Virtual races carry real-world consequences for Nascar drivers

  • Video games
  • Wednesday, 15 Apr 2020

Nascar team Chip Ganassi Racing sacked Larson on April 14, 2020, a day after sponsors fled the star driver over his use of a racial slur during a live streamed virtual race. — AFP

Nascar drivers are facing real-world consequences for their conduct during video-game races, a byproduct of a new sports-media landscape where athletes are competing on open microphones from home.

Driver Kyle Larson was fired Tuesday from Chip Ganassi Racing after he used a racial slur during a digital race over the weekend. It comes one week after Bubba Wallace lost a sponsor when he abandoned an eNascar event in the middle of the race, a move called “rage quitting” in gaming parlance.

As sports leagues and their media partners adjust to a world without live sports, many are shifting to video-game events or at-home competitions to keep fans engaged. These events — like the NBA 2K Players Tournament or ESPN’s ongoing H-O-R-S-E tournament — often feature athletes in the comfort of their own homes, constantly miked up through cameras or gaming headsets.

The setup can give fans a glimpse into these athletes’ personalities, at a time when there aren’t press conferences and media scrums. That can be both good and bad, as we’ve already seen in the past few weeks.

The Wallace and Larson incidents, while very different in tone and severity, are a warning for athletes and advertisers across the US, according to longtime marketing executive Bob Dorfman.

"The relaxed nature of ‘homemade’ media makes it easier for jocks to let their guard down, be more natural and relaxed, and possibly let slip out something offensive and inappropriate,” said Dorfman, creative director of Baker Street Advertising. "Every time an athlete is on an open mic or camera — whether it’s a formal presser or casual Zoom event — he or she has to be aware that their words and actions matter, and are being scrutinised by millions.”

‘Offensive and unacceptable’

Nascar was among the first to embrace the gaming trend, replacing its races with simulated versions on weekends. Larson, 27, wasn’t competing in one of those, but rather a different iRacing event, when he used the N-word this weekend. Other drivers in the chat reacted immediately, including one who reminded him that he was talking publicly.

Larson apologised, but blowback was swift, with his racing team suspending him indefinitely on Monday and a number of sponsors distancing themselves. On Tuesday, Chip Ganassi Racing said he was fired.

"The comments that Kyle made were offensive and unacceptable, especially given the values of our organization,” the team said. "As we continue to evaluate the situation with all relevant parties, it became obvious that this was the only appropriate action to take.”

Wallace was competing in an official eNascar event when he rage-quit following a wreck. "That’s why I don’t take this s--- serious. Peace out,” Wallace said before ending his stream.

After the race, pain-relief brand Blue-Emu, whose name was on Wallace’s mirror when he quit, severed its relationship with the driver. "Can you imagine if he did that in real life on a track?” a Blue-Emu executive told the Action Network.

The bad incidents have overshadowed the good and humorous moments from these new types of sports broadcasts. In the early rounds of the NBA 2K Players Tournament, Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis benched the video-game version of himself after complaining that the avatar “really sucks”.

During another competition, Andre Drummond asked DeMarcus Cousins about the craziest dunk he ever witnessed. Surprisingly, Cousins mentioned a high-school slam by current NFL wide receiver Julio Jones, prompting fans to scour the Internet in search of video.

As the US sports calendar remains halted by the virus, media companies like ESPN and Fox Sports will continue to work with leagues and athletes to create creative ways to bring them to fans. Everyone in that equation is hoping for less Larson, more Cousins. — Bloomberg

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