NASCAR esports embraces what esports is truly about: community, outreach, and opportunity
Video games and esports exist to entertain us and to bring us together. From the old days of playing on the couch with friends to playing with someone today that is thousands of miles away. It’s about a sense of community and engaging with those that you wouldn’t normally engage with. It’s about experiencing something new.
With that in mind, we recent learned about the nascent world of NASCAR esports. Yes, it’s a real thing. Formed just this past year in a collaboration between 704 Games, NASCAR, and the Race Team Alliance, they’re entering the world of esports with rampant enthusiasm.
“For those that love to drive and for those that love to race, this is an incredible way to be connected to NASCAR that lots of people would never have had the opportunity to do,” said Colin Smith, President of 704 games.
Those words sum up why the eNASCAR Heat Pro League is important to the esports scene overall. You may not like NASCAR, but they’re reaching out to a demographic that has likely been scoffed at by the larger esports community. A community that, perhaps, looks down upon certain esports like Clash of Clans or the NBA2K League.
There are, of course, the cynical answers as to why 704 Games would make an esports league out of their video game.
"Anything that helps us market the game and ultimately helps us sell more games is always a good thing,” Smith admitted with a chuckle.
It's more than that, though, and it goes back to that sense of community. The league provides NASCAR and racing fans with another way to connect to the racing community that wasn't there before. The eNASCAR Heat Pro League has created a whole new ecosystem that combines the two worlds together. They're attempting to bridge the gap between the NASCAR world and the gaming world.
“We’re young and exciting guys from different groups and cultures,” said Sam “Mordog5” Morris, 23, one of two drivers for Hendrick Motorsports. “In my racing leagues, there are African American guys and a lot of the women in the community. I know a stereotype and it’s not been a huge thing in NASCAR, but it’s something our younger generation is pushing.”
As one of the leagues 28 drivers, Morris is a major part in that effort. Each week he’ll commit about 15 hours to tweaking and tuning his car for different tracks and to find that extra one-tenth of a second. Some drivers will put in double to triple that amount of time. For Sam’s time, he and all other signed drivers make around $10,000 a season, which lasts six months. Teams will also cover things like travel and various expenses related to racing in the Pro League.
Morris is not what you would consider a typical NASCAR fan or gamer. He’s from a family farm in Indiana in one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone. If you're thinking corn fields and bales of hay, you're not wrong.
“Pretty much my whole life I’ve been into NASCAR, since I was two or three,” Morris said. He knows the drivers, the history of the sport, and all the little details true fans only know. Being pretty decent at the game, he took the chance when the Pro League was announced and soon found that he could hang with the best.
The relationship between Hendrick Motorsports and Morris is a two-way street. For Hendrick Motorsports, Morris brings them the perspective of a country boy who lives on a sixth-generation family farm and is a gamer.
This is how I prep for a pro league race tonight..gotta get some farm work done. pic.twitter.com/wIdgSS8h56
— Sam Morris (@Mordog5) September 11, 2019
Hendrick Motorsports has never dealt with the gaming community, and they're fully embracing it and other cultures and lifestyles through Morris. In his driver of the week segment, they didn't shy away from showing his farm life out in the deep mid-west.
“The clips they used was me showing my farm and my animals,” he said. “It’s really telling for me because they wanted to show that side of my life.”
In return, Hendrick Motorsports provides him with anything he needs to compete. Any problems that pop up? Morris has multiple ways to reach out and get the problem solved. For the second race of the season, his ISP switched his IP address before the race and he had to miss the race entirely.
“Hendrick Motorsports was on it and the issue hasn’t happened since. Without their help, I probably wouldn’t have gotten an answer to it,” he said.
Hendrick Motorsports has also afforded Morris the opportunity to branch out socially. “I’ve grown up and lived in the same town. I still have the same best friend to this day,” he said. “ is pushing me out my shell.” Through the Pro League, he's met more people than he ever could have imagined from various cultures, lifestyles, and backgrounds.
Not only that, the Pro League has been the way he has entered into the NASCAR world that he's loved for so long. “As a guy from Indiana, it’s hard to get down to North Carolina and meet people and get your foot in the door,” he said.
Sure, the salaries aren't much and there are currently no prize pools for the races, but it's a way for him to engage and get that all-important foot in the door.
On the Pro League side of things, it's still very much a grass-roots effort. NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance may be the money behind it all, but the majority of them are learning as they go as they build this league. That includes the companies just as much as the people physically on the ground running these races.
The checkered flag and beyond
Being a racing driver for the eNASCAR Heat Pro League isn't a viable career path yet, nor does it look like it will be in the next few years. In fact, the average age of the 28 drivers in the league is 28, so this is more of a supplement than a career for many.
Still, it's something they're looking into at 704 Games. They'll be working hard over the next few years to increase viewership, explore merchandising options, expanding the league domestically and/or internationally, all with the goal of making a viable and profitable ecosystem.
The eNASCAR Heat Pro League won't overtake viewership of the major Tier 1 or Tier 2 esports anytime soon, if at all. It's a bit too out there for a large majority of the gaming and esports community. But that doesn't make the work they're doing to make it better and viable any less valid.
NASCAR, 704 Games, and the Race Team Alliance are providing an opportunity to those where no opportunity existed before.
“It’s not too often, if ever, that most of the people that we have that are currently part of the Pro League would ever have an opportunity like this to be a part of a real-world race team,” Smith said.
It's about connecting with a community and building bridges where there was no common ground before. It's about opening the world of video games and esports to those who may look upon it and scoff. They may be small in terms of viewership, but every little bit helps when it comes to legitimizing esports, especially when you have strong brands like NASCAR behind it.