NASCAR Teams Toss Their Hat Into the Esports Ring

As we come off one of the most successful weekends for Esports and competitive gaming, with the E-League Boston CSGO Major drawing in an audience of 1.3 Million concurrent viewers and a huge upset of Cloud 9 beating out Faze to become the first North American team to win a Major, the Americans have decided that they aren’t done yet, and as such the Oval Racing sim racing community is in a buzz.

Image – Intel Free Press

In an article released today on sportsbusinessdaily.com Adam Stern (Which can be read here) we get the first announcement of a new iRacing series that is being pushed by the Race Team Alliance. For those who are unaware the RTA essentially acts as a union that looks to grow the sport of stock car racing and to advance the interests of the racing teams. The RTA consists of some of the most well known and successful teams in NASCAR with teams like Stewart Haas, RCR, Gibbs, Penske, Hendrick, Roush Fenway, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Richard Petty Motorsports just to name a few. These are some of the powerhouses in American Motorsports and if you turn into a NASCAR broadcast on any given race weekend a significant amount of the field are members.

One of the interesting things about this venture though will be its place in the market and its format. For years now the NASCAR Peak Antifreeze series has been the place where iRacing NASCAR drivers have come to do competition on an E-Sports plane. That has always been an iRacing World Championship and thus run and officiated by the developers itself, and it has always had the traditional “road to pro” and “maintain top X position or lose your license” format that all 3 of the iRacing World Championships consist of. There is a quote in Adams article that raises a lot of questions: “The effort, which is being put together by the Race Team Alliance, NASCAR and iRacing, will likely not be ready to launch by the season-opening Daytona 500 next month. But the plan is to debut the effort sometime in early 2018.”

Of the 3 parties said to be involved, the only one that doe not raise any questions is the RTA. iRacing and NASCAR both already have partnerships with Peak Antifreeze which means that there would surely be a conflict there of some sort. So what could this mean? did Adam get semi bad info and NASCAR/iRacing are not involved? Did he get good info and there will be a league running alongside NPAS? Or, perhaps most exciting of all, is Peak on board with this in some way and is this the iRacing NASCAR World championship for 2018? All of those are exciting/interesting in their own way, but until we get an official announcement (Which if they are wanting to launch in early 2018 will be coming soon) we have no way of knowing.

While there of course has been no official format announcement we have a little bit of info to go off of. A little bit of info comes from Adams article and, interestingly enough, we have a tweet/article that was posted by Parker Kligerman (His full post can be found here). It does not take much detective work upon reading both articles to realize that what was announced today is very much so a Copy/Paste of what Parker wrote about a few weeks ago.  It is currently unclear whether Parker is involved with this series and tweeted out that “concept” article as a way of testing the waters to see how the community would react or if that was posted and the RTA liked the idea and ran with it. Either way too much is currently shared in common for it to be a coincidence so we will base some things off of Parker’s article.

Let’s start with the things I personally like. First things first, its amazing to see someone from Parker’s position support growing the competitive sim racing market. One of the big problems we have had is a lack of support coming from outside the community. In addition his suggestion piece gives a business model that would not only naturally pump in funds, but also interest as well. It is a much better suggestion, and a much more well thought out system, then what you typically get from social media of “Just market it better and it will explode like other esports”.

With that said, I think there are some potential flaws in the system that need to be thought out:

I will start with the draft system. While I like the idea of drivers being supported by teams and having financial backing, which is something very few sim racers have been able to do, I am not a huge fan of the system in the long term. For a 1 year series its fine. The teams want the best racers, so it makes sense that they would want pick from the pool of Peak Antifreeze Series drivers. But how do you handle things on a year by year basis? How do you approach new drivers coming into the series? If in season one the franchise owners pick a driver to support and invest in will they be so happy to see those drivers leave the series the following year?

Granted if there is a failure to maintain license it means that a driver either did not perform or was MIA for a good chunk of the series as a whole. So will the team owners be okay with have a rotating door every year of new talent coming through? Overall it just feels like this system is trying a little bit too much like real racing. In real world Motorsports, given the financial requirements and the experience that is necessary to ever hope of getting a cup ride, the pool of potential new cup drivers is pretty small. With this you could be talking 20 new drivers year on year. There absolutely has to be a feeder series for new talent to come in. The number one selling point of sim racing is the fact that you can become one of the best purely on merit and not need to have the money and need to lean on politics of selling yourself. If drivers that are drafted somehow are guaranteed a spot that throws away one of the things that attracts people to Sim Racing as a form of competition.

Adding onto this how do you factor in the teams that drivers have run with for ages? This is something I was very much critical of the Las Vegas e-Race. The real teams were forced to come in based on how the competition was formatted, drivers were aligned with one of the real teams, the event happened, and there was no long term lasting connection between the teams and drivers.

f1 esports semi finalists lined up
F1 esports competitors were forbidden from showing simracing team apparel

These drivers have run with their teams and teammates, in some cases, for years. So when the draft happens are those relationships just carried away? In most the other traditional Esports there was a natural progression in growth where the teams were privately owned by the players and then turned into organizations as more as the scene grew and more financial opportunities came in. This would more or less wipe existing entities and relationships clean. We saw that happen in Vegas and we are seeing that happen in F1 Esports as well, where the drivers have to all wear the same thing and are not allowed to represent their existing teams and sponsors which have worked so hard to grow the scene over the past several years.

