By Nathan Tucker
With COVID-19 effectively shutting the sports world down, fans around the globe have been searching for ways to pass the time without the copious amounts of live programming sports offer. You never realize how many live sports are on until they are not anymore.
Some have taken the time to step away from sports, maybe taking the time in quarantine to catch up on books, movies, or maybe binging a Netflix show. “Tiger King” just came out after all, and who could miss the story of Joe Exotic?
Those efforts in “culture” can only last for so long for the truly sports-obsessed. Competition must fill the void, and when actual, physical sports are not possible, esports have stepped in.
Many have flocked to esports, to scratch that competitive itch.
Sports gamblers, an ever-growing population in the U.S., have turned their attention to the biggest competitive esports that they largely have no clue about. Daily fantasy sports sites like DraftKings and FanDuel are now taking more bets on competitive League of Legends and Counter Strike: Global Offensive than ever before.
For those who might not be familiar with esports, it might be shocking to know that the most popular and highest paying esports are not representations of actual sports. The highest levels of esports are team-based shooting games, like Counter Strike or Overwatch, or “battle arena” games like DOTA or League of Legends.
Sports esports exist, but within a smaller sphere within the greater esports world. Recently, racing fans have been introduced to esports through eNASCAR’s Pro Invitational Series. The Pro Invitational Series takes real NASCAR drivers off the track and into the IRacing sim from the quarantined comforts of their own homes.
What IRacing and NASCAR are doing with the Pro Invitational Series is unparalleled in the esports world, and the physical sports world for that matter. With real NASCAR drivers, highlighted by the return to Sunday racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr., real tracks that are meticulously recreated in the IRacing sim, it is as close to the real thing as possible.
Many drivers have elaborate, car-like rigs set up in their offices to properly simulate the banking, speed and bumping just like they would on a normal track. NASCAR star Denny Hamlin’s stock car rig reportedly cost him “upwards of tens of thousands”, and Jimmie Johnson was using a simulation rig he had made to train him for open-wheel racing like Formula One or IndyCar.
“I thought I knew what I was doing,” said Jimmie Johnson, arguably NASCAR’s best competitor over the past two decades. “And then I realized I actually had no clue. Especially when you actually have to log into the game to race and compete.”
Lazy Sunday afternoons on the couch in my childhood were hallmarked by my dad watching NASCAR races, and spending last Sunday watching IRacing NASCAR on Fox Sports was as close to that as I could imagine a simulation being. Without my dad yelling about Jimmie Johnson winning everything again, at least.
Real, live commentary from Fox’s NASCAR crew, camera angles that represent the real deal, and even “Crank It Up!”, where the commentary goes silent and sound effects of the race are isolated for a few laps to get the true sounds of racing complete the presentation.
A world in quarantine provides an interesting moment for esports. Many believe that this is their time to shine, with virtual entertainment filling the physical entertainment gap. IRacing NASCAR showed the path towards esports legitimacy on television, and it’s about legitimacy in all areas.
Racing fans and the curious alike have taken note. According to the network, IRacing on Fox Sports 1 has drawn the network’s highest ratings since the sports world slammed to a halt. The first IRacing event drew over 900,000 viewers to Fox Sports 1, the most watched esports event in U.S. history.
If esports aim to entertain a common sports fan in this forcibly indoor world, legitimacy and name recognition is key. No sports fan really cares about esports played by random esports guys. Sorry, “FaZe Clan.” What makes the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series so interesting is that it is so close to real, with the novelty of the simulation.
Unfortunately, it is not entirely possible to accurately simulate all sports from inside living rooms and home offices across the world, so while other sports could attempt a similar concept, you would not be able to truly simulate the sport the way IRacing offers for NASCAR.
While it may be interesting for some to have, say, pro hockey players play NHL 20 games against each other, that does not provide a “sports substitute” the way IRacing does.
I think there will be a day where simulated sports are just as interesting and in-depth as the real deal. IRacing has proven that it is probably the first to reach that plateau, but it will not be alone for long. Once team sports can be properly simulated, the world will watch.