In many ways, NASCAR feels like a good fit for esports. The views from the cockpit of a race car can be thrilling. It’s fast, and and mayhem can happen any time cars bunch up on the track.
While EA and 2K have been able to get esports for Madden and NBA 2K off the ground, NASCAR Heat publisher 704Games has had some trouble adapting stock car racing to competitive gaming. Part of the reason was technology — race courses a so much bigger than basketball courts and football fields, especially the road tracks at the 2.52-mile Sonoma Raceway.
This year, 704Games launched the first NASCAR esports series (the eNASCAR Pro Heat League) figuring out how to best show the action around the entire track, the field of racers (again, you have more competitors at once in Heat than you do in other sports games, even League of Legends/Dota 2 and a number of shooters), and the web of licences and permissions you need (unlike the likes of the NFL, NASCAR team owners are all independent from the governing body).
I recently spoke with Ed Martin, the manager of esports at 704Games. He’s been working on sports games for years, including NASCAR when it was under EA Sports umbrella. He walked me through the fascinating process of making NASCAR esports a reality, especially the importance of in-game cameras on the viewing experience.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
In the garage
GamesBeat: Why start a NASCAR esports league in 2019?
Ed Martin: For us, the technology wasn’t completely there. The industry within NASCAR hadn’t really coalesced on what the esports plan was going to be. 704 Games has been around for a while doing video games, and so we’re the mass market partner for NASCAR. There’s another partner out there, iRacing, that does high end simulations, online only, and they’ve kind of been doing esports. Trying to figure out how all that was going to work together required the industry to come together and say, this makes sense. 704 is the grassroots and mass market bringing everyone in, and then there’s this other entity here, so we can see how the flow works together and fits.
Quite frankly, although we’ve been around since 2015, building up the technology in our games to get to the point where we’re truly able to do esports took a while. It’s not as simple as saying, we’ve got a game that does 40-player multiplayer. There was a lot we needed to do to be able to do it at this level. It took us a year, year and a half, to get together once we decided to do it. And then something truly magical happened. The Race Team Alliance, which is a group of all the major race teams in the sport — there’s 13 members, every race team you can think of in the Cup series — brought in a new executive director whose name is Jonathan Marshall. Jonathan totally got it when it came to esports, from the day we met him and said, we should do something, bringing the teams into this. The teams should be owners. He became the champion across the teams to make this happen. I give him a huge amount of credit for making this happen. NASCAR thought this was a great idea, and 704 thought it was a great idea, but if you have to bring together more than a dozen of the biggest teams in the industry, and you don’t have that single torchbearer and champion of this thing, it’s going to take an awful long time. Jonathan became that for us. That’s how it all happened.
GamesBeat: That’s one of the things about NASCAR. You’re not dealing with one players’ association or a group of teams and owners under one umbrella, such as the NFL. You’re dealing with a bunch of different racing teams with different contracts?
Martin: Exactly. I used to work for EA Sports back in the day. I ran the NASCAR franchise down at the Tiburon studio in Florida, where they also had Madden football, which is obviously a huge-selling game. Madden had exactly three licenses in it. It had John Madden, the NFL, and Players Inc. They got everything they needed through those three licenses. At the same time, I was shipping a NASCAR game that had over 2,000 licensed and approved properties in it. 2000. In the NASCAR world, you go to a Charlotte Motor Speedway, and I can get the license to the track, but they don’t have the pass-through rights for every billboard at the track. NASCAR has never really had this before. It’s a very different beast. That sounds a lot worse than it really is. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years. You figure out how to get it done.
