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NASCAR Builds on Deep Esports Roots with Second League

NASCAR started its first esports league in 2009, long enough to see a cottage industry balloon into a global behemoth. Now they’re growing with it.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

North American sports leagues continue to find their lanes in esports. But the organization in pole position may surprise you: NASCAR.

NASCAR has been in esports since 2009, when it signed a five-year deal with iRacing, a subscription-based racing simulation game, to launch a competitive series. The two brands signed a six-year extension in 2015. Now, the eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series is in its 10th season.

In December 2018, NASCAR, the Race Team Alliance and 704Games, with an investment from Motorsport Network, also introduced the eNASCAR Heat Pro League, a second NASCAR-organized esports league. This vertical is played on NASCAR HEAT 3 on console systems Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The season will start racing around late May.

“It’s important for us as an industry to look for those opportunities for growth, and esports is certainly one of those channels [through which] we can reach a new demographic,” says Craig Neeb, NASCAR’s chief innovation & development officer. “There’s a high level of engagement around esports, and we believe our product fits really well into that. I think it distinguishes itself from other professional leagues in regards to esports in that’s it’s probably closer to the actual thing. It has a path where you can get from the virtual world into the real world. We have real examples of that.”

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You read that correctly: In the decade of iRacing, gamers have actually turned into drivers under the NASCAR umbrella. For example, William Byron, the 21-year-old sensation in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, claimed over 100 competitive wins as a teenager on the iRacing circuit. Over the last decade, NASCAR drivers have also used the simulator as a practice accessory.

While iRacing fits the hardcore racer, the Heat Pro League intends to connect NASCAR with a newer crowd. Xbox One and PS4 take out wheels and pedals with the aim of appealing to fans with a lower baseline of stock car engineering.

“You don’t want to start at the top of the pyramid,” Neeb says. “You want to kind of have a funnel that allows people to progress their way up. There was nothing that we had before in that mass- market world. Having the Pro League creates an entry point into competitive gaming and has a much larger population of people that have access to it.”

NASCAR’s racing teams also have a stake in both leagues. The Heat Pro League hosted its first-ever draft this past March, with 14 NASCAR teams in the mix – one player on each console. Wood Brothers Racing, whose esports department is led by Director of Business Development and former NASCAR driver Jon Wood, held the first pick on PS4. Wood selected Slade Gravitt, the youngest driver in the draft pool at age 16.

“We had a cheat sheet to go off of with all these different drivers,” Wood says. “I went more with a guy who I knew would be more social media- savvy than maybe just a straight, ‘I’m going to win every race’ kind of guy.”

Wood wants to win, but he also recognizes a business opportunity when he sees one. Wood Brothers, which also just added two racers in iRacing, is one of the smaller teams involved with esports, but new fans don’t need to know that. Gravitt’s success and fan engagement can bring in fans in a way Paul Menard’s racing cannot replicate.

“Something that caught me by surprise was that the percentage of participants buying this game that did not identify as hardcore NASCAR fans was 60 percent,” Wood says, referencing a recent 704Games survey.

Nearly every American understands car racing even if they do not comprehend NASCAR culture. This is a good problem for NASCAR to have on the esports side. Being an intense NASCAR Fan is not a barrier for entry for enjoying a NASCAR console video game.

“We’re attracting a much newer demographic into the game than with other projects and other ways to consume the sport,” says Ed Martin, the president of 704Games. “Our average age is anywhere from 32 to 34 years old. They’re incredibly engaged.”

By contrast according to Statista, from 2006 to 2016, the average age of a NASCAR TV viewer rose from 49 to 58 years old. So getting younger is an urgent need for NASCAR.

“They’re a really diverse group, anywhere from teens to mid-30s,” Neeb says of the players drafted for Heat Pro League Season 1. “I think the combination of folks they picked are really from a good swath and perspective of a cross-section around the country.”

While the goal of the Heat Pro League is to bring in a new audience for NASCAR, much of the template still comes from the eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series. The $100,000 prize pool is up 500 percent from last season and the iRacing circuit includes biweekly virtual races at stops in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, culminating with a championship race at virtual Homestead-Miami for a total of 14 races plus four playoff races. These tracks are half as long as their real-life counterparts, running about 90-120 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Heat Pro League will go with a 12-race season and four playoff races, with a different time peg. The iRacing Series ends prior to the actual Cup Series Championship, with the iRacing victor receiving the championship trophy in Miami. Meanwhile, the Heat Pro League will culminate in November, closer to the Cup Series Championship.

