Among NASCAR's many challenges entering 2011: finding that Fountain of Youth.
No, I'm not talking about behind the wheel, where 35-year-old champ Jimmie Johnson led the way in keeping race trophies away from Social Security candidates: 10 of this year's 12 Chasers were under 40. With budding superstar Joey Logano turning 21 this year along with up-and-comers Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Trevor Bayne not far behind, this sport is set with a roster of talented twentysomethings for years to come.
Now, the plan is to get their buddies to actually sit down and watch the race. Nielsen Media noted recently NASCAR has the oldest median fan age among the major sports, a 51.6 trailing badly versus the NBA (39.3), NHL (43.4), NFL (46), and even MLB (51.4). Graying fans in the stands pose two problems: a lack of spending power for advertisers coveting the 18-49 bracket and agitation with a long list of recent changes, from the Chase to the Car of Tomorrow that leave them not-so-obsessed to pass on a generation's worth of support to their children. It's a tricky scenario, a sport based on long-term loyalty literally seeing their fan base start to die on the vine.
So how does a sport whose length is often three, sometimes four hours reel in a generation whose attention span gets steeped in a three-second virtual reality of tweets and Facebook status updates? Step one in that long-term strategy gets accomplished next month, when NASCAR re-enters their virtual realm with NASCAR The Game 2011 set for a Feb. 15 release. The Great American Race will be paired with a Great American Experiment, when the game goes live during Daytona 500 week, after British game developers infused their own style and substance into a sport in need of a jolt.
"They really had no exposure to NASCAR, any preconceived notions of what the sport was," says the sport's new Vice President of Licensing and Consumer Products lake Davidson. "They had worked on racing games before, but they didn't know a lot about NASCAR."
It didn't take long to leave developers hooked, creating their own philosophy on how to push stock car racing to an 18-49 crowd that left former NASCAR partner EA Sports with disappointing sales and a lukewarm response over the past decade. Having already mastered a number of highly successful racing titles, anything from Le Mans 24 Hours -- where the company won a PC Format Gold Award -- to their biggest seller, tongue-in-cheek comedy game Big Mutha Truckers, Community Manager Gregg Baker feels the company is well versed on attracting audiences into the nuances of a sport others have struggled to connect with in recent years.
"In the past, we've seen a lot of racing games either become too hardcore or too bland and that's not what NASCAR is about," he continues. "When you see a race live or on TV, it is a hugely exciting spectacle. On the surface, the idea of driving around an oval track may seem boring, but once you pick up the controller and run that first lap we think they'll have a new appreciation for it. Just the constant adrenaline rush of racing in a pack of 43 cars ... you're always keenly aware of what's going on around you, and we've made sure the sensation of going 200 mph is in there, along with all the bumping and grinding."
The key, of course, is creating that spectacle in a way where youngsters of all types will be engaged at first glance. And that's where the irony comes in: during a time where the sport is keen on safety, its developer is focused on turning eyes through the way cars tear apart.
"Our game engine allows us to create the most extreme damage of any officially licensed racing game," Baker adds. "Anything you've seen at the track can happen from sheet metal tearing [which will affect car handling but can be turned off in game options] to spin-outs and full-on multicar crashes."
It's the ugly, age-old debate of whether fans watch the races just to see cars self-destruct, "Boys, have at it" taken to a virtual extreme they may never see matched with real sheet metal. But NASCAR's Davidson knows that balance is needed, a way for fans to appreciate both types of reality and cross over.
"Obviously, there's an interest on the developers' part to push the envelope and the bounds of reality," he says. "And people expect that a little bit when they're playing any games that are related to sport. It's a little tougher segment of the market for us to play in, because we're not only a sport, but we're a sport that's a driving game and the driving segment of gaming is a very competitive space. And we're compared to not only sports games, but we're compared to driving games, and that's a pretty broad spectrum."
"So, on the one hand, you've got games out there like a Grand Theft Auto or a Gran Turismo that are very different from what we're trying to do here. And they push the envelope in different ways. So, we're trying to obviously connect our game back to the reality of our sport, but I think the fans and the gamers will know there's some creative license that's being taken. And, of course, there's more Eutechnyx would like to do we don't let them do ... creative tension, which I think is a good thing. If you have the right balance of creative tension, then you come up with a really great game at the end of the day."
So while the game will have some options for hardcore fans, NASCAR's online iRacing arm is not the goal for a game marketed to the masses, a chance to expand their horizons while understanding the limitations that come with it. That means for everyone involved in the project, they're hanging their hat on a reality-video game connection through development of individual personalities. Key to NASCAR's fan support for generations, the artificial intelligence of each car is being developed through a style that matches the real-life on and off-track "mood" of its driver.
"A Kyle Busch, for instance," explains Davidson. "His car in the game drives like Kyle Busch drives, and it works that way throughout the entire game. [And] they have done some really cool 3D renderings of the drivers' faces, it's really the best I've seen in any product. I think that's something that we've really never touched on before. That's really what makes the sport. I think it's another way that people say, hey, I can never pass Kyle Busch, he's always tough to pass on the track. I wonder what that guy's really like. I'm going to turn on the TV, watch a race, and see if that holds up. So there are some cool things they can do with that."
"We're also using The Chase scoring format," adds Baker. "So as you play through the season, the drivers will race according to their standings. For example, if Greg Biffle needs a win to get back in the points chase you'll see him really pushing out there."
That's not the only area NASCAR is pushing with the product. Well aware of their older mistakes in disregarding the age of the internet, NASCAR The Game 2011 is flush with all sorts of social media connections, a first for Eutechnyx as they push forward in connecting virtual reality with someone's own.
"We have built in the ability for gamers to upload their replays to their YouTube account," Baker explains. "This will also post a link to it on Twitter or Facebook so everyone on your friends list knows about it."
"I think social media, by and large, will be part of just about every communication strategy that we have as a way to connect with our fans directly," adds Davidson. "We can change things, and we can adjust things, which is a lot like NASCAR if you think about that. NASCAR is a sport that has always been one that is willing to adjust the rules of the sport to make the product better for the fans."
"It's the same exact kind of thing here. We produce products, if there's changes that we can make to the products with our partners that'll make our overall experience better, we're going to do that. And I love that about what we're able to do in gaming."
Could that means fans' feedback over length of races in the game translate into real-life rule changes for 2012 and beyond? It's an intriguing thought. For now, all sides seem ecstatic over the early returns, with development podcasts and examples already up at NASCARthegame.com. The power of partnering with publisher Activision will ensure a market reach capable of competing for top video game titles. But, moving forward, the biggest competition benchmark NASCAR will have is to see if fans get the type of hair-raising excitement playing that at least gives them a chance to convert them into longtime fans every Sunday.
"One of the things that we've always leaned on gaming for is to give people the experience of driving a race car. Driving in NASCAR. You're not going to get that experience, really, anywhere else," adds Davidson. "You can always go outside and dribble a basketball, throw a baseball, throw a football, and play those sports but you can't do that in NASCAR. The closest that you can possibly get to doing that is through a game unless you've got the means to get in a race car. And if we can get them excited about the product, excited about the gameplay, and they begin to ask questions about -- well, become curious about who Jimmie Johnson is, or Jeff Gordon, or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or any of these guys and we want to connect playing the game to watching events on TV, hopefully attending events in person."
Struggling to develop that type of grassroots support in recent years, it's a new way for NASCAR to reconstruct itself from the ground up. It's part of a continued transition in the 21st century, from "If you build it, then we'll come" to "If you imagine it, then maybe they'll want to experience reality."