The races are digital, and so are advertisements, but the money is real

It takes longer than gasoline to run a racecar.

It requires money. And money requires sponsors. And sponsors need audiences who expect them to become customers. Which became a problem for motorsports when the Kovid-19 shut down tracks worldwide early last year. The drought of cash put teams, tracks and race series in danger of extinction.

The industry turned into an emerging phenomenon – fake racing. In these highly realistic video games, cars follow the laws of physics and run on reproductions of real-life tracks that are accurate to the final pavement seam.

In one experiment, NBC and Fox replaced the canceled races with sim races. Nobody knew that digital cars would attract viewers and pay sponsors. Traditionally, racecars served as high-speed hoardings, leading engines to prove superior to the car that won consumers over for engine oil. Can a SIM car sell engine oil, neither engine nor oil?

Ten months into the experiment, the sim begins to pay off from the race, as television and web viewers helped to salvage the 2020 season. And now SIM gives racing teams a new source of revenue, giving sponsors a more accountable form of marketing and a younger audience interested in what motorsports have struggled to capture. Soon Sim Racing will face the real test: can it sustain fans and sponsors when the actual cars return to the actual tracks and the actual spectators are in the stands?

Racing video games are not new. You can play the Indy 500 and Street Racer on the attic in 1977. By the 90s, more sophisticated Formula One games – with blocky graphics – flourished. Grew up graphic refinements in successive generations of game consoles from Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo. Now, at a casual glance, you may not even notice the races are fake.

Desktop computers also run highly complex networked games like iRacing, which was the chosen platform for many race organizations, including NASCAR, IMSA, IndyCar and the W Series. Formula One chose its own commercial game by Codmasters.

Many pro wrestlers used privately to train sports. At the very least, the fidelity of the tracks lets drivers remember the layout. Some teams use specialized simulator software to fix the setup of their actual cars before the race.

Sim Racing has built the driving skills that some gamers like William Byron have graduated to real cars. Mr. Byron, the driver of the NASCAR Cup Series, now owns an eNASCAR team that won a $ 100,000 purse in the 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.

Pro drivers have unannouncedly splashed online competitions over the years. For fans, it is like joining a pick basketball game and finding LeBron James on the court.

Car manufacturers see the brand-building value of sports. Chevrolet made news when its fake C8.R mid-engine Corvette joined the IMSA series of iRacing in September. Like manufacturers as different as Chevy, Mazda and McLaren, Forza, Project CARS and Gran Turismo license their vehicles for dozens of sports, including Sport.

Gamers may not be the dominant market for the $ 60,000 Corvette, Chevrolet spokesman Kevin Kelly said, “but it’s a chance to be loyal to the brand.”

Sim racing was in practice until about three years ago, when technology, social media, and real racing began to converge, with Joe Gibbs Racing (fans by JGR) hired in 2009 to handle social media. He said he expanded into iRacing four years ago, beginning with a private league that pitted JGR pro drivers against “your average Jose”.

A year before the epidemic, iRacing became an official part of the JGR marketing program, which sponsors a small audience and social media data – for a fee.

“You get to the point where drivers need to pay,” Mr. Cook said. “Tools are needed. We said that we really need to cover our costs here.

Sims got his big break on March 22, when both eNASCAR and Virtual Formula One races were shown on TV in place of the canceled race. The ENASCAR race attracted 910,000 spectators, less than three million for NASCAR, but more than 400,000 exclusive to a virtual race.

“We started to realize that this could be a real replacement for those NASCAR races,” said Brad Zagger, Fox Sports’ head of production and operations.

The first F1 replacement race, the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix, attracted four million viewers on digital and TV, lower than the 34 million average for the actual race, but ahead of the average 1.8 million viewers for the Pro Digital race.

Last year “provided a new level of exposure for F1 esports,” said Julian Tan, Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports in Formula 1. “When we did live racing in Austria, we also saw record digital numbers on engagements and even our esports content last winter saw record numbers from our official virtual championships.”

