Get this: Some 1 million people have tuned in to watch professional racers play a video game on national television.
The mind-boggling success of virtual racing over the past month has put motorsports out front in the race to create competition while sports is shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly every series now has regular virtual racing for its competitors and a lot of its on national television — and it's online for fans who prefer to watch that way. Drivers are gaining newfound fame, even sponsorship.
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“I think we are honestly still in the early stages of figuring out how to make this work as good as we can,” said IndyCar driver Conor Daly. “You have four different areas where your brand can build — Twitch, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter ... maybe I continue to develop a YouTube channel, who knows? There’s stuff that I think you’ll end up doing during this time that will no matter what help you in the long run, and that’s just what we’re trying to do is when we do go back to racing.
“Maybe we’ve built a bigger fan base, we’ve built a bigger brand for our sponsors and the people that do support us.”
All of which would be welcome news for motorsports, which has faded since its heyday amid attendance and sponsorship declines. For now, virtual racing will have to do.
NASCAR was able to push out its iRacing Series that already had tremendous infrastructure from an existing league for serious gamers. There was a draft with real teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske selecting gamers to represent them.
All NASCAR had to do was grab its product, swap the amateur racers with its stars, and Fox Sports said it would broadcast the races. Viewership in two of the last three Fox races were the most watched in esports history and the cable networks have all scrambled to create their own virtual racing content.
“All of the race teams are trying everything they can to keep their sponsors and keep their employees,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., the retired NASCAR star who is a longtime virtual racing fanatic, owner of an Xfinity Series team and NBC Sports analyst.
IndyCar will race Saturday at a virtual Michigan International Speedway, a beloved track that long ago fell off the open-wheel racing schedule. Therace will be aired on NBC Sportswith Earnhardt Jr. making his IndyCar virtual debut.
It will also be the debut in the series for Marco Andretti, who didn’t compete in IndyCar’s first two events on road courses, along with his real-life teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. The entry list for Michigan cites a whopping 31 drivers.
Part of the appeal is the ability to watch the drivers in action on home-based simulators that can cost up to six figures. Drivers are smartly using online social feeds to give viewers an inside look and listen — ringside seats to the bad-mouthing, cursing and comedic talents of the racers.
It's a rare chance for a fan to follow the emotions of a driver in real time — and a rarity for television producers.
“The drivers are the star and the more we can get the driver engagement, the driver as part of the story, it makes for a better race,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBCSN.
“Most sports, hockey players trash talk on the ice, and NASCAR you can shake your fist out the window, throw up a middle finger or do something to salute one of your competitors, but you really can’t talk to them while the race is going on,” Flood said. “Football players can stand over a quarterback and say something. So it’s fun now that in these races the drivers are able to get at it a little bit verbally, which is something we’d love to see more of.”
NASCAR is turning off the simulators this weekend in an Easter break.
There is still plenty of virtual racing to be found, on TV and online, with real stars: ESPN this week partnered with Torque Esports for a virtual racing series to air an all-star series featuring former Formula One 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 its own NASCAR short-track series that ran all week. World of Outlaws sprint cars made a league, NASCAR’s existing iRacing league continues to run and suddenly there isn’t a night a week a viewer can’t find virtual racing on some screen or another.