The 2021 edition of the iRacing eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series, which pitted top NASCAR drivers against one another in the virtual world, has been called to an early conclusion. The decision has come after half of the season has already been completed. American outlet NBC Sports was due to broadcast the second half of the calendar, but the decision was taken to abruptly end the series, seemingly due to waning interest from fans.
What was the Pro Invitational Series?
NASCAR launched the iRacing eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series back in 2020, when the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought real-life racing activity to a screeching halt. Initially, the novel concept was a massive hit, bolstered by the participation of NASCAR legends such as Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. For the second event of the 2020 series, over one million people in the USA tuned in to watch the action on Fox and Fox Sports 1.
.@NASCAR today is informing the industry that it is discontinuing the iRacing Pro Invitational Series for the rest of 2021, though it could return in the future for special events.— Adam Stern (@A_S12) July 2, 2021
➖ As the U.S. emerged from the pandemic this year, viewership/industry interest in it have waned. pic.twitter.com/Y6LFUfeeqK
This level of success, which broke audience number records for esports broadcasts on United States television, was always going to be unsustainable. The 2021 return of the series didn’t feature the same star power in terms of participating drivers. This, along with the fact that the regular, real-world NASCAR series had long since restarted, meant that the incentive for NASCAR fans to tune in significantly diminished. As a result of these factors, the first race of the 2021 series at Bristol only drew 292,000 viewers.
Formula 1’s own take on the genre, called the F1 Virtual Grand Prix series, has also seen a downwards trend heading into 2021. The first official Virtual Grand Prix from 2020 at Melbourne is currently sitting at nearly two and a half million views on YouTube. In comparison, the most watched Virtual Grand Prix in 2021 is the race at Silverstone, which is presently just shy of 700,000 views. While the decline of these series which blend esports racing and real-world racing together may seem discouraging, it is worth noting that the viewership numbers are still very high in absolute terms. The success of series such as the iRacing eNASCAR Pro Invitational have demonstrated the potential power of esports racing to the world.
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