As coronavirus quarantines went into effect all across the US, the world of live sports came to a screeching halt.
Fans and pro leagues were both left wondering what was next, and several leagues, including the NBA and NHL, turned to showing video game action to fill the downtime. While that was fine for social media, it obviously just wasn’t the same. One sports organization that went virtual though is actually finding smashing success.
In late March, NASCAR held its first iRacing event, putting real professional drivers into simulators and broadcasting the action. The 100 lap virtual race, which brought together some of the top drivers (including recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and broadcasters, was broadcast on Fox Sports 1.
NASCAR officials weren’t sure if fans would be interested in a computerized race, but it turns out they are. The inaugural event reached 903,000 viewers according to Nielsen, making it the most-watched linear broadcast of an esports event in history. Almost double that number – 1.6 million people – tuned in for at least six minutes but the 900,000 core viewers watched for an average of 59 minutes, over half the race.
The first broadcast also brought NASCAR to new viewers, with 255,000 people checking in who haven’t watched a race in 2020.
What’s important though is this wasn’t just one time curiosity viewing. The March 29 race from a virtual Texas Motor Speedway reached 1.3 million viewers and the April 5 contest from a simulated Bristol Motor Speedway and the April 19 race from a computerized Richmond Raceway both reached 1.1 million viewers each. These numbers are only a third of the average NASCAR race viewership (2.92 million), but they’re still very solid.
While this obviously isn’t a long-term replacement, it does speak to how esports can capture an audience given the right conditions and it shows that people are willing to watch sports in innovative ways.
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