Get this: Some 1 million people have logged in to watch professional runners play a video game on national television.
The staggering success of virtual racing over the past month has put motorsport in the forefront of creating competition as the sport is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Almost every series now has regular virtual races for its competitors and a lot of it on national television – and it’s online for fans who prefer to watch that way. Drivers gain notoriety, even sponsorship.
“I think we’re still in the early stages of finding a way to make this work as well as possible,” said IndyCar driver Conor Daly. “You have four different areas that your brand can grow in: Twitch, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter… maybe I keep growing a YouTube channel, who knows? There are things that I think you will end up doing during this time that, however, will help you in the long run, and that is exactly what we are trying to do is when we return to the race.
“Maybe we’ve built a bigger fan base, we’ve built a bigger brand for our sponsors and the people who support us.”
All of this would be good news for motorsport, which has faded since its heyday amid drops in attendance and sponsorship. For now, virtual races will have to do the trick.
NASCAR was able to release its iRacing series which already had a formidable infrastructure of an existing league for serious players. There was a draft with real teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske selecting players to represent them.
All NASCAR had to do was grab its proceeds, trade amateur racers with its stars, and Fox Sports said it would broadcast the races. The audiences for two of the last three Fox races have been the most watched in esports history and cable networks have all gone to great lengths to create their own virtual racing content.
“All racing teams go out of their way to keep their sponsors and employees,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., retired NASCAR star who is a longtime virtual racing fanatic and owner of a team. from the Xfinity series and NBC Sports analyst.
IndyCar will race on a virtual Michigan International Speedway on Saturday, a beloved track that has long since fallen off the open-wheel racing calendar. The race will air on NBC Sports with Earnhardt Jr. making his virtual IndyCar debut.
It will also be the series debut for Marco Andretti, who did not compete in the first two IndyCar events on road circuits, with his real-life teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. The entry list for Michigan lists 31 drivers.
Part of the appeal is the ability to watch drivers in action on home simulators that can cost up to six figures. Drivers are smartly using online social feeds to give viewers insight and insight – a front row seat to the racers’ bashing, swearing and comedy skills.
It’s a rare chance for a fan to follow a driver’s emotions in real time – and a rarity for television producers.
“The drivers are the star and the more engagement we can get from the driver, the driver as part of the story, it improves the racing,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBCSN.
“Most sports, hockey players are chatting on the ice and NASCAR, you can shake your fist out the window, raise your middle finger, or do something to greet one of your competitors, but you really can’t talk to them. during the race. is happening, ”Flood said. “Footballers can stand in front of a quarterback and say something. So it’s funny now that in these races the drivers are able to express themselves a bit verbally, which we would like to see more of.
NASCAR turns off the simulators this weekend during the Easter holidays.
There are still plenty of virtual races to discover, on TV and online, with real stars: ESPN has teamed up with Torque Esports this week for a virtual race series to broadcast a star series featuring former Formula 1 champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacques Villeneuve, and Jenson Button, as well as Indianapolis 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran and Tony Kanaan.
IMSA has a virtual series and NBC Sports created their own short track NASCAR series that ran all week. World of Outlaws sprint cars have created a league, NASCAR’s existing iRacing league continues to operate and suddenly there isn’t one night a week that a spectator can’t find a virtual race on a screen. or another.