The numbers can’t be ignored. NASCAR, FOX Sports 1, and iRacing combined to generate a 0.53 Nielsen rating on Sunday, which equated to 903,000 viewers, by choosing to air stock car racing’s first live Esports event on cable television this year.
Even better, 297,000 of those who tuned in for the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series skewed towards a younger demographic, with the coveted 18-49 range making up nearly one-third of the viewers. That’s roughly the size of the crowd that packs into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500 each May, which is hailed as the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
One analyst reckons the broadcast was the most watched Esports event of all-time across North American airwaves, and that alone should have IndyCar, IMSA, Formula 1, and every other major series clamoring to have their upcoming Esports races featured on TV.
IMSA held its Sebring SuperSaturday iRacing event last weekend across its YouTube and Twitch channels, which combined to draw an average of 10,000 viewers or so through live streaming, and IndyCar is set to use the same online delivery outlets for its upcoming race on Saturday. Even with a significant spike over IMSA’s streaming numbers, IndyCar’s audience size will pale in comparison to NASCAR’s wildly successful e-visit to FS1.
The TV component has become a must-have item, and with most sports networks struggling to produce new content, the NBC/NBCSNs and ABC/ESPNs should have the ability to clear the decks and accommodate their various racing series.
And before we hammer IMSA and IndyCar for aiming low and offering nothing other than YouTube and Twitch, there are a few nuances to consider here.
Every racing series has prioritized finding new and younger fans, and venturing into gaming has been among the core strategies employed by most sanctioning bodies. We also know that, in normal times, the youthful audience they seek isn’t sitting at home on the couch with grandma and grandpa each weekend consuming hours of cable TV, which makes an all-streaming strategy the right path to follow.
But life in a coronavirus world is far from normal, and by sticking to the let’s-get-younger-by-streaming-with-Esports playbook, a massive amount of older fans get orphaned in the process. It makes the dual delivery methods chosen by NASCAR and FS1, with cable and streaming options presented to fans of every age, especially smart.
NASCAR knows its diehard fans are well aware of when to hit the couch and fire up the TV, and by honoring that tradition with the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series served up on FS1, some sense of normalcy was maintained. Beyond recognizing what its fans wanted – racing in whatever form – the series and its TV partner also ensured their preferred viewing solution was preserved.
With everything else in our lives seeming to change on an hourly basis, giving folks an eNASCAR race, on the day and time the series’ fans carve out to watch from their living room, was a welcome respite from an uncomfortable reality.
Their efforts to preserve TV time for stock car racing fans, even with a virtual race, is worth noting and copying by NASCAR’s rivals.
As series and their teams search for ways to give sponsors value while the pause button has been pressed on live racing events, the 903,000/293,000 numbers from FS1 are guaranteed to spur action from the IndyCars and IMSAs.
Some digital artists who develop liveries for various teams have reported an increase in business since last weekend as everyone from professional drivers to auto manufacturers have commissioned iRacing liveries that replicate their real cars.
As Esports just starts to fills the void left by live races, it’s too soon to measure the marketing and exposure value for those sponsors and manufacturers in virtual competitions, but we can see where things are headed. Look for more perfect iRacing liveries of your favorite cars as the big brands chase TV and streaming numbers to replace what’s being lost with postponements and cancellations. Based on the success of the first eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series broadcast, the rest of the immediate calendar has been confirmed on the big FOX network and FS1, which should lead to a skyrocketing bump in ratings. Now the clock’s ticking for the other networks to do the same with their racing series.
And if we’re lucky, this sudden and heavy shift towards Esports will out-last the coronavirus.
“There’s the potential for something big here, that can last,” said IndyCar driver Conor Daly, whose passion for all forms of Esports is well-known. “I was watching the eNASCAR race on FOX, but I was also watching one of the driver’s Twitch feed because it was more of a personalized thing. The TV option was great, and they clearly advertised it enough, and the drivers tweeted it out, and people knew to tune in. And it worked.
“Esports have been around for a while, but because we’re in such an interesting place in the world where everyone’s craving content, the value of Esports content is being recognized. I think that if it can draw that kind of audience, people need to think about making it a bigger part of what they do in the future.”
Daly hopes more racing series follow NASCAR’s approach to presenting Esports, and has a message for older fans who might be averse to joining the streaming side of the events.
“[McLaren F1 driver] Lando Norris yesterday had more Twitch followers than the biggest Twitch stars, and that’s for everything, not only racing,” he said. “Clearly, the motorsports fans will tune in through streaming, but you’re not going to see six-figure numbers. You’d be happy with 30,000 viewers, maybe 45,000 viewers, online. That’s why having our Esports races on TV matters.
“I’ve been watching Esports for years; watched a Call of Duty event today, and I’m telling you, it’s a better experience if you’re doing the dual-screen thing. If you have a Facebook account and figured that out, you can create a Twitch account. You can communicate directly with the drivers, and even donate to their cause if you want through Twitch. I feel like this could be big if all the racing series approach Esports the right way.”