NASCAR is hard at work preparing the debut of its new esports league, the eNASCAR Heat Pro League (eNASCAR). eNASCAR, a partnership between NASCAR and 704Games, will utilize 704’s simulation-style NASCAR Heat 3 game and is set to debut this spring. eNASCAR will feature 16 teams, including standout NASCAR teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing. Each will draft two virtual drivers to compete on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles in a 16-race series.
NASCAR’s decision to launch a league should come as no surprise given how the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLS’ have moved into esports. The NBA’s preparing for the second season of the NBA 2K League, which brought in over 152 million viewers throughout its debut season. The Madden NFL Championship Series, eMLS (part of the FIFA eWorld Cup), and the NHL Gaming World Championship have experienced initial success to varying degrees. Major League Baseball is the only major professional sports league in the United States that has yet to venture into esports, but it has also shown an interest in entering the professional video game industry.
Esports as an untapped market
The esports industry has grown at a rapid pace, with research firm Newzoo projecting global revenue in excess of $1 billion in 2019. With this financial success, professional sports leagues view esports as an untapped market and a way to connect with and market their product to a brand-new generation of fans. For NASCAR, esports could be the future of racing as a spectator sport. In recent years, NASCAR’s viewership numbers and attendance at live events have declined due to competition from rival leagues like Formula E, as well as the retirement of popular and recognizable drivers such like Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR likely sees esports as a way to unlock the younger generation and reengage with lapsed fans.
These virtual races will be less expensive to host yet could pay enormous dividends. Unlike live events, which require the coordination of racing teams, track personnel, concessionaires, TV crews, and dozens of other employees, eNASCAR’s virtual races will require a gaming console and can be livestreamed into homes throughout the world. Accessibility is a major selling point of all esports properties — leagues like eNASCAR and the NBA2KL enable players of all ages and backgrounds to compete for roster spots without being deterred by physical limitations that might limit them in traditional sports. Also, it removes the risk of injury from traditional sports, or in NASCAR’s case, the risk of destructive and sometimes fatal car crashes. It’s more accessible to fans as well, with Twitch being significantly cheaper than your average arena or speedway ticket. eNASCAR also offers the advantages of volume buttons and a smaller environmental footprint.
Sports leagues have also been eager to launch esports ventures as a way to tap into international audiences and secure partnerships with sponsors that can help cross-promote their products to fans of pro gaming’s biggest followings, such as Riot’s North American League of Legends Championship Series and Blizzard’s Overwatch League. And traditional sports leagues don’t need to build their esports ventures from scratch, as they already have existing fans who understand the rules and may be interested in competitive gaming.
Lessons to learn from NBA 2K
One of the biggest obstacles facing esports leagues based on traditional sports is enticing fans to watch the virtual version of a sport when they can instead watch the real product. The NBA2KL addressed this challenge by having its players compete by using their own avatars rather than virtual versions of real NBA stars. eNASCAR can draw new fans by using its virtual platform to modify race conditions and introduce variables to stage shorter, more suspenseful races than the 500-mile NASCAR grind. It could stage races with that put more wear on cars, feature more damage, or send cars flying around at speeds that real racers can’t handle. eNASCAR could also level the playing field by preventing team owners from spending their way to championships, since all virtual cars could have the same performance capabilities.
eNASCAR races will be live streamed on NASCAR.com, Motorsport.com, and Twitch, the premiere streaming service for esports. The NBA2KL has used its partnership with Twitch to engage esports enthusiasts who would not typically be interested in the NBA. eNASCAR’s partnership with Twitch should similarly help engage new racing fans who might switch over to the broadcast after watching one of the more popular esports.
eNASCAR may also attempt to engage new fans with live betting on their races once the appropriate regulatory frameworks are put in place. With the U.S. Supreme Court lifting the federal ban on sports betting last year, it is only a matter of time before live esports betting will be common. Though there are some integrity issues and legal hurdles to overcome before esports betting can work, eNASCAR and other affiliated esports leagues would likely be able to use gambling to engage new fans.
Importantly, eNASCAR should strive for a diverse player pool and a tolerant work environment throughout the league. Though unintentional, the NBA 2KL did not employ any women as players in its debut season and has addressed the lack of diversity as a concern moving forward. eNASCAR will only be drafting 32 drivers in its first season, and should at least ensure that each player and coach employment contract contains a no-tolerance harassment policy allowing the league or team to immediately terminate employees for any violation. eNASCAR can also strengthen player morale and legitimize the league by paying its drivers a competitive base salary, with the opportunity for performance bonuses.
NASCAR’s first foray into esports is likely to be successful and attract a new generation of fans, especially if eNASCAR follows the precedent set by other major professional sports leagues that have recently embarked on similar ventures. It will be fun to watch (and play)!
Aaron Swerdlow, a partner with Los Angeles, CA-based Weinberg Gonser LLP, serves as outside general counsel and transactional counsel for emerging technology and start-up companies across the United States.