Three years ago, NASCAR was on life support as a video game. Today, it’s the next esports league, and that may be its future as a spectator sport.
Qualifying for the eNASCAR Heat Pro League, running on NASCAR Heat 3 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, has been going on for a month and will continue another two weeks, and will ultimately see up to 32 racing fans placed with real-life driving teams for an inaugural season beginning later this year.
That’s a huge step for a major North American sport once cast away by the big shots of video game publishing, then taken on, almost as a labor of love, by a small group of industry veterans. And it may be the best hope for growth in a sport that annually tries things to spur viewer interest.
“It’s certainly not lost on us that there are fewer people in the grandstands, and there are less people watching the [Monster Energy NASCAR] Cup racing on TV,” said Ed Martin, 704 Games’ president. Something like 700,000 fewer people tuned into a televised race in 2018 compared to the previous year, with most of that attributed to the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“But I don’t think that an average of 700,000 people each week decided they hated NASCAR,” Martin continued. “I think they’re looking at it and saying, ‘You know what, what I’m seeing on TV just isn’t drawing me in.’”
NASCAR introduced a playoff format about 15 years ago, three-stage racing (effectively three races for championship series points, inside of one event) in 2017, and this past year brought “rovals” (road tracks laid out at traditional oval venues) to the series, all to increase the sport’s telegenic appeal. Still, NASCAR’s promoters battle the idea that it’s just cars turning left four times for 500 miles — and, within that, half the field has no shot because of the money needed to build and race a truly competitive car.
Martin thinks that the eNASCAR Heat Pro League affirmatively addresses all these drags on the sport’s popularity in real life. Mainly, that it will stage shorter and more suspenseful events that are still attached to real-world race teams. Also, the virtual environment levels the competition considerably.
“There’s no way to spend your way to a championship in our league,” Martin said. “If you’re [team owner] Roger Penske, you can throw millions of dollars at wind tunnel testing, or if you’re Joe Gibbs Racing, you can throw millions of dollars at inventing new air wrenches. [...] You can’t do that in our world. The cars are the cars. You can’t cheat on the [aerodynamics]; you can only manipulate it to the limit of what we put in the game.”
The virtual environment 704 Games will manage in its 16-race schedule also allows for variables that NASCAR itself couldn’t goose in real life just to make things more interesting. ”The races are going to be very consumable,” Martin said. “We can also turn up all the dials in our games. We can turn up the wear factor, we can turn up the damage factor, the fuel consumption. You’re gonna have to pit more.
“I guess NASCAR could go to Goodyear and say, ‘Hey, make tires that wear out every 20 laps’ — but that’s easy for us to do, right?” Martin said with a laugh. And he’s right. “We’re able to create a different type of racing within this sport,” he added.
Qualifying is underway until Jan. 15, and is an all-comers audition. Players, either on PS4 or Xbox One, may register their accounts with 704 Games and then simply drive as often as they can in-game — there’s a test course designated each day. Real-life teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports are involved; as many as 16 teams will be competing once 704 Games’ organizers set the schedule.
Each real-life team will hire two drivers, one for Xbox One and one for PS4. The open-ended qualifying format is meant to give participating teams a large spread of data for the upcoming draft. But theoretically, any fan has a shot.
“Our first meeting was to go out and meet with Rob Kauffman and Jonathan Marshall, who are the two guys who run the Race Team Alliance for NASCAR,” which is basically the collective authority for all the race teams in stock car racing. “And we said, ‘Guys, this is what we want to do.’ And they looked across the table, like 10 seconds after we started talking, and said, ‘Thank God you’re here, because we’ve been thinking exactly the same thing.’”
Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.