Wednesday night marks the conclusion of the first eNASCAR Heat Pro League season, an initiative launched so quickly by the sanctioning body and its partnering founders that no revenue expectations were ever set internally for this season, according to sources.
Instead, the goal for year one was to forge lasting relationships with next-generation racing fans through esports. The season also began in May, just weeks after NASCAR, game developer 704Games, and Race Team Alliance, fully figured out logistics for the new league – greenlit at the end of 2018.
Fourteen teams of two drivers began the NASCAR esports campaign this spring. Eight regular-season races and three playoff rounds later ensued in the lead up to this week’s finale featuring Team Penske Esports, JR Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Gaming, and Leavine Family Gaming. Live streams of the race, held at NASCAR Plaza in Charlotte, will be available on Facebook, Twitch, and the eNASCAR website.
“We know esports engages a younger audience,” said Scott Warfield, NASCAR’s managing director of gaming. “From a programming standpoint, the ability to have mid-week races to retain mindshare when NASCAR races aren’t on television bridges the tension for all fans.”
The eNASCAR Heat Pro League is not NASCAR’s first foray into the esports world, Warfield said. NASCAR signed a partnership with online gaming simulator iRacing in 2009. Though the current contract runs through the end of next year, NASCAR felt it was imperative to create a console-based gaming league as well, it said.
In addition to NASCAR’s efforts to grow the league, 704Games develops the game used in competition while the Race Team Alliance actively works to create content and sponsorship opportunities for real-life racing teams and their esports counterparts.
“NASCAR teams have massive reach and influence, so when cup series drivers share something that’s happening in esports, you can imagine what that does for live streams and additional video views,” said Warfield, adding that each participating organization helps operate and manage the league.
In year one, the eNASCAR Heat Pro League averaged anywhere between 50,000 to 70,000 views per stream, according to Colin Smith, president of 704Games. His company resurrected the NASCAR video game franchise in 2015, and last year received a majority investment Motorsports Network that helped prompt its involvement in the esports product.
“We all had the opportunity to pass on this year, and use it to get ready for the next,” said Smith. “But everyone felt that we needed to get our hands dirty, and start learning.”
Storytelling during live streams proved to be a struggle at points throughout the season due to the sheer speed of the sport, he added. Much like real-life NASCAR drivers, gamers regularly drive faster than 200 miles per hour.
“There’s only so many ways you can tell the story of what happens on the track. I don’t even know how regular TV announcers take it all in,” said Smith. “You’re trying to go through everything that is happening with the leaders, a wreck that caused a caution, and pay attention to a car that needed to pit, but didn’t make it and ran out of fuel.”
To help rectify this problem, the esports league began placing additional staff in the control room to be the eyes and ears for fans that along with weekly announcers identify little nuances missed during a race.
“Things like that have helped,” Smith said.
Looking forward to next season, Warfield says that NASCAR will do a better job promoting races on a weekly basis to grow the overwhelming engagement the league received in its inaugural season. NASCAR also intends on attracting more teams to join the league and will market the personalities of its current gamers to build a rapport with fans.
“NASCAR, like other major sports, is dependent on its athletes,” he said.
NASCAR would not disclose revenue goals for year two, though it conceded that it does have a target number in mind for sponsorship dollars. In a year with not much to speak of on the advertising front, NASCAR got Coca-Cola to come in as a late sponsor for the playoffs.
“Our sales team in New York is not fielding a call without a question coming in for our esports league, which is a testament to RTA, 704Games, and NASCAR,” said Warfield. “The interest for 2020 is significant.”