Hello and happy Tuesday! Or with this being part two should it be Twosday? In all honesty it likely does not matter because all most people are thinking about is the slew of new content that has been released on iRacing this morning. And to be honest, same fam.
In part 1 we explored iRacing pricing model and the difficulties it faces from an economics perspective, and its unique position between traditional racing and that new fangled esports all the kids are watching these days, and the disconnect between those 2 entities.
Here in part 2 I want to analyze that position a little more.
The left lane: Real Racing
Its no secret that from the start iRacing was intended for two primary markets: as a training tool for real drivers and for the hardcore sim racer. And over the course of the past 10 or so years iRacing has done a good job in that position with those markets.
Real racing teams have flocked to the sim for its amazing ability as a training tool and it is no coincidence that real drivers use the sim for that purpose. From Le Mans winners Frank Biela and Nikki Thiim, to NASCAR stars like Aj Allmendinger and Dale Earnhardt Jr, to the Rally Cross talent of Mitchell DeJong, and the american Dirt tack stars of Christopher Bell and Rico Abreu. The real racing drivers have found a home on the iRacing simulator.
In addition the sim has slowly made a transition to starting to become a somewhat legitimate way for sim racers to have an opportunity in a real car. Due to his success on the iRacing sim through the Virtual 2 Reality project Alex Bergeron was able to run in a real winged 305 Sprint Car. We have seen the Mazda road to 24 project give iRacers, notably Glenn Mcgee, a chance to compete in an MX5. and JR Motorsports has plucked several drivers out of the iRacing service and plopped them into late models and shown decent success.
That said there still exist some hangups in the real racing market. There was an enormous debate on Twitter about a month back after the great Scott Speed showdown of 2018 where Jeff Gluck made some comments referencing a dead spin article where he called it “Not real racing”. And while I am not going to tear Jeff apart here a month later, there are many people in the real world who share the same sceptical attitude of Gluck of whether or not people can hop from the sim into real cars and compete. And the short and sweet answer is emphatically yes.
Excluding racing, technology and simulators have become popular and mandatory training tools in many professions. Pilots are required to have a certain amount of flight hours before they can ever fly an airliner. NASA has used simulators for decades to train astronauts. It really should not be such a stretch to imagine people developing their talents in the virtual world and having it translate over to the real world.
Will it always work? Of course not, but people struggle to transition even between real teams as well. Josh Wise, of Dogecoin sponsorship fame, was an incredibly successful dirt driver. He won 3 USAC championships (3/4 midgets in 1999, the 2005 National Midget championships, and the 2006 Sprint Car championship) and notably won both the Belleville Nationals and the 360 Sprint Car Non Winged nationals. In NASCAR however Josh was only able to scrounge up 9 top tens in 306 races run across the Cup Series, Xfinity, and the Truck series. That doesn’t mean Josh is a bad racer or reduce the legitimacy of his success on dirt(Including at my home track Barona Speedway), it just means that for whatever reason the skills for him did not really translate. And if anything that is the norm in the modern age of racing.
However, because that translation doesn’t always work does it mean dirt guys should stop getting drives in asphalt cars? Of course not. And the same should go for sim racing. Just because not everyone will carry over the skills does not mean that someone won’t and for that reason I think the trend will continue where sim drivers continue to gain opportunities to potentially run in real cars.
With all that said, as good as iRacing has gotten at mirroring some of the things that happen in real racing, there has been a real failure at really connecting with real motorsports fans, both in viewership as well as membership gains.
The viewership one is a really complex issue, so much so it will be explored in a couple parts of this series, and in that 2nd part it will be explored much more in depth. And in all honesty I think the membership issue likely ties in with Mondays article. Real racing fans tend to be a slightly older group as a whole and I am sure many of them aren’t gamers at all, and between the price of a PC and an iRacing membership it is likely a big ask for someone to go from having none of that equipment to being a full fledged iRacer, especially for someone who isn’t as cemented in the gaming market.
However, that ties into the 2nd route:
The right lane: Esports
While iRacing has been successful at capturing and managing relationships with real world racing, they have not had the same success at getting involved with the traditional esports market.
The biggest partnership came and went early in this decade when iRacing had some sponsorship with Intel and was featured at a couple of IEM (Intel Extreme Masters) events. However that was nearly 7 years ago, and the honest to god truth is that at that point the sim was trying to run before it could walk, and because of that the relationship sputtered out. Back then the sim looked a lot worse, the broadcasting standards were much lower, and the content on the sim really wasn’t quite there yet. That said there has been a ton of work into the sim in those last 7 or so years, and potential in my opinion is there.
