At first glance, it would appear as if NASCAR was late to the eSports party with the launch of its own officially sanctioned console video game league in 2019, but the interest and infrastructure actually date back much further.
During an era in which teenagers and young adults enjoy watching their peers play video games on platforms such as Twitch or YouTube just as much as participating themselves, leagues have begun to invest millions of dollars to figure out how to engage a new type of consumer.
This is of particular interest to NASCAR, because only 22 percent of its audience falls in the coveted 18-to-44-year-old demographic, despite a driver roster that is skewing increasingly younger with the addition of several personable twentysomethings to the Cup Series grid over the past three seasons.
So, while twentysomethings seem less inclined to watch other youngsters race superpowered cars across the country, they really enjoy watching professional gamers apply their craft over the Internet. Facing this reality, NASCAR’s solution was to essentially classify eRacers as de facto NASCAR stars. The concept was that a fan of a specific NASCAR eRacer would then identify as a NASCAR fan.
The first year produced encouraging results. The eNASCAR Heat Pro League averaged 50,000-to-70,000 views per stream.
The eNASCAR Heat Pro League was not NASCAR’s first foray into the eSports world, of course. The sanctioning body has enjoyed a partnership with online gaming simulator iRacing since 2009. iRacing is also where the industry’s eSport seeds were planted in the early 1990s.
iRacing emerged from the ashes of the legendary “NASCAR Racing” simulator series developed by Papyrus Design Group. The first installment came out in 1994 and peaked with the 2003 edition. That game became so popular for its physics and presentation that a cult following developed around it and still utilizes the source code for unofficial builds of the game.
It was also the foundation for iRacing’s release in 2008, the company mostly comprised of ex-Papyrus developers.
NASCAR’s eSport belief reached a crescendo in October when NBCSN aired flag-to-flag coverage of the $100,000 iRacing World Championship from a digital Homestead-Miami Speedway, complete with a broadcast team that included real-life racers Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger.
iRacing executive vice president Steve Myers recalls having conversations with the late Bill France Jr. over a vision of a future in which digital racers would someday compete on the Internet for an authentic NASCAR championship.
“I think people forget that NASCAR started its eSport vision 10 years ago with iRacing,” Myers says. “They were groundbreaking in recognizing what this could be — that you could put anyone behind the wheel of a stock car.
“Every other sport has an eLeague, but they can’t put you in the batter’s box of an MLB stadium or have you catch a pass on an NFL field. NASCAR saw from Day 1 a way to connect fans to their actual product.”
NASCAR just needed technology to catch up to the vision, and it needed a degree of buy-in from team owners and other influential industry notables who dismissed eSports as simply video games.
From that standpoint, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been highly influential in adding legitimacy to eSports and eRacing as a concept over the past two decades. He was a devotee of NASCAR Racing and frequently raced online over a modem in the late ’90s and early 2000s, famously drawing the ire of older half-brother Kerry for incurring a steep phone bill for just how much time he once spent on the platform.
He continued to use the service during his early Cup career to learn new tracks and establish a visual baseline for off-throttle and braking points. He discovered a Legends car racer in Nashville named Josh Berry over iRacing and came to respect him so much that he hired him to drive his Late Model. A decade later, Berry has made a handful of NASCAR national touring starts and won countless short track championships in the Carolinas under the JR Motorsports banner.
Ford Performance development driver Ty Majeski is the highest-rated iRacing oval driver in platform history in addition to his vast resume as an ARCA Racing Series and Super Late Model race winner. However, the most successful example of a dedicated iRacer making the transition to an actual racecar and into the highest levels is Hendrick Motorsports contender William Byron.
“I watched every race when I was a kid but didn’t know where to start,” Byron says. “I remember watching a Cup race at Sonoma. I was probably 13 and the broadcast kept bringing up iRacing and how drivers were using it to prepare for the next week’s race. So, I downloaded it later that week, and just kept getting better.”
Byron started 683 sim races in his first two iRacing seasons and won 104 of them. It convinced his dad, North Carolina businessman Bill Byron, to buy him a Legends car, and after 11 NASCAR national victories, the rest is history.
Byron’s success, along with the changing consumer landscape, is credited as the wake-up call the rest of the industry needed to take a serious look at eSports. NASCAR installed Tim Clark as vice president and chief digital officer in 2018 and began to align the industry on an eSports strategy.
“I think there was common interest across NASCAR, the teams and the [Race Team Alliance] and our partners at [Heat developer] 704Games to create a platform that would allow us to reach a new audience and amplify the video game,” Clark says. “So, this was an obvious choice based on the interest and excitement within the eSports category. So, I think all of those parties came to the table with an open mind, an open approach, and here we are.”
Zack Novak won the televised iRacing championship in 2019 and did so under the Roush Fenway Racing banner. Nearly every major real-life NASCAR organization fields digital entries across iRacing and the eNASCAR HEAT Pro League. It is built into their social and sponsorship strategies.
The executive director of the Race Team Alliance, Jonathan Marshall, says the team owners are fully aware that this has become a necessary but exciting way to reach fans.
“In sitting with 704Games and working with [704Games president] Colin Smith, we discovered kind of a commonality where the teams were very interested in doing this,” Marshall says. “But the teams kind of trying to do it individually was very hard. So what they did in empowering me as their executive director was to get out there and find structure for them to universally adopt.
“So, when the opportunities arose with the eNASCAR Heat Pro League, I was able to go back to them with this idea, and they all raised their hands and agreed that it’s what they wanted to do.”
And that enthusiasm applies to both the Heat league and iRacing World Championship. Myers says his team receives more information than ever before from the race teams in order to simulate the feel of an ever-changing racecar. That was evident before a single race was contested in 2019, as iRacing almost perfectly simulated the new high downforce, low horsepower rules package. That’s a win for fans and consumers alike, who want to believe they are driving the closest thing to the real thing as possible.
“We used to get nothing from the teams and manufacturers,” Myers says. “Now we’ve built the relationships, and they don’t see us as just a video game. NASCAR sees the value. They see Majeski, Byron and [Anthony] Alfredo and realized they could use this as a legitimate driver development platform.”
Having two official eSports partners in iRacing and Heat does beg the question of whether both can exist simultaneously without hampering each other’s progress. Marshall believes they offer two different types of experiences.
“iRacing is sim racing,” Marshall says. “It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to being in the car, right? With Heat, we’re going after an audience that is sitting on a couch with a controller or playing on mobile.
“Realistically, the Heat consumer isn’t looking to jump into a car, and they’re having a lot of fun with their friends.”
Meanwhile, iRacing is on the precipice of incorporating virtual reality into its experience. Unlike Heat, and to Marshall’s point, Myers wants his consumer experience to feel immersive and less casual — meaning there is room for both.
“Consoles are limited to Sony and Microsoft,” Marshall says. “We got one of the first VR consoles that came out. We were one of the first developers to take that technology and adopt it because we’re on PC and can just write code for whatever improvements we can make to the experience. By the end of the year, we’re going to have fixed a lot of the initial bugs because we can just write code for every development we come across.”
And full circle, both iRacing and 704 are working with NASCAR to serve a new type of consumer who may or may not be interested in actual motorsports. The worst-case scenario is that millennials will become NASCAR fans for its eSports and digital offerings. The best case is that the experience will become a two-way conduit that successfully attracts a new audience to the real thing.
“If you’re not trying to figure out eSports, then it feels like you are kind of missing the boat,” Marshall says.
For its part, the NASCAR industry is all aboard.
(Top photo courtesy of eNASCAR Heat Pro League)