By Jason Parker
March 25, 2020
NASCAR can hold their heads high this week. Their eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series began back on March 22. The NASCAR virtual race became the most-watched esports show on TV to date. More than Street Fighter V, more than Magic: the Gathering, it topped them all! In fact, 903,000 people watched on TV in the US. That is incredible!
Since the mass cancellation of traditional sports, the shift to virtual sports may be unbelievable to many traditional sports viewers. With the lack of “real” sports that are available, it’s not so far-fetched that people would give this digital version a try. Fox has also reportedly committed to cover the rest of the NASCAR esports season.
This continues with a simulated Texas Motor Speedway match on March 29 at 1 PM EST. Whether you watch on the Fox Broadcast Network, FS1, or the Fox Sports App, you’ll have it in all three places. Fox and NASCAR have a real advantage here though. The fanbase is still rabid, looking for something to watch, and have nowhere to go.
On top of that, quite a few real-world pro drivers are taking part, so it has to offer up some legitimacy for those die-hard fans to cling on to. This includes race winner Denny Hamlin. Without him and the rest, the numbers may not have been quite so high. People are at least willing to entertain the idea of esports on TV. Given those incredible numbers, business is definitely booming.
Esports industry analyst Manny Anekal tweeted that the 903K viewers are good enough to make the NASCAR virtual race the most-watched esports event ever in the U.S., besting a Mortal Kombat event on The CW in 2016 that got 770K viewers.
Tim Clark, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief digital officer, spoke to Sports Business Daily about the news. “Blown away – we talked last week going into it that no none had any expectations … This was about creating entertainment and a distraction from everything going on; I don’t think anyone even bothered to think about what sort of numbers this could drive. But I would tell you now having seen the number, just pleasantly surprised and blown away by the TV audience we saw, plus the digital and social metrics.”
How does this all compare to real life? According to Nielsen, 903K viewers compares to an average of 2.1M last year, for real-life NASCAR Cup Series events on FS1. The 18-34 demo made up about 9% of the event audience, versus the 8% for the typical NASCAR race. It’s a slight change, but a positive one!
Racing is probably the first traditional sport to look photorealistic across a variety of titles and styles. It’s not hard to see real sports fans are willing to give NASCAR’s esports a shot. It looks so close to reality that it may be hard to believe that it’s just a game.
There’s a pretty funny quote from this event though from one of the commentators. “Now here we are inside the driver view and as realistic as this is, this may be the most unrealistic part, notice how the dash doesn’t have a million sponsor stickers all over it, if this was real there would be.”
Frankly, it’s a matter of time before the NASCAR vehicles are all stickered out so the sponsors are seen. I bet more sponsors would get on board. Many new people would see their brand on the vehicle. Another great thing about the NASCAR virtual race is how safe it is.
You don’t have to worry about losing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a damaged vehicle. There’s no loss of life either. People don’t get injured that way. So, with that, I hope NASCAR invests in this for an off-season. If real NASCAR pros got together in the off-season and raced from their homes once a week? That would be money.
This is terrific news for esports just in general. We hope people will watch esports by non-traditional sports pros. After all, when people see that those esports stars can play just as well as the traditional sports players (if not better), they will see how hard this is to do, and appreciate the skill of NASCAR and other esports.