NASCAR steps into the world of eSports

NASCAR steps into the world of eSports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Just the idea of it puts 20-year-old Casey Kirwan at a loss for words.

“It’s, I don’t even, it’s just crazy to think about,” Kirwan said.

He was texting NASCAR star Denny Hamlin. He got an offer: Hamlin wanted to pay him to race Michael Jordan’s car - online.

“When he gave me the offer at the bottom, he was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is Michael Jordan’s 23 car.’ And I was like, okay, that’s a lot right there,” Kirwan said.

Kirwan hit the virtual Daytona racetrack Tuesday in the kickoff to the 2020 eNASCAR Coca Cola iRacing Series.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, this is just a bunch of kids playing a video games. It’s not that way at all. This is part of the massively growing eSports industry.

The winner of the Daytona race pocketed $1,500.

“It's grown to where it is prize pools over $300,000 this year,” Kirwan tells Jamie Boll.

“Wait, wait, what? Say that again?,” Boll asked.

“Yes. It’s over $300,000. Champion gets $100,000,” Kirwan responded.

“What was it last year?,” Boll asked.

“It was $120,000. The year before that was like $17,000,” Kirwan responded.

In just two years, the pool shot up from $17,000 to $300,000. There’s a lot up for grabs.

If you have kids at home, you may have noticed a trend over the past few years. They’re not just playing video games. They’re watching others play online and on TV.

According to market research company Newzoo, in 2016, 181 million people watched eSports. A year later, it was 335 million. In 2018, 380 million. It predicts by 2021, the number will hit 557 million.

That's a lot of eyeballs. It’s something advertisers and traditional sports leagues have noticed. NASCAR is one of them.

“With NASCAR, the younger generation, everyone plays video games. Everyone loves video games. So the big goal of it is to get everyone, all more younger people, involved so they can go see the real thing. It’s so awesome,” Kirwan said.

Last season, Casey was racing for a team owned by NASCAR star Clint Bower. It was the first year. This year there are 20 big name teams involved, including Joe Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, and Roush Fenway.

All of the iRacing drivers were allowed to sign with any of the teams they wanted. It was free agency. Casey ended up with Denny Hamlin.

With big money on the line, Kirwan has invested in all kinds of equipment. Steering wheels, a shifter, foot pedals, computers and cameras. He livestreams his races -- making him a few more dollars. He has set practice times and he has to give feedback to others who work on his car set-ups to make drive faster.

“They laser scan every single track. They go there, they laser scan it a couple of days, take pictures of everything, make everything look exactly like it is,” Kirwan says. “If there’s a little bump in the corner. You hit that same bump exact same way.”

Where’s this industry headed?

“I don’t know,” Kirwan replies. “Right now, it’s my job and not like a full living wage job yet, but it’s growing.”

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