But you’re exactly right. Taking the Rick Hendricks of the world and the Roger Penskes and the Jack Roushes and the Tony Stewarts and the Gene Haases — how do you get them to all head in the same direction? They all have their own agendas and their own goals. As it relates to NASCAR, you have these billionaires that are bringing in money from other areas. They’re trying to build their race teams. It’s all about what goes on the pavement at the race track. You start talking about video games and, yeah, that’s cool, that’s a nice licensed property, I love the royalty checks from that, that’s interesting. No, no, no, it’s going to be legitimately part of the sport. It’s going to be competition. What? Yeah! You’re going to have players racing on PlayStations and Xboxes just like they race in the Cup series and the Xfinity series. It took someone like Jonathan to get all those guys in lockstep saying, this is fantastic. This is what the sport needs to do. This is the way the sport can finally attract youth and a new audience, which we’ve been striving to do. The television product is fantastic. The on-track product is fantastic that we do with the Cup series and the Xfinity series and the Gander series, but this is amazing. This is the future. Like I said, Jonathan became that champion. We all got together and said, yep, this makes all the sense in the world. But it’s a lot of individual people.
Start your engines
GamesBeat: What was harder? Working on the technology to get this to work, or working with all the people and the licenses?
Martin: Well, I’m not an engineer. I’m a businessman. [Laughs] You probably know how I’m going to answer it. I had to deal with getting all the logistics and operational stuff done. The technology to pull this off is way beyond anything we’ve ever done with a simple video game. We just ran our sixth race of the season last night. We run the production in the same studio at NASCAR Plaza that they produce the Cup, Xfinity, and Trucks series races. We’re in the same mission control center, except our cameras happen to be computers, where theirs are real cameras out at the race track. There are 17 people involved in the production when you include everyone in the room and the voice talent to put this thing together. It’s not as simple as saying, oh, let’s just run the video game and show the in-car view of the camera.
One of the biggest problems with all racing games, but certainly NASCAR in our case here, is the player view in a NASCAR game is not a view of the entire field of play. If you’re playing FIFA, you see the entire field of play. If you play Call of Duty, you can see the entire field of play. If you’re playing a NASCAR game or an F1 game or an IndyCar game, you see the cockpit, from one of, in the case of NASCAR, up to 40 cars that could be on the track. We had to build entirely new systems that allow us to broadcast the race in a non-player view. We want the player view, but there’s much more to it. The best analogy I can give you, if you’re Fox or NBC, and all you have at your disposal are 40 in-car cameras and that’s how they had to broadcast the entire race, nobody would watch the race. You need cameras on blimps, in the stands. You need roof cams. You need what they call the gopher cam, where the cars drive over it on the track. You need real cameras to show the full field of play. We had to build all that technology.
We had to build timing and scoring systems that were robust and couldn’t be cheated. We had to build graphics systems. We’re not using the broadcast graphics from Fox and NBC. It’s all stuff we had to build, and that has to be perfectly synchronized. We had to build race control systems. Right now the game controls when yellow flags come out and what happens. In the case of the NASCAR Heat Pro League, we control the yellow flags. We have race officials. I’m actually in charge of race control. We’re deciding when yellow flags are going to go down, when penalties are issued, all the rulings that come after it. I had four emails I had to send out to teams today on things that happened last night in racing and qualifying. We had to make decisions on that. None of that stuff existed a year ago. We had to build all of that. That was an awful lot of work. Getting the deal together, quite honestly, to talk out of the other side of my mouth here–once we got Jonathan on board and he was fully behind this and the RTA was behind it, 704 and NASCAR were already there. It really wasn’t that hard to put the deal together, because they were in favor of it. The business terms were pretty easy to hammer out. Everyone was willing to take the risk and put up the money to deliver it, and here we are today. So honestly the technology was probably a bit harder to make. Even though I didn’t have to do it.
GamesBeat: When it comes to the race, how many people are racing? Is it a full field? Is it smaller than what you’d see on the track?
Martin: In our case it’s 14 players on an Xbox race and then 14 players on a PS4 race. So there’s 14 on the track at the same time. But what we do is we bend the rules of NASCAR a little bit. We make the races a lot shorter. Our races are about half an hour in length, just a bit under. We manipulate the number of laps to make that work. We also can do things you would never do in the real world, like we increase the wear factor and the fuel consumption, the tire wear, by a factor of four. So your car is only going to run a quarter of the amount that it would in the real world. Now, what does that do? That creates some incredible pit strategy. It creates some incredible fuel consumption and tire wear strategy. It creates more pit stops and cooler passing. Because those pit stops are happening, we’re constantly keeping the cars in a much tighter pack. Our races never really spread out like some of the real-world races can do. This is like a swarm of bees on top of each other. In the case of last night’s race it was a 35-lap race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You only have 35 laps to win this thing. It’s very exciting.