However there was a nearly 5 year gap between that IEM and when iRacing started approaching the esports angle again. The first sign that iRacing wanted to start pushing esports again came in August 2016 ad title “iRacing: The Original Esport Racing Game” and they have pushed that theme since then.
While I like that iRacing is trying to push esports again they have the complete wrong approach for building it.
This is somewhat getting ahead of myself because this is a marketing heavy topic, but you dont build your product by simply putting “esport” in the tagline of your ads. That’s not how the Valve titles of Counter Strike Global Offensive or DOTA 2 were built. That’s not how Riot built League of Legends.
Putting esports in the tagline is simply redundant. It is a game/sim, of course it is an esport. But you do not build your brand simply by plugging “esport” into all your ads. Why? Because it gives the viewers absolutely no context ABOUT your competitions. All it tells them is that you think they’re esports.
A much better angle would be to have a collection of some of the highlights of top level sim racing.
There were amazing moments in iRacing in 2017. Martin going 12 for 12 in WCGPS, Ryan Luza coming in as a rookie to win the NASCAR Peak Antifreeze series championship, the dominance of Core Simracing in the Blancpain GT World Championship. But even outside of the world championships there’s still the flurry of iRacing special events and special series. Officially sanctioned World of Outlaw broadcasts had some amazing moments. The Endurance Special Events are full of highlights. And of course the one offs such as the iRacing Indianapolis 500 which in 2017 featured Christopher Demeritt making a last corner pass to take the race win and the race lead shuffling 4 times on the final 2 laps (And changing 2 times from the entry of turn 3 to the yard of bricks).
We know that iRacing both knows about and cares about these moments. We have seen recaps from some of the world championships, and the final moments of that Indy 500 were featured in the new Dallara IR18 advert. So why do not feature this content in their adverts?
What builds an esport are special moments. Its watching competitors duke it out for the win. That is what people love to see. The idea should not be to build the special events because they are on the best sim. The idea should be to use the special events to show off the sim without really talking about the sim at all. To quote Futurama (S3 E20, Godfellas) “When you do things right, people wont be sure you’ve done anything at all”.
Now before I go down the marketing rabbit hole too far (Again, entire article coming dedicated to just that) there are a couple other problems iRacing has here.
The first thing is that, the prime market for esports is essentially millennials, essentially people aged like 14-roughly 30. Real world racing is suffering in this demographic, and this creates a two pronged issue.
The first is trying to make sim racing too much like real life. We have seen very few traditional esport orgs hop into racing esports thus far. The organizations that have jumped in have mostly been real racing teams. So the problem you create yourself is trying to push a product that is too much like real racing to a demographic that does not like real racing.
It is quite possible that a shakeup of some sort may be required in the format. One of the reasons people like to chalk this up to is “Oh well esport people don’t like racing because it takes a long time and they have a narrow attention span”. The thing is, esport fans will sit through an entire weekend of a big esports event. People will watch it, just need to have ways to make the content interesting.
That is not to say that all realistic stuff needs to go away (Or that the esport package is not realistic). It just means that we could potentially have 2 different sets of esport competitions. One that is meant to be made as close to its real world counterparts as possible, and one meant to appeal to a traditional esports audience. The absolute best case scenario is finding a happy medium that suits both, but I am not so sure if that is possible.
The second thing is a bit more serious, and it is that because real series world series are struggling with the younger demographic is that they are simply using sim racing to try and grow this demographic in their viewer numbers. While inherently there is nothing wrong this, if they have the wrong approach it is very possible that if they do not see an increase in that demographic they just say “Well this advertising isn’t working” and dump their esport component as a whole.
People are really hyped given the size of say F1 Esports at the moment. The thing is is that series is the sketchiest thing I have ever seen. Yeah I get that there is drivers making salaries and it is great sure. However, the problem is that the series is entirely bank rolled by F1 pretty much. If they don’t get the return on investment they expect what happens? Plug gets pulled and it dies.
There was a similar situation with Counter Strike Source and the CGS over 10 years ago. The CGS bank rolled a huge league, players were making salaries. It was basically 2013/2014 era Counter Strike in 2007. The series ended up collapsing and you know what happened? The entire scene fell with it and was pushed back in time by a good 2 or 3 years. Counter Strike did not begin to really recover until Counter Strike Global Offensive released and started to build momentum again.
