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The thrill of speeding around a curve, testing the limits of what a big engine can do, is the heart of car racing as a sport. Fans might be able to experience this kind of excitement in limited scenarios, such as if they pay to visit a fantasy racing camp for a weekend, but for years, they mostly have enjoyed it vicariously by watching races, in person or on television, rooting for their favorite teams and drivers. So when COVID-19 put the brakes on in-person races, perhaps it should have come as no surprise that fans were willing to take the next step and enjoy simulated (sim) races.

The sim races, as a form of gaming, had been on offer for a while; the technology did not have to be created for the offering to be available. Previously racing teams had used them to link up with fans through digital media. In various gamified settings, players race against one another, and multiple racing teams have joined those platforms to link up with those fans.

Furthermore, the realism and accuracy of the sim races provides a supplemental training tool that many drivers leverage, to get a sense of a new track before they actually drive on it during a race. Accordingly, there have been stories of regular fans encountering a famous, professional driver in game, allowing them to race against them—at least virtually. Such close connections have made sim games a prime market for advertisers; Chevy, Mazda, and McLaren all grant licenses to various racing games, giving them the right to reproduce versions of some of their most popular racing models.

Thus when racing shut down, some companies and teams already had sim versions ready to go. Building on that foundation, television networks that lacked the content traditionally provided by the slate of NASCAR, Formula 1, and other races agreed to test out broadcasts of sim races. An early test, marketed as the Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix, attracted 4 million viewers, across television and digital platforms—far less than a conventional race, but way more than sim races used to attract.

The audience also consists of hard-core fans, so any advertising appearing during the game was reaching a deeply engaged target market. Their engagement was also evident in the wealth of social media comments, likes, and posts that accrued during the race, spreading the marketing reach even further. Such cross-platform effects implies access to a younger demographic as well, something that NASCAR has struggled to achieve in recent years.

Beyond the promise of effective advertising, sim racing opens up opportunities for more sponsors and brands to participate. For example, a sponsorship package for an actual vehicle averaged around $35 million, far exceeding the budget of many brands. But in sim races, brands can pay less than $10,000 and appear on the hood of a virtual car.

Thus even as lockdown restrictions ease, sim racing might remain, in parallel with real races, offering audiences a new way to interact with drivers and teams; giving drivers a way to connect with fans and improve their skills; offering the racing leagues greater reach and exposure; and providing brands a wider range of options for keeping their logos visible.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is sim racing so appealing to marketers?
  2. How are brands using sim racing to build brand loyalty?
  3. Is sim racing likely to remain popular even after racetracks reopen?

Source: Roy Furchgott, “Pandemic Paved the Way for Sim Racing, but Will It Last?” The New York Times, January 18, 2021