How NASCAR is Using eSports to Keep Sports Alive in Quarantine

Live sports events are a thing of the past. When the coronavirus shutdown hit the NBA in early March, the NHL, NFL, MLB, U.S. Open, and even the Summer Olympics eventually followed suit. Any live sports event was either cancelled or postponed for the distant and uncertain future. Sports fans everywhere were reeling – nearly every form of sports entertainment had suddenly disappeared. But, the solution has been there all along: eSports live streaming. And, the sports best suited for this virtual transition might not be the ones you’d expect.

NASCAR Goes Virtual

Before fans had much time to wonder whether the rest of the NASCAR season was cancelled, the auto racing giant swooped in with a solution. Officially titled the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, the virtual version of this high-adrenaline sport puts real NASCAR drivers behind the wheel of racing simulators to compete on a virtual track.

Denny Hamlin uses virtual iRacing to compete in a NASCAR race from his home
Image courtesy of @dennyhamlin.

Infamous drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin are finding themselves behind the wheel of racing simulators from the comfort of their own living rooms. Though a jarring and often funny adjustment, NASCAR’s shift to remote programming has been keeping audiences engaged and excited about the future of sports entertainment.

Auto racing’s virtual transition was almost too easy. Despite a few minor hiccups that come with this new work from home territory – namely, Denny Hamlin’s 7-year-old daughter accidentally ending her dad’s race on the virtual Talladega Track – iRacing has  fostered the same energy of their typical races.

Audience Engagement with Remote Programming

With NASCAR fans showing some of the highest levels of brand loyalty and sponsorship support, advertisers are in luck. Advertisers can still buy into sports racing, and there’s an even bigger incentive to do so. NASCAR’s first eSports race was available for online streaming on March 22nd, and it drew the attention of a huge audience of content-hungry sports fans. 

Not only were long-time NASCAR fans tuning in to the first ever iRacing Pro Invitational Series race, but 225,000 new viewers also joined in on the event. This begs the question: were sports fans ready for the shift toward eSports streaming all along?

Regardless, new NASCAR iRacing fans have a lot to look forward to. Remote programming has extended virtual racing through at least mid-May, giving audiences some sense of normalcy in the content they engage with during quarantine.

NASCAR virtual iRacing schedule for 2020
Image courtesy of NASCAR.

Plus, it doesn’t stop there. Each installment in the iRacing series is uploaded to the official site and the NASCAR YouTube channel. Race stats, real-time commentary, and post-race shows give NASCAR’s remote programming nearly the same energy as pre-COVID races.

New Leadership in Virtual Sports

When the coronavirus shutdown first hit the sports industry, NASCAR’s SVP and Chief Digital Officer, Tim Clark, told NBC Sports, “I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level.”

Although sports executives could have never anticipated the coronavirus and its major impact on every sports industry, Tim Clark knows the adaptability of NASCAR racing to a virtual format puts them ahead. Of course, life-long racing fans aren’t ready to settle for a permanent shift to eSports – and NASCAR’s digital team knows this. Tim Clark told NBC, “we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”

What Can We Learn From NASCAR?

As Chief of Digital, Tim Clark isn’t precious about NASCAR’s insight in virtual sports programming. Auto racing’s leadership in the digital arena has given them the opportunity to lead the way for the “new normal” of sports broadcasting and entertainment. 

Along with Entercom’s BJ Barretta, Tim Clark expanded his leadership to Green Buzz Agency’s webinar series. On Thursday, April 30th, Tim and BJ shared their top-line strategies on how to create and program content with agility, creativity, and limited resources. With NASCAR’s virtual racing series setting a new record as the highest-rated televised eSports event ever, this high-level insight is helping to keep producers ahead of the curve. The recorded webinar, along with Green Buzz Agency’s entire webinar series, can be found on Vimeo.

NASCAR’s eSports Success & Other Lessons on Remote Programming | Green Buzz Agency

The Future of Sports Programming

It’s impossible to ignore that the coronavirus lockdown has released the gates for the eSports boom. Even the 2020 NFL Draft was held online, making history in the program’s eighty-four year history. 

While there’s no clear reopen date in sight for any of the major sports leagues, it is clear that remote sports programming has more potential than it has gotten credit for in the past. Even when sports leagues do get back on track, marketers will need to be tuned into the inevitable change in their audience mentality after months of virtual sports entertainment.

Emily Herman, Marketing and Communications.