NASCAR has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by transitioning from real to virtual race cars.
The stock-car racing organization aired its first virtual racing event, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, on March 22 and brought in an audience of 903,000, the highest rated esports event of all-time.
The event took place in a digital version of the Homestead-Miami Speedway using the simulation game iRacing, and was won by Denny Hamlin.
The previous ratings high for esports was set in 2016 by CW’s MK: Chasing the Cup, a tournament featuring the fighting game Mortal Kombat that aired opposite The Grammys and drew 770,000 viewers.
‘This rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television viewers across the country in a very positive way,’ Fox Sports’s Brad Zager said in a prepared statement.
‘We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time, and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand-new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.’
In addition to breaking esports records, the race was also a hit for Fox Sports 1, which saw its biggest ratings in two weeks.
The event was also the most talked about sporting event on social media for the day, something that was driven by many of NASCAR’s drivers livestreaming themselves over Twitch.
‘That’s a really good opportunity where you kind of create a little bit of something for everyone and where you can certainly tune into the broadcast to see everything, but you can also tune into some of those channels like Twitch that gives you an opportunity to maybe reach an audience that maybe isn’t watching on television,’ NASCAR’s Tim Clark told NBC Sports.
NASCAR will continue airing virtual race events throughout its season, and has another scheduled for March 29, which will take place in a digital version of the Texas Motor Speedway.
F1 has also begun conducting virtual races, also airing its first event, the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix, on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube.
The transition from real car to video game car hasn’t been easy for many of the drivers, with some drivers having only an hour to experiment with iRacing before starting the race.
‘People don’t realize how we threw a lot of those guys directly into the fire with this because some of them just haven’t been using the software or have never used the software,’ iRacing’s Steve Myers said.
As the drivers become more acclimated to the quirks of the game, Clark expects the broadcast to more closely resemble a real race.
‘The more that people see it and more that people buy into the fact of, “Hey I’m going to suspend belief for two hours and just enjoy watching racing,’ I think from that aspect it will grow,”‘ he said.