Before the start of the 2022 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, Richmond Raceway rebranded its eSports team to Rise eSports. The logo for the new team features a stylized “R” modeled after Richmond Raceway with the top of the letter evolving into a flame. That flame comes from the seal of Virginia State University, a historically Black college and university located just outside the city. The combination of elements from Richmond Raceway and VSU in the Rise eSports logo is illustrative of a unique partnership in eSports and NASCAR.
“As we were looking at the evolution, we thought it was just natural to marry the two groups that already had a relationship from the start,” Ray Smith, NASCAR’s Senior Manager of Gaming and eSports explains. For the past several years, NASCAR has hired an intern from the universities’ sports management program to help run the eSports team or work with NASCAR’s marketing team.
The task of rebranding Richmond Raceway eSports was undertaken by Kai Fleming, an undergraduate in VSU’s sports management program, and other students.
“With the flame (in the logo), that was sort of our tip of the cap to Virginia State. They were there from the start and when we partnered with them last year, they helped the whole rebranding. The rebranding was actually started by our intern from Virginia State last year and it was an integrated classroom project with a sports management class on campus at Virginia State,” Smith says.
Why the flame in the R?
— Rise eSports (@riseesports) January 19, 2022
Tracy Jackson, an assistant professor of sports management at VSU explains that the program has opened the door to the world of NASCAR for many of her students.
“We’ve had relationships with NASCAR in different ways over the course of several years. I think that what they’re doing by having this partnership is definitely impactful,” Jackson says.
“It’s allowing HBCUs, specifically Virginia State, an opportunity to really kind of see the industry in its totality. Not just the driving piece of it, but the management piece of it and the industry components to it.
“Learning anything new was great for students and even our faculty and our staff who may not be familiar with the industry or may have an idea of what it is because of its history. I think that this is great, we enjoy it. We’re happy to be a part of it and support everything that NASCAR is doing through their diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
NASCAR recently donated a racing simulator to the university which it has set up on campus. Jackson says that they are looking into adding more simulators and outfitting a dedicated eSports and sim racing room at the school. If all goes well, Jackson is hopeful that the program on campus and the partnership with NASCAR through Rise eSports will show students that there are opportunities for them in racing.
“I want this program to be a pipeline to the racing industry, whether it’s eSports racing, or it’s NASCAR stock car racing,” Jackson says. “I’d like for our students to see that racing is a thriving industry and it is a robust industry. There are plenty of opportunities for them to work in it.
“Kids want to work in football and basketball because that’s what they’re most familiar with. But this is a real industry that has life, and it really can give them lifetime opportunities and employment in different spaces. I want them to be able to see that and hope for this to become a pipeline into the industry.”
NASCAR is looking to strengthen its foothold on college campuses by expanding its presence in eSports. The National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE), a non-profit working to build a competition system amongst college eSports programs has over 170 member schools, each with its own eSports programs.
While most sports will target fraternity and sorority row on campus, NASCAR is targeting these eSports programs, Smith explained to RACER.
“Outlets and institutions are organizing around eSports and recruiting new students to campus through eSports programs. We’re using what we do on the eSports front on the NASCAR side and trying to get onto the college campus in that fashion,” Smith says.
While sim racing boomed in popularity during the pandemic, Smith is not concerned about a possible regression in the industry. Keeping the pace of growth that the industry saw during 2020 would be far-fetched and practically impossible; instead, NASCAR’s eSports and gaming division is taking the bump that 2020 gave it and returning to a normal trajectory of growth for the future – while being careful not set goals based on the outlier that was 2020.
More programs like Rise eSports and Virginia State University are not currently in the cards for NASCAR. Instead, NASCAR wants to focus on expanding Rise eSports and VSU’s eSports programs.
“We’re going at it with sort of a walk, crawl, run, pace,” Smith says. “We really want to stabilize what we’re doing at Virginia State. Last year, was sort of our beta test. We didn’t want to assume that it was going to work for Virginia State or assume that it was going to work for us. After year one, I think we both came to the table and said it worked and we’d like to do it in a more formalized way.”
Jackson explains that Virginia State University was also pleased with the program and is excited to continue its partnership with NASCAR in the future. “We’ve had a great relationship with them over the last several years and are excited about the partnership and how it’s going to grow.”
For the 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, Rise eSports will field Jimmy Mullis and 2019 Coca-Cola Series champion Zack Novak.