READ MORE: Full Sail University Anchors Strong Orlando Esports Ecosystem

The eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series has broadcast throughits own YouTube and Twitch channels and www.iracing.com website. The Heat Pro League has already announced it will stream on NASCAR.com and Motorsport.com. NASCAR has not announced other social media and streaming platforms for the Heat Pro League yet. While iRacing broadcasts on Tuesday nights, the Heat Pro League plans on airing on Wednesday evenings. Heat Pro League races will be shorter, going about 20-30 minutes each, with an Xbox and PS4 race being part of each roughly 90-minute broadcast.

Esports diehards reading this article may notice the lowercase e before the eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series eNASCAR Heat Pro League. That’s on purpose.

“People try to correct when we write esports in our press releases because there’s a lowercase e before a capital s and then lowercase t in esports,” says Steve Myers, Executive Vice President and Executive Producer, iRacing Motorsport Simulations. “That’s how our logo is. And people can’t correct us. We started esports because esports wasn’t even a word.”

That’s a fact. The iRacing Series came before most sports games even considered competitive online games. The marketplace is far more crowded today, but that won’t stop NASCAR from continuing to push the pace.

Jeff Eisenband is a broadcaster and writer based in New York City. He previously served as senior editor of ThePostGame and has contributed to the NBA 2K League, NBA Twitch channel, DraftKings, Tennis Hall of Fame, Golfweek, Big Ten Network, Cheddar and Heads Up Daily. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Jeff truly believes Northwestern will win national championships in football and basketball.

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‘Locked In’ Goes Behind the Curtain With NBA 2K League Players

For Season 2, the NBA 2K League is diving into the lives of its players in the content series “Locked In,” hoping to attract new fans.

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Walking through New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, Brian Traynor discusses his love of art and opens up about his life’s hardships, giving NBA 2K League fans a glimpse into the lives of esport athletes rarely seen — until now.

Traynor, or “NachoTraynor” for T-Wolves Gaming, is one of two subjects in the fourth episode of the league’s new behind-the-scenes series, “Locked In Powered by AT&T.”

A fine arts graduate, NachoTraynor rarely had access to museums growing up and now uses his NBA 2K League trips to New York City to visit as many as he can. This also helps clear his head before games. His story is complemented by Cameron “KingCamRoyalty” Ford, a player for Magic Gaming and rapper who uses studio time in a similar fashion.

READ MORE: Allied Esports Recognizes Opportunity in Mexico With New Partnership

“This is one of my favorite episodes because it takes it so far off the court,” says Matt Arden, NBA 2K League head of content and media. “This is the first piece of content we created that honestly has very little 2K League footage and truly is about these two incredibly unique individuals.

“We’ve found that we’re scratching an itch. We feel like highlighting this side of the league is so important to grow league awareness and grow the personalities.”

“Locked In,” is bringing to esports the same sort of access HBO’s Hard Knocks and “24/7” have brought to traditional sports.

Arden joined the NBA 2K League five months ago to help get these types of broadcasts off the ground and help tell stories around the league’s personalities. He believes this type of content is key to attracting more basketball and casual sports fans beyond hardcore gamers. The new series is built on the foundation of “Draft Hopefuls,” a content series that went behind-the-scenes with NBA 2K League prospects behind the Season 2 draft this past March. Arden says that series performed well and affirmed the craving of creative storytelling. This set in motion “Locked In.”

As the NBA 2K League’s second season progresses, having that storytelling beyond the Xs and Os was important. For Roger Caneda, an esports consultant and former Mavs Gaming general manager, he feels hiring Arden and the introduction of behind-the-scenes content will be important for the NBA 2K League’s success and longevity.

“Season one happened so fast, the league wasn’t able to grasp how starting something like the 2K League needed content to be successful,” Caneda says. “Esports is an industry where people are curious, and providing this behind-the-scenes insight is big, not just for 2K but the industry as a whole.

“Diving into content will be huge for everyone.”

Now a fan on the outside, Caneda feels “Locked In” makes him more compelled to watch the games. He might not be alone, according to the NBA 2K League, it has gained 20,000 followers on its YouTube and Twitch channels this year. Total minutes watched has experienced year-over-year growth of 36%. All of NBA 2K League’s live and on-demand content has also generated 25 million views across social channels since the start of Season 2.

With “Locked In,” Arden is doing what he was brought in for, but he is also quick to point out the series is helped immensely by the league’s partnership with AT&T.

“They can’t go unnoticed,” Arden says. “They’re truly looking to build connections and share stories and elevate our game. The conversations we’ve had aren’t about their logo, but they’re invested in the next story we want to tell.”

A simple logo placement would likely be plenty for many partners, but Shiz Suzuki, AT&T AVP of Experiential Marketing and Sponsorship says it is in the company’s best interest to help make the content the best it can be.

“Anything we can do to help bring fans closer to the sport they love is what our NBA partnership is all about and why we’re thrilled to help the NBA 2K League make these stories and this original content series happen,” Suzuki says. “Those who follow the action know how multifaceted these players are, and this series brings that to life with a riveting approach to storytelling that even those unfamiliar with the league can look forward to watching.”