GamesBeat: Sometimes in NASCAR, when things stretch out because of pit stops and slower cars and so on, the action can be lost. That doesn’t really happen here?
Martin: It really doesn’t. It’s like we took the most exciting parts of the race and put it in a trash compactor to make it a little tighter. Everyone likes the beginning of a race, because that’s exciting. Everybody likes the end of the race because of the intensity you get to the checkered flag. That’s how we’ve packaged this together. Let’s bring the intensity and ratchet it up and try a couple of different things. For example, we’re very–I’ve never figured out if we’re conservative or liberal. Maybe you can help me pick the right word. But we don’t throw caution flags in our league as often as they do in the real world. We’re much more frugal in how we do that. There’s a couple of reasons for that. One of those reasons is we already have built-in pit stops because of the 4X wear factor. But you want to let the race progress as much as you can and leave it in the drivers’ hands. In our game, there’s no fear of injury and no fear of death. I don’t want that to sound awful, but in the real world if there’s an accident, they have to stop the action and get the safety crews out to the cars to make sure the driver’s okay and get the debris off the track. In our game, nobody’s going to get hurt if there’s a wreck. The computer just cleans everything up and you go racing again. The driver is never going to get hurt. You’re able to do things much faster. Take a typical Cup race. The race last weekend. If there was a caution flag, from the time the caution flag comes out until all the cars pit and they’re able to do pace laps and throw the green flag again, you’re probably looking at about five minutes. In our race it’s 20 seconds. The drivers, once the caution comes out, decide what they want to do in the pits. Their cars magically go into the pits. What they chose to do is done. The cars are immediately set back out on the grid and the race is ready to go again. In fact, we actually have the opposite problem as the real world. The cautions were happening so quick in our races that we actually had to build in a delay because our voice talent didn’t have enough time between caution flag and green flag to describe what happened and show a replay of the accidents. That’s a great problem to have. All right, I need to give more time to the broadcasters. To us, that’s another one of those things we can manipulate. How long should that caution period be? In a race that’s only going to last 25 to 30 minutes you don’t want it to be very long. You don’t want it to be so short that you can’t talk about it and show what happened either. For the first couple of races it was kind of funny. We had these replays and we couldn’t show the damn replays, because the caution period wasn’t long enough.
GamesBeat: When it comes to wrecks and incidences where a wreck would normally hurt somebody and knock them out of the race, do you simulate that? This guy’s out of the race? Or do you just do that by having the car so damaged that they can’t come back?
Martin: They are able to repair damage to their cars at a level greater than what you could do in the real world. If a car sustained the same amount of damage in the real world, they would be out of the race in some cases. But we’re also not completely blind to the fact that–you can do enough damage that you would get knocked out. There was one guy who got knocked out of the race last night because the wreck was so big, there was no way he’d be able to continue. But what we do, again, because you have a compacted race, is we allow you to repair damage on your car, and it just impacts the amount of time you would have spent in the pits. You start further back in the field. The more damage you cause to your car, if you go in and fix it, the further back in the field you start, but you’re not going to be multiple laps down. If you take a Cup race and Kyle Busch gets a wreck and he spends three laps behind a pit wall fixing it, it’s going to take a long time to get back to the front of that field. If you have a three-hour race, you can do that sometimes. But in our case you have a 30-minute race and you don’t have enough time to do that. We just put you at the back of the lead lap and go right back to the action.
GamesBeat: Do you just use ovals, or do you go to Watkins Glen and Sonoma as well?
Martin: We do everything, including both of those tracks. One of the exhibition races was Sonoma, and I can say that the Watkins Glen race, that was four weeks ago now, was probably our most exciting race of the year. There was some incredible passing going on, beyond what you see in the real world. Watkins Glen is exciting now in the real world, but it was a fantastic race. Even Indianapolis last night, in the real world that sometimes gets stretched out and can be a little boring. It was an incredible race last night. Big pack racing, crazy moves at the end to try and win. Really exciting. Again, you only have a few laps to get it done. It packages up that intensity in a really cool way.
