Greg Matarazzo

Meet the No. 1 draft picks in the NASCAR Heat Pro League

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NASCAR’s race weekend in Phoenix earlier this month was one of many firsts for Slade Gravitt.

It marked the first time the 16-year-old had ever visited a state that didn’t border Georgia. It was also the first time he ever set foot on an airplane.

On March 9, the native of Cumming, Georgia, flew to west to Arizona for where another first was awaiting him: Wood Brothers Racing would select him No. 1 among PlayStation 4 users in the first NASCAR Heat Pro League draft.

“It was a very interesting week because I started off Sunday, Monday questioning if I even had an opportunity or a chance to get drafted,” Gravitt told NBC Sports. “I saw myself as a top-10 driver. I was doing a good bit on social media. I thought I was getting drafted but there’s (what) teams prefer and we didn’t really know what the teams preferred at the moment.”

For the Wood Brothers, they preferred Gravitt’s youth and his “marketability” combined with his ability in the game.

“Then we got a couple of text messages from people at 704 (Games, the producer of the NASCAR Heat series) and people at Wood Brothers saying, ‘Hey, we’re drafting the No. 1 draft pick and flying them down to Phoenix at ISM Raceway,'” Gravitt said.

While it was his first time leaving the Southeast, it wasn’t Gravitt’s first time to attend a NASCAR event, having been to races at Talladega, Charlotte and Atlanta.

Gravitt was raised in a home of NASCAR fans 15 minutes from Bill and Chase Elliott‘s hometown of Dawsonville. His parents, Dana and Michael, were fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott, while his grandfather cheered on Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“My parents, they’re pretty supportive of it,” Gravitt said. “My dad was in the background a good bit of the Pro League draft stream. He loves it, honestly. He’s always telling me, ‘Hey, look at this article’ and stuff like that.”

Even before the Pro League was announced last year, Gravitt was an avid player of NASCAR games. He was also part of a gaming league called The Midnight Broadcasting Network, which streams their races and other games online. Seven members of that group, including Gravitt, were selected in the draft.

But Gravitt was the only one who was drafted in person and got to mingle with the likes of Richard Petty, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard.

“I’m still trying to relive what happened, cause it all went by so fast,” Gravitt said.

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Greg Matarazzo’s journey to being the No. 1 Xbox One player drafted by Chip Ganassi Racing was very different.

Matarazzo, 24, grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey, far from any NASCAR landmark and with parents and friends who didn’t particularly care about auto racing.

He was turned onto NASCAR through the video games “NASCAR Thunder 2003” and “NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona.”

From 7 to 17, he raced himself, competing in go-karts on the grounds of the Somerset County 4H Fair, even earning some trophies in a go-kart with a No. 97 on it inspired by Kurt Busch. But that’s as far as his racing career went.

“It wasn’t really a racing state,” Matarazzo told NBC Sports. “It just wasn’t really something super accessible. … It was just kind of something I enjoyed on my own. My parents weren’t really into racing. We weren’t in the position to start-up a race team and start traveling on the weekends to tracks hours away.”

After high school he started his own clothing brand, Burassi, founded on a batch of 175 shirts he bought with money saved from a job at a pizzeria. In September 2017 he swapped coasts, moving to Los Angeles to operate Burassi full-time.

“The name Burassi is just a made up word,” Matarazzo said. “That’s kind of what the whole brand is about, just creating something out of nothing. I’ve always had an optimistic and creative mindset and perspective on life. I was just like, this is something I like to do so let me just see where it takes me. Seven years later, I’m out here in LA operating from my apartment.”

It was in that apartment on his Xbox where the door was re-opened on Matarazzo’s chances of being part of NASCAR.

“Actually, I’ve been a PlayStation guy my entire life,” Matarazzo said. “But I ended up getting a Xbox literally just so I could play against my roommate on Fortnite so we could play on the same team.”

As soon as Matarazzo saw the announcement for the esports league in December, he realized “this is my shot.

“I had to hop right on there and start qualifying.”

The second domino that led to him being drafted – after getting a Xbox – had fallen a month earlier.

“I got my foot in the door with Elijah,” said Matarazzo, referring to Elijah Burke, a Business Intelligence Coordinator at Chip Ganassi Racing. “I unknowingly hopped in one of his stream races. I guess he saw my username, ‘skrrtBusch’ and he was just like, ‘Yo, that’s a genius name, that’s crazy.'”

After being alerted by another user, Matarazzo did a Twitter search for his username and found a tweet by Burke:

“I sent him a DM (direct message) and we started chatting, and then that kind of had my foot in the door at CGR, and then we kept in touch throughout the whole qualifying process,” Matarazzo said. “I guess I proved myself to them and they ended up drafting me. It’s crazy how if I had never gotten an Xbox none of that would have happened. A little bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time.”

It led to Matarazzo being introduced at the draft by his childhood hero, who had defined his racing career in reality and online.

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What are Gravitt and Matarazzo hoping to get out of the Pro League?