Finding the next players to feature is not difficult for Arden and his team. The production team often comes across stories in broadcasts and then tries to execute an episode with a 10 to 12-day production schedule.

“We have some incredible, multi-dimensional personalities from diverse backgrounds in our league, so it actually hasn’t been that difficult to identify good stories, frankly it’s been difficult to cross some off the lists,” Arden says. “These stories and personalities have emerged naturally on their own and we’ve been trying to be very organic in taking those stories when we see them bubble to the surface and taking them and running with them.”

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Right now, “Locked In” is still ironing out the logistics of filming and how to go to market and Season 1 is not even complete — the league hopes to release 10 episodes. Still, Arden’s happy with the product so far and would love to see a second year of “Locked In.” More so than anything, he’s happy with how the storylines are coming full circle to be included in tournament broadcasts.

“The more stories we uncover, the more we talk about individuals, learn about them, the more other players notice, the more fans notice,” he says. “We’re providing a real nice 360 communication around all our communication and broadcast touch points. It’s achieving the goals we wanted  to achieve, no matter the amount of episodes we produce.”

Deeper behind-the-scenes content has helped further engage fans with traditional sports. While the verdict is still out on the new NBA 2K League content, there is plenty for the esports industry to learn from here.

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Allied Esports Recognizes Opportunity in Mexico With New Partnership

Partnering with TV Azteca, Allied Esports hopes to tap into an underserved esports market in Latin America, particularly Mexico.

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Photo Courtesy Allied Esports

Allied Esports is seeking to grow its presence in Latin America with a strategic partnership with TV Azteca.

The partnership gives Allied Esports direct access to 95 percent of the Mexican market with TV Azteca’s digital channels and 40 local and regional free-to-air stations. With the partnership, TV Azteca is also launching its newest platform, Azteca Gaming, which will debut Allied Esports’ newest production, “Nation vs. Nation.”

Allied Esports CEO Jud Hannigan says TV Azteca’s position as a broadcast leader in Mexico provides them a great foundation for potential growth in Latin America, a relatively untapped market in the esports industry.

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“We’re excited about this first event in a new format as a kickoff,” Hannigan says. “They’re launching Azteca Esports and we’re coming in with this first event, and have plenty of others planned. They’re the top sports broadcaster in the region, so we couldn’t be more excited.”

“Nation vs. Nation” is the company’s first event and broadcast in Latin America, and it features four U.S. players against a Mexican team of 40 players in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. A trophy and cash prizes were on the line yesterday in Mexico City.

“The transformation process of TV Azteca, to bring the best television, has led to set an eye in new markets, towards an audience that consumes esports,” says Benjamín Salinas, CEO, TV Azteca. “Sports are part of our strength, and now with esports, we find a way to connect with a growing market in Mexico.”

Broadly speaking, this expansion for Allied Esports encompasses Latin America, but there’s a strategic importance specifically to Mexico, Hannigan notes. The country will be a primary driver of the region’s esports growth in the coming years.

According to eMarketer, Goldman Sachs projects the esports industry will bring in revenues of $2.96 billion in 2022. Latin America will make up $100 million of that.

The article reported the slow growth curve in Latin America is based on a lack of fixed broadband, but significant growth is expected in both Brazil and Mexico. Esports and video game revenue in Mexico jumped from $1.2 million in 2014 to an estimated $10.4 million in 2019 and is projected to rise to $20.3 million in 2022, according to Statista.

“Latin America represents a massive and transformative opportunity for Allied Esports,” says Frank Ng, co-CEO, Ourgame Holdings International – the current owner of Allied Esports. “By combining our live events experience with TV Azteca’s unequaled reach as the No. 1 sports network in Mexico, this crucial esports ecology partnership will be a major driver in building out the offline-online environment at the core of Allied Esports’ global strategy.”

The Allied Esports partnership with TV Azteca comes on the heels of sister company World Poker Tour reaching an agreement with the Latin American broadcaster to carry the poker tour’s library of content in March and develop poker-related products for the region’s audience.

As the World Poker Tour develops its localized content, Hannigan said the partners explored opportunities and landed on looking to grow esports in the region.

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The approach to Latin America through strategic partnerships will mirror how Allied Esports has tackled other regions of the globe, including Asia, Europe and North America. Along with Latin America, Australia is also in this year’s expansion plans.

“From our perspective, as Allied Esports grows, we’re looking at new regions and to affiliate with strong regional partners,” Hannigan says. “They’re really content-driven partnerships.”

Latin America might lag much of the rest of the world in esports popularity, but with the dearth comes opportunity. At least that’s what Allied Esports is banking on.

