size reproduction of the car, which is unlocked with the purchase of the watch. It is covered by tarp in the middle of the room where the competition will take place, at the foot of the stands. The audience goes wild when the tarp is lifted and the car comes into view. They also go crazy when the Spanish team, the favorite and eventual winner, is introduced, and many of them, in full patriotic catharsis, stand up when the Spanish anthem is played.

When the GT Academy came to an end, Coque López, 24, had just abandoned his career as a motorcycle racer. To quench his thirst for adrenaline, two years later, when the GT World Series was born, he started racing. Contrary to what the Academy suggested, he went from the real world to the virtual one.

Yamauchi, after unveiling the car he created with Bulgari.
Yamauchi, after unveiling the car he created with Bulgari. Vicens Gimenez

On December 3, he won the World Series for the second year in a row. “It’s not the same, but I like it a lot. And, well, here I can’t get injured, so my mother is calmer.” Lopez makes a living from this, although he does not rule out occasionally returning to drive on asphalt, if a sponsor appears. He is a veteran and already accustomed to the presence of brands like Bulgari in a world — the esports world — which had a profit of almost $1.4 billion in 2022. “I did a video for Dior, and I was already with Bulgari last year. They gave me a watch. I went to pick it up at the Madrid store.”

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