The team names sound familiar: Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports. There’s JTG Daugherty and Stewart-Haas and Germain Racing and Roush Fenway… but wait a minute: drivers named Garbage, Trackbar, Sloppy Joe and, um, Fluffy?
What’s going on here?
What’s going on is a playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the eNASCAR Heat Pro League. Those are real NASCAR teams competing for a series title, 14 of them this season. Players—eDrivers—on two different gaming platforms (X-Box One and PlayStation 4) vie for race wins, playoff berths and, ultimately, a championship. Each team has one driver per platform.
With three races remaining in the playoffs, Team Penske eSports holds a 10-point lead over Roush Fenway Gaming. Stewart-Haas Gaming, Leavine Family Gaming and Gibbs Gaming round out the top five heading to next week’s race at Kansas Speedway.
Some old-school NASCAR fans are probably scratching their heads about now. Video games? Really? That’s not real racing. Those drivers are just desk jockeys.
But they’re not—many are former racers. And fans? Live streams of the eNASCAR Heat Pro League average 90,000-100,000 viewers, with more tuning into replays and highlight reels. While that’s a fraction of the number tuning in to a live NASCAR race, it would be a capacity or above crowd at a racetrack. That’s a lot of people watching other people play a game. NASCAR has three eRacing series currently, including the eNASCAR Heat Pro League, eNASCAR Peak Antifreeze iRacing Series and the eNASCAR Ignite Series.
It’s clear that people—and sponsors—are paying attention here. Frontstretch sat down with Colin Smith, president of 704 Games and the eNASCAR Heat Pro League, to talk about how eRacing is a benefit to everyone.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: How did the NASCAR eRacing series come to fruition?
Colin Smith: A lot of pieces came together for this to happen. The first was Motorsport Network making an investment in 704 Games that has the license for the NASCAR Heat franchise. We saw a big opportunity there to really put some more resources into the company and into the game. We felt like if there was an opportunity to make a better product that an eSports platform would be able to follow. It would set a great foundation for this type of racing experience, domestically, and one day, internationally.
We worked closely with the Race Team Alliance, which is a group that represents the business interests of most of the major race teams in NASCAR. They have a new executive director, Jonathan Marshall, who also believed in this platform, and we talked with them and decided that it would be a great idea to officially create a professional series with the teams acting as the foundation for the series. Of course, NASCAR plays a big part in that. Obviously, it’s their brand. We’re a licensee to NASCAR to make and distribute the game.
So those three groups came together. We got started really late in year one, 2019, but we were able to pull it off. I think everyone firmly believes that this is an important marketing platform for all three groups. It was very easy to get everyone to decide on what’s good for the league, because the success of the league is something that certainly benefits all three parties. It creates more awareness for the game for 704. It creates a bigger pipeline of people getting interested in the sport itself. Certainly, it brings a very nice demographic into the sport as well, a much younger demographic than maybe what you would see on something like television.
Everybody is in agreement that this is a great marketing platform, and everybody has worked together to build this up a lot in year one. We have a lot left to do, but we’re super bullish on where we can take this in year two.
Henderson: What about sponsors—are they paying to be featured on cars, and how expensive is it for a sponsor to get involved? Are other sponsors able to get involved?
Smith: There’s another benefit to the teams that it allows their sponsorship. Advertising sponsorship is such an important part of an actual race team’s revenue stream that having another platform that they can offer to their sponsors that might be showcased a little differently than maybe their traditional pieces is a huge benefit to them. So that’s yet another reason that people believe in this having really strong future benefits down the road.
All the teams are different. They’re approaching it differently. I’d say you have about a third of the teams that are holding back sponsorship and not selling it yet because they want to see what type of asset they have, since it’s brand new. You have half the teams that have offered the exposure inside the NASCAR Heat Pro League to their current sponsors and they rotate them through on this platform. And you have some teams that right away sold it right away specifically to new partners that maybe have never been in the sport.
It varies across the board with everybody treating it differently, which is great because it’s giving us three different looks at how to showcase this platform to sponsors. We’re learning a lot from them, they’re learning a lot from us, but everyone is different which is great. Everyone has the right to do that and everyone is finding their own way through it.
Henderson: You’re drawing an impressive number of fans watching the races. Is there any crossover between them and traditional NASCAR fans with the eRacing fans tuning into the NASCAR races, or maybe some of the NASCAR fans checking out eRacing?
Smith: That is a very good question that we are reviewing that as we speak. It’s a question that everyone wants to get to the bottom of and wants to know. Again, it’s hard to paint the fan base with a broad brush and say that every traditional fan has embraced eSports and every eSports fan has embraced the traditional sport. I would say that what we have discovered is that there is a lot of crossover. One of the things that we are doing is trying to make sure that we offer an opportunity for crossover but also don’t prohibit the people who want to stick with whatever platform is appealing to them.
For example, we’re running our races in the middle of the week as opposed to on the weekend. Once you get to Friday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday[is] dominated by practice, qualifying and racing in three series, so we used this as another channel to communicate with the fan base, a broader fan base during a time that’s usually more quiet for NASCAR—Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night. We’ve seen a lot, and that’s one of the benefits of having the teams involved is you have a lot of the actual drivers that are helping the eDrivers get better at learning how to race, how to set up their cars, how to run a track a certain way. If you’re a fan of racing in general, they you’re a fan of this type of competition.
It’s definitely unique to some people, definitely very different to some of your hardcore, traditional race fans, but at the end of the day it’s racing. We’re lucky because we have such a one-to-one comparison of what you can do in the game with what happens in the real world. We don’t call ourselves a sim, because we’re more of a mass-market game that’s starting to toe the line of simulation in a lot of ways, but you can have somebody who gets on and races on our game, and if they’re very good, that can translate to the track, and vice versa. We have drivers come on and run laps on the game, and they’re just far and away better than the average fan that gets on and starts racing.
