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What a perfect NASCAR video game might look like

What a perfect NASCAR video game might look like

Looking at the history of NASCAR video games and the current climate of NASCAR, Justin Melillo drafts what his perfect NASCAR game would be.

The perfect NASCAR video game doesn’t exist right now… but if it’s done right, it could in the future.

For years, the NASCAR gaming franchise has arguably been in ruin. It was failed from the mediocrity of the constantly renewed NASCAR Heat franchise. It was stabbed in the back by the misfire of NASCAR 21: Ignition.

With NASCAR Rivals by Motorsport Games out now for the Nintendo Switch, the tradition of having a yearly NASCAR video game released continues on. However, it’s basically the reincarnation of NASCAR Heat 5 with some finer points of NASCAR 21: Ignition sprinkled in.

Plus, it’s only available for Switch users, so it’s not a widely accessible title for most console or PC gamers.

WATCH: Hands-on with NASCAR Rivals
This is what NASCAR fans got for 2022 – A Nintendo Switch exclusive, plus some free updates to the main console game that still doesn’t work right.

I’ve been playing NASCAR video games since the mid-1990s. From Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge to the Papyrus NASCAR titles, to all the Electronic Arts NASCAR games, and even the original NASCAR Heat and Dirt to Daytona after that – I’m pretty well rehearsed on what NASCAR video games have been in the past.

While it would be great to see some of the classic greats like Dirt to Daytona or NR2003 remade, it suffices to say that those games don’t really fit today’s climate of NASCAR racing.

The series is in a much different place than it was 10, 15 or even 20 years ago. That’s when some of the best games were being made. What made those games great were their relevancy and replayability, and most of all, their immersion. Digging into what made those games great is part of my goal here, however.

Retrospective: Dirt to Daytona paved the way for future NASCAR console games
Dirt to Daytona was a fantastic game for its time, but it still had its flaws. It feels like a concept like this could be improved upon in today’s day and age.

A perfect NASCAR game today would be something that’s never existed before. Sure, there are things that are universally needed. Every single driver, team, track, event and rule are all a must-have. Those should be, at the minimum, what is included in any racing title for any racing series out there.

To make a video game work in today’s day and age, well, you’ll need to understand how NASCAR currently works. From that, you’ll be able to build a video game that both explores the current climate of NASCAR racing and also celebrates it for today’s youth and longtime fans alike.

Full disclosure – Traxion.GG is part of Motorsport Games and the Motorsport Games family of brands. All Traxion.GG content is editorially removed from Motorsport Games video game development and created by a dedicated team. This is an ‘ideal NASCAR game’ editorial piece, opinion, and not in any way indicative of potential Motorsport Games productions.

MULTIPLE BRANCHES OF NASCAR RACING

This thought seemed like a no-brainer addition to the NASCAR gaming franchise… well, at least up until the release of NASCAR 21: Ignition. Sadly, fans only got to race with the NASCAR Cup Series roster, as it was meant to be the first in a line of games using a new platform. But then, those plans were scrapped and a second new platform is in development.

Let’s be honest for a second – “Joe Nobody” isn’t going to start up a NASCAR Cup Series team out of the blue with an undeveloped rookie, nor are they going to allow for anyone who hasn’t gone through the ranks to own and drive its own car.

Hands on NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+ for Nintendo Switch
The last NASCAR game release with multiple classifications of cars was the 2021 release of NASCAR Heat Ultimate Edition+, which included the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series, Truck Series and a fictional Dirt Series from the 2020 NASCAR Heat 5 title.

As much of a fantasy that NASCAR games are meant to be, something so unrealistic just takes so much away from what could and should be a proper progression through the ranks of NASCAR racing.

The NASCAR Cup Series is at the top of the pile. While NASCAR doesn’t like to admit to it, its NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series are two legs of the ladder that are crucial to getting to that top level.

At the very minimum, I’d like the three NASCAR National Touring Series to be included in a game.

But even then, drivers usually don’t just get dropped into a Truck ride without any prior racing experience. I mean it can happen, but it’s just unlikely. Looking down the pecking order, the ARCA Menards Series has recently become a NASCAR entity and you’ll see many up-and-comers take the path through that before moving up any further.