GamesBeat: Does the way you have to position the cameras to catch all the action — does that change when you’re doing a road race, as opposed to an oval?
Martin: It does. We have what we call observers. They’re our camera systems. We use six of them to put together the Pro League races. Each one of those cameras–I won’t go through the math, but each of those observers represents 154 camera locations, potential camera locations. But obviously we don’t go through, what is that, 900 cameras? We don’t really use 900 cameras. But we could. What’s neat about this, and this was a lot of fun when we got together the game people and the NASCAR people–when we got them together in the production studio, we had to learn a common language. They were used to physical cameras. Our cameras are effectively 250-mile-an-hour drones. We can follow a car and we can do a perfect orbit around that car. You see that in the race. When there’s damage done to a car, we get out there, and the car is traveling 150, 200 miles an hour. We’re going around it perfectly showing what happened to that car while it’s in the middle of the pack racing at that speed. We’re able to do really cool things. We can put cameras into the middle of the track that the cars can drive through. You could never do that in the real world, obviously. Someone would get killed, and so would the camera. Road races, we did do some really fun things with cameras at Watkins Glen. The bus stop is what comes to mind. We had some really cool camera angles over at the bus stop, because we knew there would be some cool passing and a lot of strategy as they come out of the bus stop, how you hop that last curb. We’re able to position things there. The final thing is, we’re not limited to where the cameras are at the beginning of the race, having that be where they have to be at the end of the race. That’s not true at all. Our cameras don’t exist in the physical world and we can move them anywhere we want on the fly. We’re constantly able to show new camera angles and things you couldn’t do in the real world. Even in our world, it progresses through the race. If something is going on that’s really exciting, like the Charlotte oval, we can dynamically move cameras around and reposition them throughout the races and focus in on where the action is.
GamesBeat: Do you just use courses that exist on the circuit, or do you use any historic courses as well?
Martin: For them 2019 season we’re only using real tracks. We’re actually only using real Cup tracks, although we do have Xfinity and Gander trucks series tracks in the real game. We are not using those in the league this year. We are planning on expanding next year and doing more with Xfinity and trucks. But this year it was enough to chew on to do the Cup tracks. We only have 12 races in the season. There’s 27 tracks in the series. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t get to everywhere we wanted to go.
GamesBeat: I assume you use Daytona? It would be weird not to.
Martin: Yeah, we did. Daytona is coming up. We’ll get the big one there. Those types of wrecks do happen. We’ve already run Talladega as well, and we had some of that action there. You can get the big one. We’re pretty realistic to how drafting work. We’re sort of hyper-realistic, a little bit, so it’s almost exaggerated, which brings the pack together even more. I will say this, though, about the Pro League drivers. These guys are really, really good. The moves that they make are absolutely amazing. Out of the 28 guys racing in the Pro League, every one of them could beat anybody that works in this company that actually develops the game. We spend thousands of hours in the game as we’re making it. These guys are that good. They truly are the best of the best. If you take these guys and put them at Daytona, they tend to be pretty clean. But it happens. Every once in a while, somebody makes a mistake and boom, the big one happens. The fun part is, 20 seconds later everything gets cleaned up and you’re racing again in our game.
GamesBeat: When it comes to the presentation of the competitors — because you’re not in a car. You don’t have helmets. You can see their faces, right?
Martin: Yes, yep.
GamesBeat: Do you take advantage of that at all, or do you mainly try to keep it on the action?