I can honestly see sim racing as a whole in a very similar situation right now and would urge people across the board to not be overly comfortable with the situation just yet. The Formula E race is a solid example. A lot of qualifiers, drivers pairing with real teams, and marketing opportunities and hype and blah blah. Event happens, Bono gets his check, and then all of those partnerships are gone and you never hear anything about them again and the drivers are in the same situation as they were a year or so prior. Overall, not an ideal situation.
Is there a common path?
The main problem is going to be simple, marketing the two paths in the right way. If you push it too much in one way you will likely alienate the opposite audience. It is a narrow and sketchy edge that needs to be ridden.
The main commonality is that teams and drivers will need to market themselves better and iRacing need to market their championships and the drivers in them better. In a recent poll by me (the most accurate of sources) nearly 100% of the sim racing audience who answered says they struggle to make bonds with professional level sim racers because they have no connection with the drivers.
Many people explained that the drivers come across almost mystical beings that occasionally show up in a server, are blazingly quick, and then leave never to be heard from again. Meanwhile people such as Empty Box, Jimmy B, Kevin O Keefe, and Matt Malone are popular because they have made themselves into pleasant personalities and actually interact with their viewers.
Making the series, teams, and drivers marketable is a complex problem and will be analyzed more in depth in the marketing super article later this week, but there is a semi easy short answer.
As a sim iRacing need to make it easier to follow who is in the world championship, the team they are on, the car number they run, their sponsors, and their history in the sim. At the moment none of that info is on the sim or easily find able despite the fact that these drivers are one of iRacing’s best potential marketing tools. Some help will need to come from the broadcasting side however we cant tell the life story of every single driver in every race. Ask any person on the street who Dale Earnhardt is and you likely get a semi accurate answer. Ask any iRacer who Bobby Zalenski is and they likely will not know. That is a problem.
From the Team perspective drivers need to be given incentives to interact positively with the community and potentially need to be penalized based on poor decision making or poor behavior on track. My experience with most Team Managers is that they really don’t manage the team and their job is to do nothing else but spam how awesome their team is on as many social media platforms as possible. As an example, in Racespot’s Friday Night Dirt Night broadcasts, there were a handful of drivers who, despite good pace, would consistently cause issues in both the Rally Cross segment and the Sprint Cars.
Team managers like to have the attitude of “Oh that’s to bad you’ll do better next time!” when things go wrong. While I understand drivers morale and confidence is important, when all they do is consistently cause Lap 1 Turn 1 incidents it doesn’t help your teams image or their own. People will remember your driver for the right reasons if they can race hard yet clean, and the wrong reasons if they cant. And keep in mind, your drivers are you marketing tool. If they’re perceived well, it means YOU are perceived well.
For drivers you need to both make yourselves more accessible to fans and check yourself on track. For the first part the best example is Jon Hall from Fenix Motorsports and previously New World Sim Sport. Back before the Blancpain Championship Jon not only started streaming, but began sharing setups with the community and doing public test and tune sessions where he would explore setup improvements and even help other drivers with improving their own driving.
Based on this relatively simple model Jon built up a pretty sizable following in a short period of time, and not only got himself sponsored by HPP, but HPP offered to sponsor our team because of his outreach with the community. We ended up declining the offer (Not because it was bad, but because we as a team were not as interested in serious sponsorship at that time), but the point still stands that with a bit of effort Jon became one of the most popular drivers on the sim for a short while.
While I understand giving out info could potentially help competitors and hurt your results (Tell that to VRS coach Martin Kronke…) the potential gains in terms of marketability and fan base greatly out weight that. In addition, don’t be total asses on track. Have a sense of self preservation. That is not to say to not be aggressive, because people do want to watch that. But fans will develop a better opinion of you if you run 10 laps in a close fight with someone and finish 3rd, vs going up that barely big enough gap and wrecking out at turn 1 going for second.
Some of those concepts will be explored in more detail (And with more criticism of the current models people use) in the marketing specific article, but that is a fairly solid TL;DR of some of the things Thursdays Marketing article will encompass.
Were in an interesting place, and a fine line has to be taken. Lets just hope those behind the wheel can nicely clip the apex and not under steer off the road. Either way, enjoy your new cars and tracks and enjoy your testing the rest of the week. See you tomorrow for part 3!