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Old-school NASCAR owners find excitement in their esports teams

Level field and marketable drivers speak a language team owners understand

a black Ford Mustang leads the pack in a nighttime race in NASCAR Heat 4 Monster Games/704Games
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

One of NASCAR’s oldest sayings, “Win on Sunday, buy on Monday,” comes from a time in which the series actually raced stock automobiles. But with NASCAR’s new esports venture, Ed Martin sees its meaning kind of making a comeback, as far as what fans will be driving on their PlayStation 4, Windows PC, or Xbox One next week.

“A lot of the things that are invented in NASCAR have made their way down, especially in the safety area, to real consumer cars.” said Martin, formerly the president of NASCAR Heat maker 704Games and now its managing director for the eNASCAR Heat Pro League. “Well, it’s the same thing here. There is absolutely some stuff in NASCAR Heat 4 that is in there because it was driven by the Pro League.”

Two days before NASCAR Heat 4 launches on Sept. 13, the racing series’ official esports league will switch over to the new game and begin a four-event, 10-driver playoff to crown a champion. Fans can also get a preview from an exhibition race (via the Heat Pro League’s Twitch channel) the evening of Sept. 4. Martin said players should be looking for some broadcast enhancements and pit lane optimizations, particularly for multiplayer, to preview how the game has changed this year.

“Multiplayer is much more solid and exciting and robust because of the Pro League,” Martin said. The game on the whole has benefitted from sit-downs with real-life teams’ racing directors, going over data that will inform a more sophisticated tuning and setup system, which viewers may see as well.

The Heat Pro League’s first season, Martin says, was much more solid and exciting and robust thanks to drivers who ended up as marketable as real-life racers, and viewership numbers that he says reassures 704 and its racing team partners they have a worthwhile promotion on their hands.

“We’re thrilled with where this has gone,” Martin said, “not only the baseline numbers that we started from, but sort of the trends and progression of it, and NASCAR is thrilled as well. Between the actual viewership, the live races, and then the VOD over the two weeks in between races, we’re getting 90 to 100,000 views out of these races, which is fantastic. You’re talking numbers of like, the first season of NBA 2K League. So we’re absolutely thrilled with that.”

Those figures, and engagements trending upward (in terms of minutes viewed), validate the hopes Martin set forth in a conversation I had with him at the beginning of the year, as the Heat Pro League was recruiting and drafting drivers. And that’s esports as one of the best growth opportunities for NASCAR developing or maintaining a fan base, particularly among younger audiences or ones plugged into a spectrum of entertainment options more sophisticated than network television.

But the appeal of the eNASCAR Heat Pro League is the same as real-life motorsports, says Jonathan Marshall, executive director of Race Team Alliance (which represents all the teams in NASCAR’s multiple racing series). And that’s in the personality and accessibility of the drivers, even if they’re behind a high performance racing rig in their homes as opposed to a high-banked superspeedway.

“All teams are in the business of promoting their real [Monster Energy NASCAR] Cup Drivers, Xfinity [Series] drivers, the truck drivers,” Marshall said. “And the e-drivers, although not nearly as well known, they understand that ultimately that’s what fans are gravitating toward. So building out these personalities, and understanding that fans are going to engage with e-drivers that have personality, is not lost on any of these teams.”

Fourteen real-life racing teams drafted two drivers — one for PlayStation 4, one for Xbox One — back in March. Marshall says these performers have handlers assigned to them, same as drivers in the NASCAR Cup or Trucks series, to promote their doings and stoke fan interest. “Whether it’s The Bear [Josh Harbin, of Leavine Family Gaming], whether it’s Sloppy Joe [RCR Esports’ Joey Stone], whether it’s Slade [Gravitt of Wood Brothers Gaming], or Slick [Josh Shoemaker, of Stewart Haas Gaming], these names are becoming personalities, and these personalities are being developed.”

Of the four names Marshall ticked off, three are in the playoffs field, raising another important point about the eHeat Pro League. Money plays as big a role in NASCAR as it does in Formula 1 or any other big-time racing series, stratifying the teams into strivers and big spenders. Wood Brothers, despite being around since 1950 under hall-of-fame founder Leonard Wood, is one of those mid-pack teams. So is the Leavine Family, which started racing in 2011.

Neither are above the cut line for the NASCAR Cup’s 16-driver playoff (the Woods’ Paul Menard is 19th; the Leavines’ Matt DiBenedetto is 22nd). But in the Heat Pro League, they along with JTG Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing now have something to tout.

“I think the quote I gave you in January was, you can put an Xbox in a wind tunnel as much as you want, but it’s not going to go any faster,” Martin said.

Pro League events are effectively spec races, with every driver facing the same kind of aerodynamics, tire wear, fuel efficiency and engine performance as any other. As an example, Martin mentioned that Corey LaJoie, a Cup driver for Go Fas Racing, was in the studio on Aug. 21 watching the e-drivers go at it at Daytona. “We’re making our first set of pit stops, and they go in at lap 13 and he was like, ‘What is going on with your fuel strategy here?!’ Well, we do 4X tire wear and 4X fuel consumption. So he’s like ‘They can only race a quarter as long?’ I said, ‘Exactly right.’ He just thought that was the coolest thing.”

Marshall said the team owners he reports to really appreciate the balance throughout the Heat Pro League and the focus it places on finding a skilled driver and leaning into them, both as performers and personalities. “I watched Joe Falk, who owns Go Fas Racing, come down and watch his 32 [Matt Heale] come in first place [for the July 24 race at Indianapolis], and he was excited. We’ve had a really good time showing the team how these productions come together and really give them a sense of what the possibilities are.”

Martin painted a similar picture of driver-owner camaraderie, setting up how personal the broadcasts feel with Skype cameras on the drivers at all times.

“Slade, I always pick on him because he’s a 17-year-old kid from Georgia,” Martin said, “And there he’s got pictures of him and Jon Wood, his team’s owner, with arms around each other after he won the first race in Charlotte, These guys went from being nobodies with an interesting gamertag to, hey, I like that guy, and I want to follow him.”

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on sports and video games.

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