Last weekend’s inaugural eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event drew the largest TV audience for an eSports event.
The race, won by Denny Hamlin at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, attracted 903,000 viewers on FS1, according to Nielsen Sports. The race topped the previous record of 770,000 viewers for a Mortal Kombat event on the CW Network in 2016, said Manny Anekal, founder of The Next Level, a publication that covers the business of eSports.
The eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series will continue with drivers competing on a virtual Texas Motor Speedway at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.
Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports that the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series plans to follow the schedule for where the series was to have raced that weekend. That means upcoming races at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Talladega Superspeedway and Dover International Speedway. NASCAR has postponed all its races through May 3 at Dover because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clark said that there have been preliminary discussions about what to do Easter weekend since NASCAR does not have any races scheduled that weekend.
The viewership for last weekend’s virtual race compares to a broadcast of an actual Xfinity race. The Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month drew 993,000 viewers on FS1.
Of course, these are extraordinary times with stay-at-home orders being issued in many states in hopes of combating the spread of COVID-19.
What stood out to eSports experts about the viewership of last weekend’s iRacing event was that it was numbers not seen from motorsports games even when streamed.
“Racing games have not had that buy in from the eSports community so this is really a big deal,” said Gabriela Richard, assistant professor of education at Penn State University and faculty advisor to the school’s eSports club.
Anekal was among those who viewed last weekend’s race.
“It was interesting,” he said. “It was fun to watch because you had real world drivers, which makes it more exciting. Because of that, I think it was just really exciting to watch. To be frank, in terms of graphics, there were times where you couldn’t tell … am I watching a race or am I watching a video game?”
Clark said that there was some consideration to running such a race the previous weekend after the races at Atlanta Motor Speedway were postponed but “we ultimately decided that was probably too aggressive, we didn’t feel confident enough in doing that.”
While pleased with the viewership after one weekend, Clark said there are some ideas being examined for this weekend’s race.
“We’ve done some outreach to drivers … and wanted to get their feedback on what we could do better and how we can help improve the broadcast as well,” Clark said.
What might fans see more of this weekend?
Clark noted more views of drivers during the event and audio communication.
He noted that some drivers provided that last weekend when they streamed themselves racing on Twitch.
“That’s a really good opportunity where you kind of create a little bit of something for everyone and where you can certainly tune into the broadcast to see everything, but you can also tune into some of those channels like Twitch that gives you an opportunity to maybe reach an audience that maybe isn’t watching on television,” he said.
As for the racing, Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, anticipates it will be better.
“People don’t realize how we threw a lot of those guys directly into the fire with this because some of them just haven’t been using the software or have never used the software,” Myers told NBC Sports. “So to ask some of these guys to get up to be confident in driving a virtual stock car and in Jimmie Johnson’s case, an hour, he got an hour of practice before that race. I think that’s going to be the way it continues to improve the product.
“We had 10 or 11 cautions in that race. My goal for this next one would be to get that down to five or six. I think from that aspect, it’s going to be even more entertaining than it was last week.
“That last 10 laps of that race, watching (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) get past (Garrett) Smithley and Timmy Hill, and Denny Hamlin doing the same thing and getting past Dale on the last lap, the last corner, if we can recapture the excitement of those 10 laps over 100 laps or 125 laps, I think that by itself is just going to create a more entertaining product. The more that people see it and more that people buy into the fact of, ‘Hey I’m going to suspend belief for two hours and just enjoy watching racing,’ I think from that aspect it will grow.”