November 14, 2019

Why NASCAR raced into esports in 2019

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In many ways, NASCAR feels like a good fit for esports. The views from the cockpit of a race car can be thrilling. It’s fast, and and mayhem can happen any time cars bunch up on the track.

While EA and 2K have been able to get esports for Madden and NBA 2K off the ground, NASCAR Heat publisher 704Games has had some trouble adapting stock car racing to competitive gaming. Part of the reason was technology — race courses a so much bigger than basketball courts and football fields, especially the road tracks at the 2.52-mile Sonoma Raceway.

This year, 704Games launched the first NASCAR esports series (the eNASCAR Pro Heat League) figuring out how to best show the action around the entire track, the field of racers (again, you have more competitors at once in Heat than you do in other sports games, even League of Legends/Dota 2 and a number of shooters), and the web of licences and permissions you need (unlike the likes of the NFL, NASCAR team owners are all independent from the governing body).

I recently spoke with Ed Martin, the manager of esports at 704Games. He’s been working on sports games for years, including NASCAR when it was under EA Sports umbrella. He walked me through the fascinating process of making NASCAR esports a reality, especially the importance of in-game cameras on the viewing experience.

This is an edited transcript of our interview.

In the garage

GamesBeat: Why start a NASCAR esports league in 2019?

Ed Martin: For us, the technology wasn’t completely there. The industry within NASCAR hadn’t really coalesced on what the esports plan was going to be. 704 Games has been around for a while doing video games, and so we’re the mass market partner for NASCAR. There’s another partner out there, iRacing, that does high end simulations, online only, and they’ve kind of been doing esports. Trying to figure out how all that was going to work together required the industry to come together and say, this makes sense. 704 is the grassroots and mass market bringing everyone in, and then there’s this other entity here, so we can see how the flow works together and fits.

Quite frankly, although we’ve been around since 2015, building up the technology in our games to get to the point where we’re truly able to do esports took a while. It’s not as simple as saying, we’ve got a game that does 40-player multiplayer. There was a lot we needed to do to be able to do it at this level. It took us a year, year and a half, to get together once we decided to do it. And then something truly magical happened. The Race Team Alliance, which is a group of all the major race teams in the sport — there’s 13 members, every race team you can think of in the Cup series — brought in a new executive director whose name is Jonathan Marshall. Jonathan totally got it when it came to esports, from the day we met him and said, we should do something, bringing the teams into this. The teams should be owners. He became the champion across the teams to make this happen. I give him a huge amount of credit for making this happen. NASCAR thought this was a great idea, and 704 thought it was a great idea, but if you have to bring together more than a dozen of the biggest teams in the industry, and you don’t have that single torchbearer and champion of this thing, it’s going to take an awful long time. Jonathan became that for us. That’s how it all happened.

Above: Working with NASCAR is like working with individual teams, not just one big league.

Image Credit: 704Games

GamesBeat: That’s one of the things about NASCAR. You’re not dealing with one players’ association or a group of teams and owners under one umbrella, such as the NFL. You’re dealing with a bunch of different racing teams with different contracts?

Martin: Exactly. I used to work for EA Sports back in the day. I ran the NASCAR franchise down at the Tiburon studio in Florida, where they also had Madden football, which is obviously a huge-selling game. Madden had exactly three licenses in it. It had John Madden, the NFL, and Players Inc. They got everything they needed through those three licenses. At the same time, I was shipping a NASCAR game that had over 2,000 licensed and approved properties in it. 2000. In the NASCAR world, you go to a Charlotte Motor Speedway, and I can get the license to the track, but they don’t have the pass-through rights for every billboard at the track. NASCAR has never really had this before. It’s a very different beast. That sounds a lot worse than it really is. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years. You figure out how to get it done.

But you’re exactly right. Taking the Rick Hendricks of the world and the Roger Penskes and the Jack Roushes and the Tony Stewarts and the Gene Haases — how do you get them to all head in the same direction? They all have their own agendas and their own goals. As it relates to NASCAR, you have these billionaires that are bringing in money from other areas. They’re trying to build their race teams. It’s all about what goes on the pavement at the race track. You start talking about video games and, yeah, that’s cool, that’s a nice licensed property, I love the royalty checks from that, that’s interesting. No, no, no, it’s going to be legitimately part of the sport. It’s going to be competition. What? Yeah! You’re going to have players racing on PlayStations and Xboxes just like they race in the Cup series and the Xfinity series. It took someone like Jonathan to get all those guys in lockstep saying, this is fantastic. This is what the sport needs to do. This is the way the sport can finally attract youth and a new audience, which we’ve been striving to do. The television product is fantastic. The on-track product is fantastic that we do with the Cup series and the Xfinity series and the Gander series, but this is amazing. This is the future. Like I said, Jonathan became that champion. We all got together and said, yep, this makes all the sense in the world. But it’s a lot of individual people.

Start your engines

GamesBeat: What was harder? Working on the technology to get this to work, or working with all the people and the licenses?

Martin: Well, I’m not an engineer. I’m a businessman. [Laughs] You probably know how I’m going to answer it. I had to deal with getting all the logistics and operational stuff done. The technology to pull this off is way beyond anything we’ve ever done with a simple video game. We just ran our sixth race of the season last night. We run the production in the same studio at NASCAR Plaza that they produce the Cup, Xfinity, and Trucks series races. We’re in the same mission control center, except our cameras happen to be computers, where theirs are real cameras out at the race track. There are 17 people involved in the production when you include everyone in the room and the voice talent to put this thing together. It’s not as simple as saying, oh, let’s just run the video game and show the in-car view of the camera.