Gravitt has aspirations about someday working in broadcasting or being a chef.

But what if the Pro League and esports in general turns out to be a long-term commitment?

“Of course I’ve thought about that, what my future can be in this being my age,” said Gravitt, who is a junior in high school. “When it started, I just wanted to have some fun with friends and put on a show in a professional manner. … I’m starting to realize my age and skill level could lead to something bigger. I haven’t really thought about an exact answer to that. Best I could say is more opportunities are in my way than someone than who is in their early 20, late 30s.”

While Matarazzo hopes to promote his brand and NASCAR’s, he also wants to pay it forward. He’s thinking of people like himself growing up in New Jersey with no clear path toward being part of NASCAR.

“It’s lowering the barrier of entry,” Matarazzo said. “We’re kind of stomping into uncharted territory with what we’re trying to do here.”

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NASCAR teams look for social media savvy, on-screen charisma in eSports players

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Earlier this month NASCAR announced it was charting new territory with its first eSports Pro League.

In coordination with the Race Team Alliance and 704Games, the league is powered by “NASCAR Heat 3,” the latest installment of the gaming franchise from 704Games.

The eNASCAR Heat Pro League will begin next spring and culminate during the real-world NASCAR playoffs. It will feature 16 races with up to 16 teams and 32 drivers. Each team will be owned and operated by a NASCAR race team. Each team will field two drivers, one competing on Xbox One and the other on a PlayStation 4.

Those drivers will be selected in a draft scheduled for February. The deadline to qualify for the draft is Jan. 15th.

The latest episode of 704Game’s web series previewing the Pro League features team executives discussing what they’re looking for in the drivers they’ll draft in the spring.

JR Motorsports co-owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Director of Digital, Bryan Cook, explain they’re looking for more than just someone who can go fast on a digital track.

JRM is looking for someone who is deft at promoting themselves on social media.

“You want someone with a good, open, outward personality. Obviously we want them to go fast,” Earnhardt Miller said.

“We also want them to be hands on, engaged with fans and other sim racers and be able to market and represent themselves and us really well,” Earnhardt said. “A great way for drivers to get noticed is promote themselves through social media, whether it’s Twitter or Instagram. But they need to use the hashtag #eNASCARHeat.”

Cook explained that JGR seeks drivers who are “good on camera” in addition to being fast.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the Carl Edwards of the eSports series,” Cook said. “But you at least at least have to have some kind of presence, be yourself. We want people who are authentic on the track and natural on the track. But also just natural in front of the camera, even if it’s front of a webcam.”

In other words, they want someone who will give a good postrace interview, just like in the real world.

Watch more in the above video.

eNASCAR Heat Pro League to debut in 2019

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NASCAR, the Race Team Alliance and 704Games announced the eNASCAR Heat Pro League on Thursday.

The eNASCAR Heat Pro League is the first NASCAR esports league on video game consoles and is powered by NASCAR Heat 3.

The league, which will begin in spring 2019 and culminate during the playoffs, will feature 16 races with up to 16 teams and 32 drivers. Each team will be owned and operated by a NASCAR race team. Each team will field two drivers, one competing on Xbox One and the other on a PlayStation 4.

Fans who own NASCAR Heat 3 can now start to qualify for the first eNASCAR Heat Pro League Draft, scheduled to take place early next year.

Teams participating in the league include: Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

“We look forward to taking this first step with our teams to introduce NASCAR-style racing to the massive esports audience on consoles,” said Craig Neeb, NASCAR’s Executive Vice President of Innovation and Development in a press release. “Our partners at 704Games have delivered an incredible product and we are enthusiastic about engaging gamers to create new fans and grow our sport.”

Homestead-Miami Speedway to host ‘NASCAR Heat 3’ esports tourney finale

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Homestead-Miami Speedway will host the conclusion of a weekly esports competition using the upcoming “NASCAR Heat 3” video game.

The competition will span the entire Cup Series playoffs, which begins Sept. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and ends Nov. 18 in Miami, the same day the esports competition ends.

Titled “NASCAR Heat Champions: Road to Miami,” the esports tournament culminates at Homestead-Miami Speedway with over $500,000 in prizes on the line.

Fans can compete from Sept. 10 through Nov. 11 and qualify at home weekly by posting their fastest total race times to qualify for the final tournament in Miami. Weekly tournaments will alternate between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. Three additional finalists will race their way in at Homestead-Miami Speedway at Esports Arena Drive.

704Games, which produces the “NASCAR Heat” series, will fly weekly finalists and a guest to Miami for Ford Championship Weekend. The “NASCAR Heat Champions: Road to Miami” finale will award $10,000 in prize money, Audeze Mobius gaming headsets, and an exclusive race weekend package from Homestead-Miami Speedway.

If the winner correctly predicts the official total race time of the Ford EcoBoost 400 within five seconds, they will win an additional $500,000.

“NASCAR Heat 3” will be available Tuesday on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC via Steam.