While eNASCAR has seen massive success in viewership in the absence of live sports, two recent incidents show the thin line between the virtual and real world.
During an iRacing event on April 12, driver Kyle Larson said a racial slur during a race when he assumed his microphone was muted. He was quickly suspended by NASCAR and lost several sponsors, including McDonald’s and Credit One Bank. Larson was also eventually dismissed from Chip Ganassi Racing.
On April 5, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace quit a virtual race after a crash. Pain relief company Blue Emu later dropped its sponsorship of Wallace.
NASCAR’s efforts online with iRacing have garnered millions of viewers on FOX, largely because it looks close to real and includes real drivers, esports consultant Rod Breslau said. The similarities to real life, the lack of live sports, and the resulting viewership have raised the ante for participating parties.
“Because it’s the closest we have to the real thing, it also has reproduced the stakes and the hype and excitement,” Breslau said. “Because the stakes are closest, if you get a big win, you could make a name for yourself. At the same time, if you’re playing a game and make a racist remark, people will notice, and you’ll pay the consequence.”
The reproduction of those stakes can also bring positives not only for the leagues but for the athletes themselves, as driver Michael McDowell demonstrated earlier in April by gaining a new sponsor. The lower bar for entry can help introduce new relationships.
The eNASCAR races have proven to be a place where younger drivers can beat more established drivers and teams with more resources, potentially putting them more in the spotlight, said Kelly Wolf, vice president at the global sports marketing agency Octagon. Wolf is responsible for driver Jimmie Johnson’s out-of-car, non-team marketing.
“The top drivers are struggling, and that creates its own storyline,” Wolf said. “That makes it interesting for a viewer because you’re learning personalities they wouldn’t get to see week-in and week-out.”
Those emerging personalities could provide a unique platform for sponsorship deals, Wolf said. However, that value add is a little more difficult for an established driver like the seven-time Cup champion Johnson.
“For younger drivers, it allows them to have a future fanbase they wouldn’t necessarily have before,” she said. “It adds a humanistic element to people that in NASCAR you don’t normally get.”
Wolf said Johnson is seeing a side benefit to the eNASCAR circuit as well, as his YouTube viewership race-to-race has gone from 10,000 views the first week to 50,000 views the third week.
“That in and of itself will create more opportunities outside the car,” she said.
Breslau said there’s also a potential upside to the attention Larson brought to a larger issue within the gaming community.
“It’s something that the gaming community needs to look at and continue to take seriously,” he said. “So many of these stories in the gaming community are people who don’t think they’re on a hot mic, and that shows how they talk in real life. It’s definitely an issue and worth calling out.”
Despite the two negative situations the eNASCAR series has witnessed, Breslau believes the sport will come out the biggest winner in bridging the gap of real and virtual in sports because of the speed and quality of the production it rolled out.
Wolf agreed and believes it’s going to help the teams and their sponsorship partners.
“NASCAR was definitely, in the sports world, ahead of the curve,” she said. “They were pretty smart and edgy, and I don’t believe any following will be as realistic.”