Esports an option to fill sports void during virus outbreak

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was back on the track this past weekend -- and even a crash into the wall couldn't slow him down. In fact, it may have been Earnhardt's fastest return to the track after a wreck in his decorated career. He also was probably happy to not even have a scratch on his car after the fact.

"Not the real deal but you won’t get much closer to reality than iRacing," said Earnhardt, Jr. on Twitter.

The retired racing star is referring to Sunday's virtual NASCAR race -- affectionately dubbed the "Replacements 100" -- which he and other NASCAR figured took part in. Earnhardt's crash in the race wasn't so bad, especially considering each driver gets a free recovery from one wreck per race.

The event was streamed on the website Twitch -- and won't be the last. The circuit already has another race scheduled for Sunday at virtual-Homestead-Miami Speedway -- a track who, like Atlanta, had their races postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Races are postponed through at least May 3rd.

Tuesday night, NASCAR and iRacing announced the "eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series." Earnhardt committed to racing, along with drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and more.

“Until we have cars back on track, the entire NASCAR community has aligned to provide our passionate fans with a unique, fun and competitive experience on race day,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR'S vice president of racing development. 

NASCAR has something of a unique opportunity with esports, the term for competitive video games. Their games use a steering wheel and pedals hooked up to a computer: not quite a race car, but at least in the same realm as what happens inside a car. Other sports' video games, of course, are not nearly as analogous to the actual experience of playing the game.

"Alright, for the folks who have asked how to get on iRacing," said Kevin Hamlin, spotter for NASCAR's #88 team. "[You] don’t need a super expensive set up. Does that help? Yes, but to just get your feet wet you just need a computer that can run the min. specs and say a Logitech G29 wheel/pedals. Kevin Hamlin, spotter for the #88 NASCAR team.

Elsewhere in the digital world, some professional athletes are trying to use esports as a way to stay connected to their fans. Take Hawks point guard Trae Young:

Young has interacted with fans through social media about gaming, and also streamed some of his games. Streaming is where a gamer broadcasts what they are seeing on their screen, allowing anyone at home to watch. It's generally joined by commentary from the player, and sometimes web cameras facing the player themselves and/or their keyboard or controller.

Young teamed up with Quavo, the metro-Atlanta rapper from the group Migos, to stream their team-game of "Call of Duty" over the weekend.

Teams are getting involved as well. The Phoenix Suns decided to play out the remainder of their schedule on the game "NBA 2K," tweeting out highlights just like they would for a normal game.

While being a potential outlet for sports fans waiting for a return to normalcy, esports are not totally immune from the COVID-19 outbreak. The NBA's esports league announced last Tuesday that they were suspending the start to their official league, because of concerns about the virus. While some might be surprised that a league based around video games might not be able to play, those teams generally play together in the same room against other teams in other locations, so the delay is to keep in line with social distancing guidelines.