Driving Home The Message that We’re All in This Together, Iracing Flips The Script on TV Sports
As eSports success stories go, it’s a massive one. A month and a half ago, as COVID-19 began to take root around the globe, the 2020 auto-racing season screeched to a halt. In the time it took to complete a lap at the Daytona 500, virtual iRacing roared up to fill the void. An initial, early-March F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix attracted 350,000 viewers on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook. That quickly got the attention of television executives looking to fill sports programming holes in a locked-down world.
The inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in mid-March drew 910,000 viewers on Fox Sports 1, a number that jumped to 1.3 million a week later for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series’ O’Reilly Auto Parts 125.
Once upon a time, iRacing existed on the margins of the mainstream sports menu in America. On April 18, iRacing was front and centre on NBC (Saturday Night Thunder from a virtual Richmond Raceway), and eNascar continues to do huge numbers on Fox.
For iRacing—a subscription-based online simulation of the real thing rolled out in 2008 by Massachusetts company iRacing.com—all the attention marks a change in the way business has traditionally been done.
Kevin Bobbitt, iRacing’s director of marketing, notes that the company had pre-pandemic relationships with television, including broadcasts of a handful of races on NBC last fall. The company has also worked with Fox to supplement its traditional NASCAR coverage. (“They weren’t necessarily showing our races, but they were using some of our digital assets.”)
But instead of having to reach out to the networks for coverage during COVID-19, iRacing has flipped the script.
“Normally, they’ve got a million things they are trying to fit onto their channels,” Bobbitt says in a phone interview with eCentral Sports. “It’s definitely turned the other way, to where they are reaching out and going, ‘Hey, what can you provide us with to put on TV?’ But I didn’t anticipate we’d do this much—it’s crazy how many races we’ve been putting out. But it’s been fun. I’ve been a sales and marketing guy for most of my career, and now I feel like I’m a TV producer too. I’m learning it on the fly, working with the NBC and Fox producers.”
In Bobbitt’s view, pro racing drivers have easily shifted to the digital version because the skills required are completely translatable.
“It’s physically the same—steering, braking, throttle, car control,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the FIFA games, but the skill set you have with your hands has nothing to do with playing soccer. You could be the best football, basketball, or soccer player in the world, but you have to learn a completely new skill set for gaming.
“With iRacing,” he continues, “the pro drivers were already using it for fun and for practice to get better, stay sharp, and learn new tracks while having fun online and staying competitive. The ones that weren’t, all they had to do was sit down, do a little practice, and they realized, ‘Hey, this is pretty much the same thing.’ ”Still, there’s a learning curve when it comes to simulated racing.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen, in particular, the NASCAR races that have been on Fox this year,” Bobbitt says. “The guys who’ve been on the sim for a while really excelled. Now, four weeks into this, we’re watching guys like Jimmie Johnson, who was new to it, show why he’s obviously a very talented race car driver with seven championships. He’s adapted very well, to where he’s totally up to speed and competitive.”
It’s a major bonus that, in simulated crashes, no one gets hurt. But a large part of the appeal of the virtual races on TV is that they drive home one of the mantras of the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’re all in this together.”
“The heroes you would normally watch on Saturdays and Sundays are stuck at home, just like the rest of us,” Bobbitt says, “but they get in their iRigs and off they go.”
Just as important is the accessibility of the drivers during iRacing on TV.
“Our broadcasts include what you’d normally call an in-car camera, except that it’s an in-living-room camera,” Bobbitt notes. “So you can see Jimmie Johnson talking if there’s a caution. And you can see his daughter running around in the background. That makes the drivers seem like regular people, which they are—regular people who happen to have a very interesting job. To see them in their home or in their shop is one of the big appeals for fans who follow these guys.”
And just as appealing is the thought that, while you’d be lost on a track on the pro circuit, you could conceivably compete against one of your idols in iRacing.
How much you choose to spend to join the regular online action is entirely up to you. Those on a budget need only a PC and a basic wheel-and-pedal set that starts around $200. If you’re one of those who like to live large with a Samsung CRG9 ultra-wide gaming monitor, Heusinkveld Sprint pedals, and a WRC racing seat, well, start looking for sponsors.
“It’s very similar to real-world racing in that you can spend as much as you want to spend,” Bobbitt says with a laugh. “Some of the fancy rigs you’ll see on the broadcasts are probably running upwards of a $100,000—the big, full-motion rigs. But that doesn’t necessarily make you more competitive or make you faster. Timmy Hill, who’s a NASCAR driver, won one of our races. He was in an iRacing race where everyone had top-team equipment, and he won with a wheel he bought 10 years ago that was clamped to his computer desk. Really expensive rigs add to the immersion, but they don’t change how you drive.”