One of the biggest problems with all racing games, but certainly NASCAR in our case here, is the player view in a NASCAR game is not a view of the entire field of play. If you’re playing FIFA, you see the entire field of play. If you play Call of Duty, you can see the entire field of play. If you’re playing a NASCAR game or an F1 game or an IndyCar game, you see the cockpit, from one of, in the case of NASCAR, up to 40 cars that could be on the track. We had to build entirely new systems that allow us to broadcast the race in a non-player view. We want the player view, but there’s much more to it. The best analogy I can give you, if you’re Fox or NBC, and all you have at your disposal are 40 in-car cameras and that’s how they had to broadcast the entire race, nobody would watch the race. You need cameras on blimps, in the stands. You need roof cams. You need what they call the gopher cam, where the cars drive over it on the track. You need real cameras to show the full field of play. We had to build all that technology.

A dizzying amount of screens reflect on the glass in the NASCAR esports control booth.

Above: A dizzying amount of screens reflect on the glass behind Ed Martin in the NASCAR esports control booth.

Image Credit: 704Games

We had to build timing and scoring systems that were robust and couldn’t be cheated. We had to build graphics systems. We’re not using the broadcast graphics from Fox and NBC. It’s all stuff we had to build, and that has to be perfectly synchronized. We had to build race control systems. Right now the game controls when yellow flags come out and what happens. In the case of the NASCAR Heat Pro League, we control the yellow flags. We have race officials. I’m actually in charge of race control. We’re deciding when yellow flags are going to go down, when penalties are issued, all the rulings that come after it. I had four emails I had to send out to teams today on things that happened last night in racing and qualifying. We had to make decisions on that. None of that stuff existed a year ago. We had to build all of that. That was an awful lot of work. Getting the deal together, quite honestly, to talk out of the other side of my mouth here–once we got Jonathan on board and he was fully behind this and the RTA was behind it, 704 and NASCAR were already there. It really wasn’t that hard to put the deal together, because they were in favor of it. The business terms were pretty easy to hammer out. Everyone was willing to take the risk and put up the money to deliver it, and here we are today. So honestly the technology was probably a bit harder to make. Even though I didn’t have to do it.

GamesBeat: When it comes to the race, how many people are racing? Is it a full field? Is it smaller than what you’d see on the track?

Martin: In our case it’s 14 players on an Xbox race and then 14 players on a PS4 race. So there’s 14 on the track at the same time. But what we do is we bend the rules of NASCAR a little bit. We make the races a lot shorter. Our races are about half an hour in length, just a bit under. We manipulate the number of laps to make that work. We also can do things you would never do in the real world, like we increase the wear factor and the fuel consumption, the tire wear, by a factor of four. So your car is only going to run a quarter of the amount that it would in the real world. Now, what does that do? That creates some incredible pit strategy. It creates some incredible fuel consumption and tire wear strategy. It creates more pit stops and cooler passing. Because those pit stops are happening, we’re constantly keeping the cars in a much tighter pack. Our races never really spread out like some of the real-world races can do. This is like a swarm of bees on top of each other. In the case of last night’s race it was a 35-lap race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You only have 35 laps to win this thing. It’s very exciting.

GamesBeat: Sometimes in NASCAR, when things stretch out because of pit stops and slower cars and so on, the action can be lost. That doesn’t really happen here?

Martin: It really doesn’t. It’s like we took the most exciting parts of the race and put it in a trash compactor to make it a little tighter. Everyone likes the beginning of a race, because that’s exciting. Everybody likes the end of the race because of the intensity you get to the checkered flag. That’s how we’ve packaged this together. Let’s bring the intensity and ratchet it up and try a couple of different things. For example, we’re very–I’ve never figured out if we’re conservative or liberal. Maybe you can help me pick the right word. But we don’t throw caution flags in our league as often as they do in the real world. We’re much more frugal in how we do that. There’s a couple of reasons for that. One of those reasons is we already have built-in pit stops because of the 4X wear factor. But you want to let the race progress as much as you can and leave it in the drivers’ hands. In our game, there’s no fear of injury and no fear of death. I don’t want that to sound awful, but in the real world if there’s an accident, they have to stop the action and get the safety crews out to the cars to make sure the driver’s okay and get the debris off the track. In our game, nobody’s going to get hurt if there’s a wreck. The computer just cleans everything up and you go racing again. The driver is never going to get hurt. You’re able to do things much faster. Take a typical Cup race. The race last weekend. If there was a caution flag, from the time the caution flag comes out until all the cars pit and they’re able to do pace laps and throw the green flag again, you’re probably looking at about five minutes. In our race it’s 20 seconds. The drivers, once the caution comes out, decide what they want to do in the pits. Their cars magically go into the pits. What they chose to do is done. The cars are immediately set back out on the grid and the race is ready to go again. In fact, we actually have the opposite problem as the real world. The cautions were happening so quick in our races that we actually had to build in a delay because our voice talent didn’t have enough time between caution flag and green flag to describe what happened and show a replay of the accidents. That’s a great problem to have. All right, I need to give more time to the broadcasters. To us, that’s another one of those things we can manipulate. How long should that caution period be? In a race that’s only going to last 25 to 30 minutes you don’t want it to be very long. You don’t want it to be so short that you can’t talk about it and show what happened either. For the first couple of races it was kind of funny. We had these replays and we couldn’t show the damn replays, because the caution period wasn’t long enough.