INSIGHT: Rise eSports rebrand emblematic of NASCAR’s plan for eSports on college campuses

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Prior to the start of the 2022 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, Richmond Raceway renamed its eSports team to Rise eSports. The new team’s logo features a stylized “R” inspired by Richmond Raceway with the top of the letter evolving into flame. This flame comes from the seal of Virginia State University, a historically black college and university located just outside of town. The combination of Richmond Raceway and VSU elements in the Rise eSports logo illustrates a unique partnership in esports and NASCAR.

“As we looked at the evolution, we felt it was only natural to marry the two groups who had already had a relationship from the start,” said Ray Smith, NASCAR’s senior director of gaming and esports. For the past few years, NASCAR has hired an intern from the universities’ sports management program to help lead the eSports team or work with the NASCAR marketing team.

The task of renaming Richmond Raceway eSports was undertaken by Kai Fleming, an undergraduate student in VSU’s sports management program, and other students.

“With the flame (in the logo), that was kind of our hat tip at Virginia State. They were there from the start and when we partnered with them last year they helped with all the rebranding. The rebranding was actually started by our Virginia State intern last year and it was an integrated class project with a sports management class on the Virginia State campus says Smith.

Tracy Jackson, an assistant professor of sports management at VSU, says the program has opened the door to the world of NASCAR for many of her students.

“We have had a relationship with NASCAR in different ways over several years. I think what they’re doing by having this partnership really has an impact,” Jackson says.

“It allows HBCUs, especially the state of Virginia, to really see the industry as a whole. Not just the driving element, but also the management element and industry components.

“Learning something new was great for the students and even for our faculty and staff who may not know the industry or have a sense of what it is because of its history. I think it’s great, we’re having fun. We are happy to be a part of it and to support all that NASCAR does through its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

NASCAR recently donated a racing simulator to the university which it installed on campus. Jackson says they plan to add more simulators and outfit a dedicated room for esports and simulation racing at the school. If all goes well, Jackson hopes the on-campus program and partnership with NASCAR through Rise eSports will show students that there are opportunities for them in racing.

Image by Nate Stewart/Apex Action Photography

“I want this program to be a pipeline for the racing industry, whether it’s eSports racing or NASCAR stock car racing,” Jackson says. “I would like our students to see that racing is a thriving industry and it is a robust industry. There are a lot of opportunities for them to work in it.

“Young people want to work in football and basketball because that’s what they know best. But it’s a real industry that has life, and it can really provide them with lifelong opportunities and jobs in different spaces. I want them to be able to see this and hopefully it becomes a pipeline in the industry.

NASCAR is looking to bolster its presence on college campuses by expanding its presence in esports. The National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE), a nonprofit organization that works to establish a system of competition among college eSports programs, has more than 170 member schools, each with their own eSports programs.

While most sports will target campus fraternity and sorority, NASCAR is targeting those eSports programs, Smith told RACER.

“Outlets and institutions are organizing around eSports and recruiting new students to campus through eSports programs. We’re using what we’re doing on the esports front on the NASCAR side and trying to get to the college campus that way,” Smith says.

While sim racing has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, Smith isn’t worried about the industry’s potential regression. Maintaining the pace of growth the industry has seen in 2020 would be overkill and nearly impossible; instead, NASCAR’s esports and gaming division is taking the hit that 2020 has given it and returning to a normal growth trajectory going forward – while being careful not to set targets based on the outlier that was 2020.

More programs like Rise eSports and Virginia State University are currently not in the cards for NASCAR. Instead, NASCAR wants to focus on expanding Rise eSports and VSU’s esports programs.

“We go there with kind of a walk, crawl, run, rhythm,” Smith says. “We really want to stabilize what we do at Virginia State. Last year was sort of our beta test. We didn’t want to assume it would work for Virginia State or assume it would work for us. After the first year, I think we both came to the table and said it was working and we would like to do it in a more formal way.

Jackson says Virginia State University was also pleased with the program and is excited to continue its partnership with NASCAR in the future. “We’ve had a great relationship with them over the past few years and are excited about this partnership and how it will develop.”

For the 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, Rise eSports will field Jimmy Mullis and 2019 Coca-Cola Series Champion Zack Novak.

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