One of the suggestions outlined in Parker’s post I liked the least is the suggestion for fixed setups and I dislike this for two reasons. One is the way he words it which shows a general lack of understanding of how the sim works at the top level. “This setup will be developed by an unknown person or entity (to avoid hacking).”

The idea that building a better setup is analogous to hacking is completely ludicrous in my opinion. Hacking in the context of other Esports mean manipulating game files or inputs in your favor with the end result being able to look thru walls or having a bit of software correct your aim for you. That is not what iRacing setups do. In Esport terms an iRacing setup is analogous to a good strategy that allows you to take the A bombsite on Inferno in CSGO. Anyone familiar with other Esports knows that the bulk of practices for competitors is looking for an edge. How does this smoke make the counter terrorists react and potentially pull a rotator off a bombsite? How does this team comp allow us to execute a team fight? With fixed setups all you are doing is saying that the iRacing sim boils down to “Get in the car and go fast”.

There is so much more depth that goes into it. One of the best factors of the NPAS series is watching different teams who approach the sim in different ways and thus their cars come in at different points in the run. It is the defining factor of that championship that you don’t get as much in the other two World Championship level series. Being able to understand what is wrong with the car, and being able to tailor it to suit yourself is a part of NASCAR both in real life and in the sim. In addition you are completely throwing away the fact that every driver likes the car to drive a certain way. What is tight to you, may be perfect for me, and may be loose for someone else.

We all drive differently, and in a fixed setup environment, although the intended goal is “Everyone is in the same equipment therefore it is fair”, the honest truth is that those drivers who the setup suits will naturally have an advantage anyway. If this was a lower tier league, intended for people after they get off work, it would not really matter. But this is a major championship meant for the best drivers in the world. Especially with iRacings dynamic track model, as well as with Day to night transitions which we know is in the works, being able to adapt to the track is hugely important (and fixed setups means no pitroad adjustments). How many times do we see in the real world, during the races that fade from day light and run into the darkness, different cars come in and get fast as the sun goes down? With fixed setups we would never get to see that when that feature is eventually released.

Racing in NASCAR Heat 2 was suggested as a route for qualification into the iRacing series

In his initial article Parker also talks about using NASCAR Heat as a feeder series. Just…no. iRacing has all 3 of the pro level NASCAR series as well as a large amount of the short track ladder as well. If you want to run NASCAR Heat competitions and have the rewards be iRacing memberships and hardware that is fine, but that should not be how you get into the Xfinity series. Running a sim is way different to running a game like that. If you want to dip their toe in the water have the bottom rung be run on the short tracks, but even then they should not be guaranteed entry in one championship in one sim, based on their performance in another.

The last thing I saw that really stuck out to me was having real drivers run in the championship. I have mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, the Peak series was at its peak when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a competitor in that championship and Mitchell Dejong has brought a lot of legitimacy to the Global Rally Cross Series that the sim recently introduced. On the other there is a history of real world drivers seeing the sim as being just a way to relax and have fun. The iRacing pro invitational that happens routinely has a mixed bag of driving standards, and real drivers across the various other series only sometimes turn up.

Even in the Joe Gibbs Off Season Action Series that just finished its championship on the 28th we only saw Denny Hamlin turn up in the first 2 rounds (Though we saw several JGR development drivers all season such as Austin Green who had a chance at the championship as well as Ty Gibbs). I think the best possible solution would be to make it a semi competition between the real drivers who want to run a couple run offs. Ensure they have some pace and make sure they are up to the required driving standards in order to run. Even if they only run a couple races a season they could affect the outcome of the championship. It is one thing if a real driver turns up and, while having a good competitive showing, gets into a racing incident with someone. It is another if they turn up and simply look ill prepared and make some silly mistake because they are not used to the sim racing medium.

With all that said, even if they base the whole thing off of Parkers post in entirety I am still tremendously excited. This series has the opportunity to be amazing and it checks all the rights boxes for expanding sim racing as an Esport. It brings some badly needed financial backing to the sim, it brings some names that have been around and seen Motorsport evolve over time and been apart of forming that history. The last thing that I took away from Adams article is this: “The effort, which is being put together by the Race Team Alliance, NASCAR and iRacing, will likely not be ready to launch by the season-opening Daytona 500 next month. But the plan is to debut the effort sometime in early 2018.” So to Rob Kauffman and to everyone else at the RTA all I have to say is this. Don’t feel rushed trying to get this launched ASAP. The sim racing community has been waiting a long time for these things to come. Take your time, put together a solid system that benefits both the teams and the sim racers for the long term, learn from the mistakes of other ventures that have tried to do what you are trying to do, and bring a solid series to the table. If you can do that the community will welcome you with open arms. I just hope I get the opportunity to cover it.

 

 

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