Martin: We do. A big thing, if you think of this series, we started off with nobody knows who these guys are. Suddenly there are these 28 people drafted and nobody knows who they are. It’s not like they came up through the series and suddenly you’re Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart, where people know those guys because they’ve been watching them their whole lives. These guys kind of came out of nowhere. Building those personalities was definitely a big deal to us. We did that through big production. We had the preseason, putting all kinds of vignettes together. As the season has progressed, we’re placing more and more webcams in the drivers’ homes, where they’re racing from. We’re constantly able to cut to them during the race. We’ll do a lot of picture in picture stuff. If you have some cool passing going on, you might see the action from the game in the big window, but then you’ll have two windows next to it showing those two guys sitting at home and what they look like when they’re passing each other. Or if there’s a wreck, these are the really fun ones. You cut to the guy sitting in his racing seat at home who was just involved in the wreck. He’s fine. He didn’t move. His car didn’t flip. But in the game it flipped over five times. He’s sitting there throwing his hands in the air like, oh my God, I can’t believe that happened. Great reaction shots. You hit the nail on the head. Because they’re not wearing helmets, we’re able to get the facial expressions. That builds the personalities of these guys. They truly become human, not just metal cars, or in our case virtual cars.
GamesBeat: Do the racers represent the teams in NASCAR, or are they their own thing?
Martin: No, they represent the NASCAR teams. But each race team involved came up with a slightly different gaming brand. So instead of Levine Family Racing, we have Levine Family Gaming. Instead of Stewart-Haas Racing we have Stewart-Haas Gaming. We have Team Penske Esports and Hendrick Motorsports Game Club. They did slightly different brands for their e-drivers. But the main brand of the big teams is always the highlight of each one of them. The team branding is on the car, on the banners, on their shirts, on their hats. It’s everywhere. All of the drivers in the league, obviously, have favorite teams and favorite drivers they follow in the real world. We had a few instances where drivers were drafted by teams other than their favorites. We had one guy whose gamertag included the word FedEx, obviously a Joe Gibbs Racing fan, and he ended up getting drafted by another team. He’s a great driver. Joe Gibbs Racing just didn’t have a high enough draft pick to get this guy, so someone else got him. He had to change his gamertag. [laughs] You can’t have FedEx Racing running for Stewart-Haas Racing. That just wouldn’t work. But I’ll tell you what, right now they’re very loyal to the teams they race for. They’re getting a paycheck from these guys to race for them. They’re as much a part of those teams as any of the Cup or Xfinity drivers out there. It’s fun to watch.
GamesBeat: Do you plan on doing exhibitions where these guys compete against racers from the circuit?
Martin: We do. And also racing against fans. We had to get the series off the ground and build it up, but as we progress toward our playoffs, which are going to begin in early September — not coincidentally, right around the same time NASCAR Heat 4 ships — we’re going to transition as we go into the playoffs from NASCAR Heat 3 to NASCAR Heat 4. We’re going to run exhibition races with the Pro League drivers and celebrities. We’re going to run exhibition races with some lucky fans out there that will get preview copies of NASCAR Heat 4. After we get out of the end of the season and the playoffs, we’ll do more of that with the Pro League drivers as we go into the holiday season. The focus will go from NASCAR Heat 3, what we’re running on right now, into the new game, NASCAR Heat 4. That’s where the exhibition races start to kick in.
GamesBeat: Do you have a playoff that’s similar to the Chase for the Championship?
Martin: We do, but again, everything in our world is a bit compressed. Our playoff is four races. The way it’s going to work, right now we have 14 teams all competing on each platform. We don’t do individual driver points. There’s only team points. At the end of the race, the points for the PS4 driver and the Xbox driver are combined, and that becomes the team points. That’s what we track. We have 14 teams and when we go into the playoff, four of those teams will be eliminated from playoff contention. Only 10 teams are going into our playoff as eligible to win the playoff. The way you do that is you either win on a given week in the 12-race regular season, or you have the highest points. We’re truly “win and you’re in.” If you win on a race weekend in our league, you’re guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. Then we fill it up with people through total points. You go into the first playoff race, there are 10 teams eligible. After that first race we take off the bottom two and you’re down to eight. After the second we take off two and you’re down to six. After the third we take off two and you’re down to four. When we go into that last race, which will be in late October, there will be four teams eligible for the championship, just like there is in the real Cup series. Instead of doing it over 10 weeks we do it over four.