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Overwatch League’s First Homestand Weekend Sets the Stage for Geolocation

The Overwatch League’s first Homestand Weekend was a success. But what will happen in 2020 when a special attraction becomes a regular menu item?

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Courtesy: Dallas Fuel

Jiri “LiNKzr” Masalin had his doubts.

The Houston Outlaws player saw the same thing that so many fans, broadcasters and pundits did about the Overwatch League. That no matter how sleek the game design is, no matter who signed on as part of its star-studded ownership group and no matter how much financial muscle Blizzard puts behind the 16-month-old league, it’s future – “The whole premise of the league,” confirms Dallas Fuel owner Mike Rufail – hinges on how successfully it will geolocate its 20 franchises next year for its third season.

The league had its first test run on Saturday and Sunday at the Allen Event Center in suburban Dallas in the first of three “Homestand Weekend” events this season. It would be hard to term it anything other than a rousing success. The arena was filled to its 4,500-person capacity on both days, and the event featured activations from sponsors including Jack in the Box (the Fuel’s jersey sponsor), GameStop, AB InBev, T-Mobile and Omen by HP.

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But the most impressive feat of all was the environment. With the Dallas Stars’ mascot, Victor E. Green, in attendance, the Fuel’s event staff manufactured an environment that resembled a playoff hockey game more so than any conventional expectations of an esports match, with accouterments like pyrotechnics, a live performance from electronic music artist Karma Fields and a cosplayed version of a dot race – and, crucially, a red-hot crowd.

When it was all said and done, even wary people like Masalin couldn’t help but be impressed.

“As someone who played online throughout most of my career, I was obviously a bit skeptical with everything that would go into this,” he says. “But after being here and feeling the crowd and seeing how the logistics were and just how it feels to be a player in this kind of situation, I was very impressed with what we managed to do on super-short notice, basically. I’m excited for next year instead of skeptical.”

OWL’s now has two chances to replicate it, first in Atlanta in July before heading to Los Angeles in August. But the true questions concern how much of the weekend’s pomp and circumstance will translate across the globe once localized matches aren’t part of a barnstorming tour but instead are featured on the everyday menu in crowded sports markets.

For his part, Rufail isn’t concerned about the Fuel’s prospects. Per the Fuel’s PR team, 77 percent of tickets were sold to Texas buyers, a number suggesting that the foundation of a core audience is already in place. Instead of worrying about regression, he wants to go even bigger when it comes time for the Fuel to choose a permanent home ahead of the 2020 season.

“I would like to see more fans in the seats and test if our fans will come out and sell out a bigger crowd,” he says. “You won’t ever know until you do it, you know? And so that’s the first priority, to see if we can get a bigger crowd.”

Yet the league is fighting a war on two fronts, and only one of them is with conventional sports. The second is with its audience’s consumer habits in a marketplace that shifts at warp speed. Fortnite, for instance, was barely a blip on the radar when the Overwatch League’s first season kicked off last January; now, the battle royale game is a global sensation. Overwatch’s Twitch numbers have also fluctuated, perhaps due to longstanding critiques regarding the gameplay experience going stagnant, chatter that culminated in a viral video by retired pro Brandon “Seagull” Larned – arguably the league’s most recognizable star during its first season – who called the game a “coin flip.” Fewer everyday players could eventually choke off the supply of fresh talent, which in turn could stagnate the league’s ability to mint new stars.

Rufail isn’t worried about that last point, instead pointing out that the majority of NFL fans are hardly active football participants. And, it’s worth noting, any big-picture concerns certainly don’t appear to be putting an immediate damper on growth. Big-name sponsors are continuing to sign on. AB InBev (necessary disclosure: AB InBev is a partner of Front Office Sports) used the first Homestand Weekend to kick off a leaguewide partnership, while GameStop is jumping aboard as a partner of the Fuel. The league’s Twitch numbers are back on the upswing, too, after becoming the livestream platform’s most-viewed account for the month of April. Now, the first Homestand Weekend has given the Overwatch League proof of concept for prospective partners that their product that can be monetized in all the ways traditional sports have been for generations.

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“We have great demographic trends,” says the Outlaws’ Jacob “Jake” Lyon. “The only thing esports is missing from a business perspective is all those revenue streams that traditional sports are really relying on, which are ticket revenue, concessions revenue, bringing people into a physical space and making that experience so much richer than it could possibly be online or on television.”

Like his teammate Masalin, Lyon is convinced: Overwatch League – and esports – is here to stay. Last weekend only gave him 4,500 reasons to believe more fervently.

“Anyone looking for a litmus test, ask any fan in the building if they had a good time and if they can get their friends to come next time,” Lyon says.

“I think that’s really all you need to know about the future of esports.”

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