Although valid, broadcast TV is part of Sim Racing’s reach. Livestreams can kill over 400,000 viewers Youtube, Facebook and Twitch said Anthony Gardner, president of Motorsport Simulation. More valuable are social interactions – tweets, likes, comments during the race -.

“Social media is in the millions in a race,” Mr. Gardner said. Those interactions yield customer data and provide an opportunity to speak directly to consumers.

Suddenly Sim Racing was big enough to attract audience attention, but it was too new for marketers to know how to cash in on it. The sponsors adopted different methods, but all aimed for an elusive new audience. NASCAR’s fan base has declined since 2005. Sim racing attracts a younger and more racially diverse audience – attractive to both sponsors and leagues.

“It is true that it is difficult to reach the 18 to 35 demographic,” said Patrick Daverti, who manages sponsorship for Valvoline. “Gaming Overindexes with Young DIY-ers.”

The company signed on with Kovid-19 before Parker Klegerman, a celebrity racer and an ENACAR driver. “Mr. Dogretti said,” The viewership and engagement exceeded our expectations. “” We are really lucky, and we are going to renew with those in 2021. “

Despite being the official grill of NASCAR, Pitt boss Grylls cannot afford to sponsor a front-running racer, which has been reported to cost up to $ 35 million. That changed with eNASCAR.

“This gave us a chance to jump into primary sponsorship,” said Carlos Padilla, director of brand partnerships. “It allows us to be on a broadcast on a car, if you want to call it that, at a price point for a company of our size.”

It was four figures per race, he said, to be seen by one million TV viewers – a deal.

Discouraging i-pacing may seem in the best interest of a racetrack, but Richmond Raceway first sponsored a team about three years ago. It tried to build a simulator inside a decommissioned racecar for fans. That innovation led Daytona International Speedway to borrow the car.

Not only did Richmond raise its profile, but sponsor Cash made a five-figure profit.

“Marketing was the original objective,” said Brent S. Gambill, a spokesperson for the first track and now for the Mid-Atlantic region of NASCAR. “When it started, we were spending money to be part of something. By the second year, we were making money. “

Online viewers provide the ability to measure responses to specific offers, slogans and pricing that TV does not.

Yet a tsunami of data is not always helpful. “It would be fantastic for us if we could say that last week one million people saw it and this week bought 200,000 cars. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do it, “said Paul Doleshal, general manager for motorsports and assets at Toyota Motors North America. “We are drowning in information now.”

Which makes it difficult to compare the selling power of sim racing with actual racing. But this may be a silent question for some reasons.

One is that the two worlds are interlinked – performing on a virtual track can yield real-world results.

When Dubrell Wallace Jr., better known as BubbaDesperately leave a virtual race in April, sponsor Blue-Emu abandoned him, Tweet In part: “Goodbye Bubba. We’re interested in drivers, not quitters.” Kyle Larson, a driver, Uttered a racial slur During a sim race, losing sponsors and earned a suspension from NASCAR and iRacing. He will return to NASCAR in October.

The second reason is that winning helps, it is not the only reason a fan buys a car product.

“It’s not just about literal oil,” said Eric Schwartz, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “It is about being a trusted brand that understands this world of racing.”

Finally, SIM’s simplest appeal to brands is that it saves viewers. “It’s a way for the brand to get eyeballs, to be above the mind,” Mr. Schwartz said. “If Valvoline will not sponsor a team, its competitor will.”

It will take time to know if the sim race fans are the actual race aficados and vice versa, but Fox has scheduled five sim races for its FS1 network this year.

“You have a lot of options with irisings, imagining a dirt track race one week and Daytona the next,” said Fox’s Mr. Zagger. “ESports became a much bigger buzz when the epidemic hit,” he said. Said. “But IRacing just went in front of the area, and no one caught it.”

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