Gaming playing a key role in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series growth
The virtual world is getting closer to the real world of racing.
The next generation of race fans is coming, and IMSA president Scott Atherton had a chance to meet a few members of that next wave during this summer’s Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park.
“True story,” Atherton said. “I’m standing underneath our awning at Lime Rock. There’s four young men there, probably 12 to 14 years old. I started a conversation with them and tried to hear from them what brought them to the race, and two of them said they’ve been playing racing online games, racing our cars for years, and had been bugging their parents to bring them to a race. Their parents finally said yes, and the kids were loving it. There’s a textbook example of how you plant the seed, and ultimately, they become your core fans.”
Earlier this month, Atherton held his annual “State of the Series” address at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for IMSA teams, partners and the media. In addition to unveiling 2020 schedules for all seven racing series, Atherton talked about, among other things, changes on the horizon to the DPi platform, green initiatives, competition refinements to the LMP2 and Prototype Challenge series and growth charts.
Scott Atherton has heard stories of gamers coming out to the racetrack to see the real thing.
The overriding theme was indeed growth. Any study of the analytics today, according to Atherton (pictured, right), involves so much more than just breaking down TV and attendance figures. These days, measuring growth means looking at metrics not even as old as some of the drivers in the paddock.
Case in point is the virtual experience and its line in the growth equation. Gaming platforms “iRacing,” “Forza Motorsport 7,” “Real Racing 3” and “Race Driver: Grid” each feature IMSA products, whether it be cars and/or racetracks.
“Just about every partner we work with tells us that esports are a priority for them,” Atherton said. “We’re certainly in line with that. If you look at ‘iRacing,’ there’s been IMSA content on there since the beginning. Forza has been a foundational partner—there are over 100 IMSA cars to choose from on that platform. ‘Real Racing 3’ is a relatively new addition for us. There’s some great content there. And Codemasters’ ‘Race Driver: Grid’ is coming out in October.
The real world, above, is getting a boost as gamers flock to the racetrack to see the real thing.
“Everyone who attends our events takes note of how many young people are in attendance—families, college-age kids, high school-age kids and younger. Many of our automotive partners might say that’s not their target demographic, but it will be. For certain, that is the next generation of our core fan in the pipeline heading our way. This is a very important element.”
Lexus motorsports manager Jeff Bal wasn’t surprised to see esports as a point of emphasis at this year’s State of the Series.
“My 9-year-old is that kid,” Bal said. “For us growing up, it was a poster on the wall, and you’d go to the race to see that car. Now, the kids can be the driver of that car in a game and go all the way through the entire series and win the championship.
“It’s is a wide-open space, and I think we’re just now discovering it’s an opportunity for us to reach fans that maybe wouldn’t find the sport before. My 9-year-old is the perfect test. He comes up to me one day and says, ‘Hey Dad, why isn’t the Lexus RC F GT3 in the game?’ That’s a great question. I guess we need to win a little bit more so that it makes sense to get it in there.”
Mazda North American Operations motorsports boss John Doonan also sees the potential of esports partnerships.
“It’s a massive industry,” Doonan said. “Teams and manufacturers and outside corporate partners are investing massively to bring in not only the gamers themselves but also the people who follow them to see our content. How great would it be if an actual esports tournament took place on-site at an IMSA event?
“Several of the gaming companies have reached out to us and scanned our current race cars. We’ve been involved with ‘iRacing’ with our MX-5 Cup car. As we develop the race car, ‘iRacing’ also develops their sister twin to it. To reach our next generation of audience, it’s going to take investment and strategy around that industry. I love when fans come up to me at the races and say, ‘I drive your car in my game.’ That’s always exciting to know that they want to experience what we have here.”
Elsewhere in the report, Atherton said that IMSA’s new television partnership with NBC Sports has so far delivered 4.1 million viewers, with two races yet to be aired on flagship NBC. In terms of online streaming, IMSA is reporting a 58 percent increase year to year on the NBC App and a 34 percent increase in international viewers streaming content at IMSA.tv and through the IMSA App.
“We’re essentially flat in TV, year to date,” Atherton said. “Most people would say it’s hard to get excited about that. What’s important to understand, though, is that at this time last year, we had already had our two network broadcasts on Fox—and those generated some big numbers.
“The bottom line is our best TV is yet to come. I want everyone to understand that television-wise, we’re in a really good place.”
Atherton is also excited about IMSA’s social media growth, where the series boasts 562,000 followers along its social media platforms, 111 million social impressions highlighted by its Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels and 2.5 million social engagements online.
“In terms of the livestreams, it’s a 58 percent increase,” Atherton said. “That’s a byproduct of the NBC App. In terms of digital, we see increases across the total connections, hours of livestreaming, apps streamed—a 34 percent increase in people watching through our app. Great increase there. Social is where we’re hitting the cover off the ball.”
Mike Shank, co-owner of an IMSA franchise dating back to before the Grand-Am/ALMS merger, has been involved in IMSA and sports car racing in the U.S. for more than three decades. His Acura-powered team—Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian—and drivers Mario Farnbacher and Trent Hindman lead the IMSA GTD class standings with three races left on the schedule. Shank also owns an NTT IndyCar Series team.
“It gets better every year,” said Shank during the drivers autograph session at Road America. “These lines you see for the autograph sessions were not there five years ago, but I would like to see it get a little more vertical. I’d like to see more, but it’s hard because traditional road racing to me in the U.S. has just kind of slightly stumbled—and I don’t care who runs it.
“I’m a loyal, loyal Jim France, Grand-Am guy. That’s what’s made my business. I stand behind everything they did to get us to this point. That critical year of 2014, it had to happen. Just like IRL and IndyCar had to come together. This had to happen. I think it’s got a great future.”
Shank says he’d like to see IMSA think even more outside its box. He suggested trying a radical single-venue race weekend tripleheader of IMSA on Friday, IndyCar on Saturday and a NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday.
“I don’t think you’d get a ticket to the place if you came up with something that far outside the norm,” Shank said. “We need to do some things that are going to change the dynamic of how people view racing at any level.”
And sooner rather than later.
“It’s all coming, but I’d like to see it happen tomorrow,” Shank said. “It’s not impossible. I’m all-in with IMSA. This is my net worth that you see right here. I want it to succeed, but I also want to make more of an impact, and we’re not there yet.”
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