NASCAR Focused on eSports After COVID-19, and the Fan Response Broke Records

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“It’s fair to say there were zero expectations … It’d never really been done,” mused Tim Clark, as he looked back on the last couple months at NASCAR. As the Chief Digital Officer, he’d been a key player in changes that had to be made on account of COVID-19. When guidelines were issued for large gatherings for instance, it meant for NASCAR that upcoming races had to shelved.

As people stayed away from racetracks (for the time being), the organization had to rethink its role. There was a desire to maintain some level of continuity, even as the pandemic impacted all aspects of running a business. We all know that NASCAR fans are arguably some of the most loyal, and keeping the community engaged (until normalcy resumed) was important.

eSports quickly bubbled up as an ideal option. More people staying in, also meant more activity online. And while most people at NASCAR thought it was worth a try, nobody could anticipate the reaction.

How it happened

The eSports category can be quite broad, for those not familiar with the concept. In some circles, it is a competitive event that can involve teams hunting down dragons. In other arenas, it simulates an activity that typically happens in person (think Madden for football). This latter category is where eNASCAR sits.

While NASCAR has dabbled in eSports before (read about it here) and has a long partnership with iRacing, it was seen as an emerging area of sorts (one with future potential). That “future” came much quicker than anyone expected. When the decision to pivot towards eSports was made, the Homestead-Miami event was the best candidate. On March 22, it was made virtual and the first-ever eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series race was held. Best of all, FOX Sports signed on to broadcast the event.

This first race saw drivers such as Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin compete, as well as the recently retired Dale Earnhardt, Jr., all from the comfort of their homes. Luckily, eSports had long been real enough where several NASCAR drivers used it as a development tool; Many already had a setup. After 100 virtual laps and a close race, Hamlin took the top prize.

Left: Photo from @DennyHamlin Twitter; Right: Photo from NASCAR.

With over 900K viewers (per Nielsen), the Miami race broke the previous eSports record held by a Mortal Kombat event in 2016. Since then, the series has averaged around 1.1 Million viewers on FOX Sports, with the virtual Texas event (March 29) attracting over 1.3 Million. Incredibly, the six races so far currently rank as the six most watched eSports events in TV history.

What’s next?

The most important thing with any type of viral moment is what happens afterwards. Brands who do something successfully often come out of it with a new audience, as was the case for NASCAR. Of the millions that tuned in digitally, a fair amount of those people were not usual patrons of the racetrack. In order to move some of these folks from awareness into a consideration type phase, brands need to properly orchestrate the next couple of engagements.

Luckily for NASCAR, they have spent years building a foundation to deliver great customer experiences. Adobe has had the good fortune of being a technology partner, via a set of apps in Adobe Experience Cloud. In the past, we have covered how the 70-year old NASCAR organization has tapped data, personalization and AI to drive its digital business and stay resilient.

As Tim puts it: “When we consider the implications of daily activities going more digital, it opens up major considerations in how organizations should engage. In most cases, you have only one or two shots to get it right. Fortunately, we have spent years refining NASCAR’s data strategy, to get a better pulse on what resonates with fans. We wanted a more comprehensive view of brand engagement and then use those insights to drive decision making across the organization. This foundation is going to help us get smart about these new audiences brought in via eSports and figure out the best way to engage them moving forward.”

“And we will lean on technology partners like Adobe to help with areas like analytics and personalization, for a digital foundation that supports business resiliency no matter what happens in the world around us,” says Tim. “This will be important with upcoming races like the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway for instance, where we resume in-person races but with at-home fans.”