The 2017 NASCAR iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series visited Richmond International Raceway last night, and though 2016 champion Ray Alfalla took home the checkered flag after what was a surprisingly clean affair for a circuit that normally encourages hyper-aggressive driving, the broadcast audience were an otherwise stale bunch, remaining silent for the full two hundred laps and refusing to mingle with fellow hardcore sim racers.
Or rather, they weren’t able to.
Though iRacing’s promotional material proudly list themselves as the number one name in eSports sim racing competitions, the reality is quite far from what has been advertised. Taking in the Richmond event out of curiosity, as short track oval racing traditionally produces a spectacle that’s more in line with the classic stock car mantra of “rubbing is racing”, I noticed the viewer count struggled to blow past the 350 mark, hovering around 320 or 330 throughout most of the event. Now, knowing how the iRacing community operates, I can attest to the fact that most of the people who watch sim racing broadcasts merely do so because they’re friends with somebody directly participating in the race, with the odd family member or two tuning in for morale support rather than a flock of avid drivers looking to learn from the best of the best.
For example, if each of the 40 drivers on the grid get two of their online buddies, along with one of their parents to tune into the stream, that’s about one hundred and twenty viewers – almost half of the total audience. Factor these people out as statistical anomalies who will never not tune in, and you’ve barely got two hundred people willingly viewing an eSports event – certainly not eSports numbers by any stretch of the imagination; your kid’s Christmas pageant had more spectators. The rest of the audience fall into the wanderer category, stopping by out of curiosity on an otherwise dull Tuesday evening.
And sometimes, they aren’t always happy with the on-track product. The opening round of the 2017 NASCAR iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series was a disastrous affair, with administrators forced to nullify the results and quickly reconfigure the entire season schedule after a chain of comedic technical difficulties turned the start of the race into mass confusion. This led to many viewers openly slamming iRacing for their ineptitude in the YouTube chat box, and iRacing responded in the only manner they know how – censorship.
As the title of this article suggests, that ended up having far bigger ramifications than originally planned; viewership numbers have basically collapsed since the first event of the season.
One of the reasons people watch live eSports competitions is to hang out with like-minded fans of the game or genre on display, and bullshit with each other in a casual setting. It’s a fun way to socialize, spout obscure memes related to the topic at hand, and bring everybody together for a live virtual meet-up, especially considering most online communities center around message boards, where simple conversations are very rigid, structured, and take place over a period of days instead of in real-time. Being able to chat with others while watching an eSports stream is the computer nerd equivalent of rounding up your bros and all heading over to a single household to watch an evening of the NHL playoffs; there’s a sort of camaraderie in spectating a live event as a large group.
Paranoid that their sponsorship partners would become upset at the casual shit-posting atmosphere and occasional justified knocks at iRacing’s ineptitude, the staff at iRacing have permanently disabled chat functionality during their Peak Anti-Freeze Series YouTube streams, forcing the majority of spectators to sit in isolation. While iRacing were once able to boast a live audience count of over two thousand, that number has now plummeted to just above three hundred, and it’s pretty obvious as to why. The shared camaraderie with other sim racers has been completely removed from the viewing experience, turning the broadcasts into bland processions that lack any sort of community element that is synonymous with eSports event streams.
The irony comes in what’s going on behind the scenes; iRacing are quick to outright remove YouTube chat feeds in fear of inappropriate content appearing when races don’t go according to plan, yet Peak Anti-Freeze Series drivers routinely complain about race administrators struggling with basic spelling and going on aggressive tirades towards certain competitors, threatening expulsion from the championship for refusing to go along with a dictatorship-like atmosphere. For a series that only just managed to retain Peak as a title sponsor, and can only pull about two hundred viewers who are there by choice, iRacing run around executing damage control as if there are major implications from even the slightest bit of criticism appearing on YouTube, and their efforts are so intrusive it’s actually killing off the audience in droves because you’ve now taken away a major reason people actually come hang out during live broadcasts and take in the show. Nobody wants to watch these events anymore because you can’t even hang out with people and bullshit about sim racing; iRacing’s hyper-sensitivity towards criticism has disallowed chatting with other sim racers during sim racing events.
At what point are people going to wake up and discover that behind the carefully crafted public image of iRacing, it appears more and more tangible each day that certain individuals in charge of these championships are really nothing more than a group of angry old men who want to rule a bunch of kids with an iron fist to live out their power tripping fantasies. You have a developer claiming to be an eSports leader not allowing viewers of their eSports events to mingle with one another out of sheer paranoia – which against one of the main community elements of the eSports viewing experience – while simultaneously talking about how great the iRacing community is.
What community? You’re not even allowing them to talk with each other during your primary broadcasts!