NASCAR's rapidly changing Esports landscape

Some have scoffed at NASCAR’s venture into esports in recent years, but without it, the eNASCAR league currently filling in for real races likely would not be possible.

NASCAR's rapidly changing Esports landscape

Tim Clark, senior vice president and chief digital officer for NASCAR, was well aware of skeptical fans and stakeholders when NASCAR began putting resources into the development of virtual racing leagues like the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series and NASCAR Heat Pro League.

“No one could predict the future,” Clark told Motorsport.com, “but look what we have now.”

Since NASCAR announced last month the postponement of all races through at least May 3 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR and iRacing put together a virtual Pro Invitational Series that is averaging over 1 million viewers weekly on network television.

On Wednesday, the NASCAR Heat Pro League will hold its draft of xBox and PlayStation4 players as it prepares for the second season of competition, in which 14 NASCAR teams will once again participate.

While real NASCAR racing remains on hiatus, more fans, media and even sponsors have taken a second look at the virtual motorsports alternative.

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“I think the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Clark said. “What ultimately led to this coming together so quickly and becoming successful is everyone across the industry coming together and jumping in.

“That includes teams and drivers and partners across the board, who all saw this as a way to provide some entertainment and a distraction for our fans. We’re really, really happy with the level of participation and the level of engagement from our fans.”

Clark said there is “no way” the Pro Invitational Series would have gotten off the ground were it not for NASCAR and the industry’s commitment to esports in recent years.

“Not that we saw something like this coming, but we certainly saw the value in esports broadly and the value in a partnership with iRacing,” he said. “Having that established relationship, having the pieces and parts in place, having drivers already active on the platform, just made it easier for it all to come together.

“Had that not been the case or been a focus for the last few years, I don’t think it’s possible this would have come together, certainly not to the degree that it has over the last few weeks.”

In an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com, Clark touched on a number of topics related to NASCAR’s involvement in esports.

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Q: The draft for the second season of the NASCAR Heat Pro League is scheduled for Wednesday. How does NASCAR view its involvement in the Pro League in comparison to its iRacing endeavors?

The iRacing platform allows us to reach a younger NASCAR fan or motorsports fan and deepen their engagement with motorsports. It also has the unique ability to be a development program for drivers. In regards to Heat, we view it as a mass-market opportunity. If there’s anything in esports these days that can be considered ‘traditional,’ I think NASCAR Heat is more of the traditional sports league. It has the ability to reach people who may not have any interest in NASCAR in the first place but hopefully by playing the game on Xbox or PlayStation, it gives us the ability to reach a different audience.

William Byron, Axalta Chevrolet

William Byron, Axalta Chevrolet

Photo by: NASCAR Media

Q: The NASCAR Whelen Euro Series announced Monday it was starting its own virtual racing league, but it will also feature some real-word ramifications in its racing series when it starts up this season. Do you foresee this being utilized elsewhere?

We were aware of it but not something we were not directly involved in putting together. I don’t think we’ve had discussions and I don’t think it is something we would do, having some crossover from our esports endeavors to what’s happening on-track. But I also think we’re all in uncharted territory and people are looking to do things their stakeholders and fans engaged. While we weren’t involved in the decision, I understand what they’re trying to do, which is do something a little different.

Q: In what ways do you see NASCAR taking advantage of the exposure and success of esports this year once real races begin?

That’s definitely at the top of the discussion right now. The eNASCAR series pulled together pretty quickly and under pretty extraordinary circumstances. I think we’ve learned things in the first three weeks that we would never have anticipated otherwise. I think we’ll have a couple of options to keep an iteration of what we have going forward. We’re not in a position to make final decisions right now but based on the response that we’ve seen, we definitely believe there is a long-term play here. (Is an off-season series an option?) It’s certainly an option on the table. It’s too early to tell one way or the other. While the vision of an off-season series is an interesting one, I also think that we have to be careful not to overburden the drivers and oversaturate the market. We see some value in it but we’re going to have to be smart about these visions. It’s a long season as is.

Timmy Hill and Ryan Preece

Timmy Hill and Ryan Preece

Photo by: NASCAR Media

 

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