Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Broadcaster James Pike on iRacing’s rapid rise to prominence and one of the “most mental” weeks of his life

Posted on 29 March 2020 by Alex Bartlett
Credit: iRacing.com

Vladimir Lenin once said, “There are decades where nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen.”

This is the perfect way to describe the last few weeks for iRacing.

The world’s premier online racing simulation has grown exponentially over the past decade, but even the sport’s most devout disciples could not have imagined the spike it has seen in the last fortnight.

In a time where the world has been swept by a global pandemic forcing people to isolate in their homes and the halting of the sporting calendar, the sport has risen to the forefront.

Nobody is better placed to document the rise of iRacing and eSports than former Sports Gazette writer and St Mary’s graduate James Pike.

“I would say, the last week or so was maybe one of the absolute most mental weeks I’ve ever had in my life point blank, just because all the attention that we got is real, motorsport, just completely shut down and everybody turned their eyes to us.”

James is the voice behind Podium eSports, who since 2016 have broadcast live races from the iRacing program across the internet.

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Their broadcasts went to the next level when a once in a lifetime opportunity presented itself to the company two weeks ago.

A field packed with racers including one of the sports most adored sons, Dale Earnhardt Jr, was put together and Podium agreed to run broadcasts on it.

“I said, Junior’s’ running and all these other people, too, that are really famous. Because it was drivers. It was crew chiefs. It was spotters, it was public relations personnel, it was country music artists. It was a diverse list, but very entertaining lists and notable lists all the same. And I said, Absolutely.”

“That went on air in the afternoon, last Sunday (15 March) here in the United States, and I guess around the world, it was broadcast on Twitch, and we set an all-time record for any sort of racing simulation broadcast.”

The broadcast achieved over 20,000 concurrent live views throughout the entire race far more than the usual audience James and his peers are used to receiving.

“It is given to you as it’s a given that we had averaged about maybe 30 or 40 viewers per broadcast before, and then all of a sudden shot up to 20,000.

“The attention that we got overnight was unbelievable. I spent the entire weekend either in production meetings or planning and it just sort of snowballed throughout the whole week.”

“And it was pretty much every night we were doing something just to get our name out there. So it was wild. It was crazy. It was busy, but certainly rewarding because everybody knows what we’re capable of. And everybody knows what we can do as far as broadcasting as we make it look like TV for the most one.”

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James and the team received universal praise for their broadcasts and this saw him appear on satellite radio in the United States in an interview broadcast across the country.

They had articles in ESPN, The Verge and Kotaku outlining their rise to stardom overnight but this was no fluke.

Years of hard work, preparation and dedication to producing professional standard broadcasts left them perfectly prepared to rise to the challenge as the sport was thrown into the limelight.

“It was all because we’d taken time to study the great broadcasters and motorsport here in America, and tried to just follow their lead as best we could.”

The professionalism and success of the broadcast led to NASCAR modelling their setup on it in the form of a Pro Invitational Series to be aired on Fox Sports 1 starting the following Sunday (22).

“I think in watching our broadcasts, people recognised that and said that they wanted more and that’s sort of how we got the proper setup that NASCAR has with the pro Invitational series that is sort of their game plan until everything passes over.”

“You pump all the feeds from the iRacing production studio in Massachusetts down to Charlotte where Fox’s studio is and you just put it on a screen for the real life, get the announcers to call it and mix it all together, and you have a virtual race that looks an awful lot like the real thing.”

The broadcast on Fox received an eSports world record 900,000 views and the move from cable to aerial television this weekend means they are likely to pass a million viewers.

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In a time when sports fans across America and around the globe are striving for competitive live sport the market has never been bigger.

The biggest pull of iRacing is the realism it brings to being inside a cockpit.

This is something that is starting to pioneer professional motor racing, giving an entry to the sport for young kids around the world who cannot afford to drive cars.

James believes iRacing and other racing simulations are the future for motorsports.

“So much of what we do translates really well to real life. If you’re good within iRacing in particular, you will more likely than not be pretty solid in real life as a driver.”

One example of this is Rajah Caruth from Washington D.C who plied his trade on the sim before earning a place on NASCAR’s minorities scheme.

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“With Washington being so cramped and crowded by comparison to the rest of the United States, there’s obviously not that much room to build a garage and put a car and put a trailer and and not really much room to drive to a circuit go race.

“So he came together with his parents when he was about 10 or 11, and asked them how he could get a jump on his racing career. They bought him a computer, bought him a wheel, bought him pedals and he hopped on to iRacing and just raced and raced and raced.”

The future is certainly bright, but the sport will face scrutiny once normal business resumes in the sporting world, especially motor racing.

“I think long term, I think their growth area will be in the middle of the week in terms of content.”

“It gives you an opportunity since the setup isn’t as intense to create more on demand content, especially midweek when it would be difficult to, you know, get a truck loaded up and set everything up in a paddock and, you know, make sure that you’ve got everything lined up for 7pm.

“On a Tuesday night here, you literally press a button, make a few clicks and jam, you’re in a race.”

The sport is ready to take the next step and this has certainly raised awareness due to the quality of the broadcasts. As the world battles Coronavirus, no sport has had its Neil Armstrong giant leap moment more than iRacing.