We’re trying to figure out what that sweet spot is for crossover. I don’t think we’re sure yet, but we’re keeping it open, so we don’t push too hard in one direction or the other. We certainly don’t want to alienate someone who may not be a fan of what we’re trying to do but still loves the sport.
We have complete buy-in from the teams. One, because of their partnerships and business interests. But more importantly, they see it as another way to attract different types of people, and potentially more people in general, into what they’re doing in the real world as well. Crossover with the real drivers and crew chiefs participating in what the eRacing team is doing is really helpful for the team itself, but it’s been great contact; the fans seem to be really interested in it.
It’s year one. We have a long way to go, but at the same time, you can see a lot of fun that these guys are having with it, and at the end of the day, we’re a game. This needs to be fun. People need to be able to get on and enjoy it, and if they can do it in a professional manner with the eSports league, that’s even better. But having the teams buy into us completely has been hugely, hugely important.
Henderson: How do you market the players? How do you make them relatable to viewers who don’t see them getting into a car and piling into a corner at 100 mph? Do you find fans are pulling for their favorite players, or do they go with their favorite NASCAR cars?
Smith: It’s a good question that the teams are starting to learn and get smarter about as they work more closely with their drivers. There are some that are super marketable and some where that might not always be the case, just as is the case in the real world (laughs) with athletes across the board. But they’re learning.
A lot of what they’re doing is from a content perspective, helping them get better and smarter about creating content and what type of content they create, pushing it out on the social channels and using that as a way to help promote the team. You’re always going to have personalities that stand out, and we’ve got a couple that absolutely stand out. You’ve got some that are definitely more introverted who aren’t going to be shouting out everything they’re doing on social media every 15 minutes of the day. I think teams are adapting to how they use these guys as potential marketing tools to do some other things.
Will there be an eDriver as famous as a real driver down the road? Maybe one day, not in the near future, but one day down the road, that could certainly be the case. It’s going to take a while to get there, and as the teams learn how to use these guys with some of their objectives and initiatives, I think you’ll see more of them being promoted a lot more openly than they are right now.
Henderson: Do the players come from more of a racing background, i.e. wanting to race but don’t have the funds etc., a gaming background, or is it a mix?
Smith: We were really surprised when we opened up the draft for year one how many people registered for the draft that were former drivers or participated in some form of racing prior to where they are today. What happens is, racing in general is not easy to do. It’s time consuming. It’s costly. It’s a huge commitment. So a lot of these guys were former dirt racers or raced go-karts but they just ran out of time, money, resources to be able to continue to do it. We were shocked at how many people who signed up were actually former drivers or former racers or had some connection back to the motorsports industry. They just love to race, they love motorsports, they love NASCAR and this game is a way for them to continue to stay connected to it.
We have some drivers in the sports league now who are actually former drivers. They’re pretty darn good. I have a feeling we’re going to have a lot of people sign up in year two who also have that similar type of background.
Henderson: The season playoffs are underway, coinciding with the release of the new NASCAR Heat 4 game, which they will use in the playoffs. What adjustments will they need to make for the new game, and what features does it have that are different?
Smith: There was lots of controversy with switching over the game halfway through the eSports league. Just like normal athletes and normal team owners, they want every possible angle they can have to be competitive and to win. We have some guys who were super strong on NASCAR Heat 3 who may not necessarily be as strong on NASCAR Heat 4 because the handling is different, the tire wear modeling is different.
We absolutely needed and wanted to switch over. As a collective, we decided to switch over because NASCAR Heat 4 is a much better product. It’s got a lot of upgrades to it. It looks better, it races better. The drivers may not have been very happy about switching over halfway through, but we also think that it adds a nice little wild card element to what you’ll see in the playoffs. So while there was a little controversy there, there’s nothing we could do about it; it had to be done. We’re excited to be able to showcase NASCAR Heat 4 in the playoffs.
Henderson: Where can fans who want to check it out go to watch the races, and where can they look up standings and statistics?
Smith: NASCARHeat.com is a great spot. It’s got tons of information. NASCAR also has built their own digital platform to support their eRacing series, because they have multiple ones now—that’s eNASCAR.com. You can check out the race streams on NASCAR Heat’s social media pages. NASCAR will live stream the races on their social pages, and you can also check it out on Motorsport.com.
Henderson: How can an aspiring eDriver get involved in future seasons as far as trying out to race for a team, and what’s ahead for the league in 2020 and beyond?
Smith: Definitely you’re going to need a copy of NASCAR Heat 4. They’re going to have to get their hands on that. Then they need to practice—you need to be good on the short tracks, superspeedways and the road courses. There is a lot of practice involved.
We’ll be opening up the draft in December of 2019 for year No. 2. All you have to do is register online or through Microsoft or Sony and you can get after it.
For next year, I think we’re going to have some changes. We’ve had a lot of conversations about the structure of the league and some of the rules and competition elements. We’re looking to bring in new teams to the mix. Maybe there are teams that are already participating in different types of eSports competition, maybe it’s new teams to the NASCAR industry. We certainly have room. We have 14 teams right now and we’re looking to add another four or five teams for next year. It should be a very fun and exciting year in year two! But we’ve got to get through year one first.
If someone was interested in becoming a team owner, they can reach out to me and all of the applications go through our board. There’s a board that makes all the decisions about the direction the league will head in as far as a business perspective, and we would love to spread the word about wanting to bring some new people into the league, and they can contact me or they can contact NASCAR.