The ARCA Menards Series is another stock car racing series that was acquired by NASCAR in 2018. Many up-and-coming drivers make their way through the ARCA ranks before entering a NASCAR National Series event.

Straight up, ARCA would be a great addition to a series to race in my perfect NASCAR game. However, even that wouldn’t be the starting point in my perfect game.

Looking back to the mid-2000s, games like NASCAR 2005 had Modifieds, and the NASCAR Whelen Modifieds are a great idea to re-include in any title. Even that, though, is not my ideal starting point.

Right now, there’s a renaissance happening in short track late model racing, as NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr has been seen taking his talents down to places like Hickory or Florence to race those. Still, a Late Model Stock or Super Late Model probably isn’t the best place to start out either.

Some of the younger eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series drivers like Donovan Strauss are getting their start in real-world racing through Legend Car racing.

My perfect NASCAR video game career starting point would be in something like a Street Stock or a Legends Car.

While neither of those cars is specifically licensed as NASCAR racing, they are more up for that title of a racing career starting point. I look at the progression model of iRacing heavily here with the thought that those two vehicles are the perfect starting point for the rookie license.

I’m also looking at two racing games, one older and one recent, those being Dirt to Daytona and World of Outlaws: Dirt Racing. Both had that starting point in a Street Stock. They are staples of racing at any local short track, asphalt or dirt. Why can’t a NASCAR game have a Street Stock too?

All the included content with a base subscription to iRacing
A dirt Street Stock on the iRacing platform. There’s an asphalt version too. These are really fun and really easy to conquer, hence why they are a great starting point in the real-world and in games like World of Outlaws: Dirt Racing.

While dirt is making its return to the top levels of NASCAR racing through tracks like Eldora, Knoxville and now a dirt-laden Bristol Motor Speedway, I don’t think my dream NASCAR game starts you on the dirt like Dirt to Daytona or the last handful of NASCAR Heat titles.

Maybe a taste of it would be cool, but I would rather love to see a career path that starts in Street Stocks or legends cars. Maybe a multiple-choice option akin to how the World of Outlaws did in their title this year.

From there, graduation up to Modifieds, some sort of Late Models would be a great progression. Maybe even a seat in an ARCA car could be an option at this point.

After that, the player’s feet can then get into the door of a NASCAR National Series, most likely the Craftsman Trucks, but Xfinity could also be an option as well. It doesn’t need to be fully linear, and that’s important.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series is usually the last step of the progression ladder before moving up to the NASCAR Cup Series. Many Xfinity races travel alongside the NASCAR Cup Series and sometimes feature Cup drivers in select races.

Run what you want climbing up the ladder, but before getting to the Cup Series, you could be a 20 time Late Model champion getting a one-off ride with a lower-end Cup Series team. 

Maybe different difficulty levels could come with different amounts of money in the bank. Whatever it may be, having the ability to drive multiple different types of cars, series, and rules sets would be a welcome addition to my perfect game.

Of course, the progression I speak of would be functional to a Career Mode. Having the ability to race any series on any track I think would be a critical addition to any single-player or multiplayer modes.

A REVAMP ON CAREER MODE BANK ACCOUNTS

In recent years, the money in a player’s bank account essentially means nothing in the grand scheme of things. While it might be tough at first, after a while, funds become as widely available as water and players have run out of things to spend it on.

Different teams and different drivers have different budgets. Ross Chastain drove this truck at Pocono in 2020 as a part-time gig for Niece Motorsports. He was running full-time with Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series, but iRacing was able to provide funds for Chastain to race this truck.

These racing team owners might be rich, but nobody is truly that profitable. There’s always something out there to be spending money towards.

I think a look at how money is made, how it is spent, and how a team continues to develop even past reaching the top is something that can be explored. Even other racing game titles like Formula 1 run into this issue of having too much money after a while.

One thing that has always irked me about many racing games is that when players opt to own their own team, there is only one bank account that incorporates both the team and the driver, and the funds earned can be utilized interchangeably. 

