Sports enter the virtual age

iRacing brings eSports to the forefront during the pandemic

On March 11 the sports world collapsed before our eyes. Many sports fans started that night expecting to watch a normal game of basketball. I was job shadowing my friend at a high school playoff basketball game, the last he would get to cover this year. The world was going on with an eye on the rise of the coronavirus. In an instant, basketball was gone. Rudy Gobert’s positive test came out moments before the Jazz were set to tip-off, ending that game and the NBA season the very night.

Soon, all sports followed. The NHL suspended their season the next day. NASCAR, Formula 1, IndyCar, the XFL, March Madness, and the MLB all did the same by the end of the work week. Just like that, the sports world lay barren.

Sports fans will do anything to get by. Auto racing fans, who were mere hours away from watching the opening practices of the IndyCar and Formula One seasons before the suspension of the season, turned to a new form of racing. iRacing.

iRacing is a subscription-based racing simulation that was launched in 2008. Its publishers were already famous for the creation of NASCAR Racing 2003, a game that is still played today and is widely considered to be the best NASCAR game ever published. The game was used in its prime by the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. And Martin Truex Jr. iRacing was an improvement from that game, adding even more simulation along with more series.

Over the past decade, the game became the lead eSport racing simulation, with 74,000 active users as of 2018. NASCAR sanctioned an iRacing series in 2009, a deal that was extended until 2021. It was the training grounds for professional racers such as William Byron and Ty Majeski as they got their racing careers started. Still, the game was away from mainstream media. That is, until this year.

With the suspension of the NASCAR season on March 13, NASCAR created the first ever Pro Invitational League. Announced March 18, the event featured NASCAR’s stars such as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Junior, and Jimmie Johnson. It would be the second iRacing NASCAR race broadcasted live on television on Fox Sports 1.

On March 22, the first race took place at the virtual Homestead Miami Speedway, the track NASCAR was scheduled to race at that weekend. The racing was more interactive than ever before, with fans being able to view individual streams on Twitch, Twitter and Facebook. It was a wild 100 lap event that saw 9 cautions before a duel between two real life back markers, Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley, gave way to a shootout between Denny Hamlin and NASCAR’s most beloved former driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. A duel that was won in the final corner by Denny Hamlin.

On Fox Sports 1, the eNascar race earned a rating of .53 with 903,000 viewers. It was enough to break the record for most viewed televised eSports event. A mind-blowing success for an event that was put together so quickly.

This opened the floodgates for eSports. The main FOX channel picked up the next race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway. A race in which Timmy Hill would win in a photo finish. IndyCar followed suite with its pro invitational series that debuted Saturday at virtual Watkin Glen that was won by Sage Karam.

Formula One drivers Lando Norris and Max Verstappen stream their iRacing battles daily on Twitch, drawing in 10,000+ viewers for each stream. Norris has quickly become the face of virtual Formula One, appearing in many online events and streaming to as many as 104,000 viewers.

Seeing the popularity of eSports growing led to other leagues to take notice while on hiatus. On March 30, the NBA announced its first ever player only NBA2K tournament which was broadcasted to ESPN and won by Pheonix Suns star Devin Booker.

With live sports now beginning to take place again, it is unknown what eSports will do in the future, and who would be interested. At worst, people watching their favorite athletes battle at the virtual level may be the one thing that can hold fans over during the offseason. At best, eSports has found the mainstream audience after years of trying to break into the field.