Jordan Anderson owns his own Truck team and Xfinity Team, but he doesn’t race full-time anymore. In 2021, he started to split his truck seat with other drivers through the season, finishing second to open the season at Daytona and then giving the ride up to Bobby Reuse the following week.

I think those two entities should be separated and should have a cost-of-entry model introduced. What I mean is, for most if not all drivers, they don’t just get a guaranteed ride in any level based on a contract with a team. The model is sponsorship driven. If you don’t have a sponsor that pays enough, you won’t be able to afford to race that week.

If you own a team, you’ll need those sponsorship dollars to get a car onto the track. Some drivers carry personal sponsors and can bring that money to that ride, and the cycle continues. Car crashes cost money. Hiring people costs money, but it should also be a continuous salary past that too.

I loved that in NHRA: Speed for All that team owners could go bankrupt, thus abruptly ending their season. I think that should be imaginable in a NASCAR game as well. Poor decisions could lead to a team shutting down or missing races.

In 2020, Ryan Vargas brought sponsorship from TikTok to run a handful of races in a car that was already full-time with JD Motorsports. That turned into two seasons of near-full-time racing with the same team in 2021 and 2022.

If you own a team, I’d like to be able to race it yourself with your own sponsor or hire a driver with a better-paying sponsor if you so choose to do so. If you don’t own a team and decide to go through a career just as a driver, the better sponsors you sign for yourself, the better rides you can afford to be in.

Sorry to say, but the mom and pop shop that carried you at the start of your career likely isn’t going to be able to fund a full-time cup ride with Team Penske or Hendrick Motorsports… and that’s just how I think it should be in a perfect NASCAR game on a more difficult setting. 

BREAKDOWN ON RULES

I did mention before that I’d like the rules of engagement to be a universally added feature. However, even in stating that, a breakdown still might be required for those who don’t know. Simply put, there should be different rule sets depending on any car and series that might be included.

How to get the most out of the NASCAR 21: Ignition career
When NASCAR 21: Ignition launched, Stage Racing, Playoff Points and Playoff seeding per round did not work as intended.

In the NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Truck Series, a playoff format exists with stage racing, playoff points, playoff rounds and a winner takes all championship at Phoenix. That should absolutely be included and WORK most above all. If there are lower divisions, don’t add stages, add their rules in!

ARCA doesn’t do live pit stops, they have set caution periods to utilize modified live pitstops. In fact, some Truck Series and Xfinity Series events don’t have live pitstops either. Those should be accurately represented. Some lower series don’t even do pit stops. Add that in, make those rules right and realistic.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but hey, that’s the whole point of this dream ideal NASCAR game.

Make sure rules like course cutting and racing below line rules are in play where needed. Speeding on pitroad should be in effect if those rules are turned on. Have proper penalties that make sense.

World of Outlaws: Dirt Racing Review - "You wanted the best..."
In World of Outlaws: Dirt Racing, different cars have different settings in the setup screen based on what the car features. For example, a winged Sprint Car has the ability to set-up things like the wing angle, but a non-winged Street Stock (pictured) does not.

Rules also pertain to setups – I’d hope in my ideal NASCAR release that customizable setups are available. If there’s an adjustment that a NASCAR NEXT Gen car makes but not a NASCAR Craftsman Truck, it would be properly differentiated.

CAREER PROGRESSION

Sometimes in career modes across different sports genres, one of the more fascinating aspects is the way the game decides who moves to what teams, how injuries are applied, and of course, retirements as the computer player becomes old per the league standards.

Tossing aside injuries, as thankfully in NASCAR, those are not too common, a system in place where drivers swap rides, advance forward through the ranks, and eventually retire would be peak immersion.

NASCAR Thunder 2004 was my fondest memory of career retirements. Seeing new names in iconic cars was neat as anything, and it was double cool that if it was a former front-runner, the new driver wouldn’t immediately be that fast.

An example I yearn for would be almost out of a Pokémon game. Start your career and have a main rival who advances through the ranks at around the same pace. Battle for wins at each level and eventually race at the top level in the Cup Series against one another.

As that’s going on, the old guard in the Cup Series rotates out of the series. Older veterans like Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr say goodbye to the sport while up-and-coming drivers like Austin Hill and Sam Mayer move up from their Xfinity Series rides to fill the openings.

If we’re in the year 2030 in a career, it would be weird to still be racing against Aric Almirola or even Denny Hamlin at that point. Maybe Harrison Burton moved over from the Wood Brothers to fill the vacant #10. Maybe someone like a Corey Heim, currently down in the Truck Series now, could be winning races in Cup at that point.

NASCAR 21: Ignition shows promise, but feels unfinished
NASCAR 21: Ignition did have driver retirements but you never really knew who was making changes in their seat until the first race of the season. At least there was an attempt.

A real-world statistic is that next year, not one driver that raced in the 2001 Daytona 500 will be on track, 22 years later, as Kurt Busch moves on from full-time racing. I would hope to see some sort of similar progression in a perfect NASCAR game where a Cup roster looks completely different after a while.

DEEP CUSTOMIZATION

The paint booth in NASCAR 21: Ignition and NASCAR Rivals was a step forward from what was available in NASCAR Heat. Truth be told, the games went a complete 180, from where there were only pre-made schemes to there being absolutely no pre-made schemes.

A good paint booth is something that should be included. A paint booth that can allow people to both bend shapes to their will and also work off of a pre-made scheme is the best-case scenario for something like a console racing game, and the World of Outlaws: Dirt Racing nailed it completely.

How to import and utilize custom decals into Gran Turismo 7
We were able to add the Traxion.GG logos to the Gran Turismo 7 database early on in the going, which allowed players to find and utilize the logos on their own custom paint schemes.

With that said, the ability to upload and download other liveries would be absolutely crucial to my perfect NASCAR game as well. Have the in-game functionality, like WRC Generations.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but heck, it’s a dream game scenario. I’d have it where there’s a template that can be worked on externally and uploaded to a server where it can be downloaded and used in any facet of the game. NASCAR 09 had an importable template and that was 13 years ago, just take that ideology and expand upon it for today’s standards.

Either that or let players upload logos and art similarly to how Gran Turismo 7 does it. The more options, the better.

FEATURE-FILLED MULTIPLAYER

Magical live night for eNASCAR, iRacing hopefully just the beginning
We don’t need a game where it’s four-wide every lap, but something that’s competitive and fun to play. Image above is from iRacing during the Championship finale in 2022.

I believe, above anything else already written, a perfect NASCAR game must have the ability to race against friends and other random people over the internet.

Public, private and customizable lobbies, with a set of options for a lobby host. These are things that have already existed in the past.

I wouldn’t be opposed to some sort of ranking system either, something that either prevents or deters people from ruining other people’s races, lessening the threat of intentional wrecking or poor sportsmanship.

NASCAR Rivals online lobby
NASCAR Heat / NASCAR Rivals (pictured) has an OK online multiplayer experience. Something like that works and is fine for a NASCAR video game, but it could always be better.

Netcode, stability, and the way the cars react should be realistic. Rubbing is racing, especially in NASCAR, and I would like to lean on a competitor in a corner without having to worry if my intangibles are going to completely wreck the other driver.

I’m not advocating for a dynamic track or a perfect tire model – the perfect NASCAR game isn’t a simulation in my mind, but it should be fun and it should be a competitive atmosphere with options that can enhance real-world capabilities for a video game feeling.

INSPIRED BY PRIOR RELEASES

Finally, my perfect NASCAR game is going to have us thinking back on older series releases in the form of more fun elements. Challenges in NASCAR Rivals are pretty good and pretty fun, but I think they lack a reward.

I think the best answer to that is the easiest – bring back some sort of unlockables.

Unlocking Thunder Plates used to be one of my favorite things to do. I remember unlocking night Talladega and I raced there over and over and over. So much content in a 2004 title.

They used to be Thunder Plates in the EA days, but if you did certain tasks, players could unlock paint schemes, track variants and collectables. I can’t fathom why some sort of collectable can’t be a part of any future games, even in the world of DLC and paid premium content.

My perfect NASCAR game wouldn’t have anything that would be paid extras BUT I understand why it exists and unfortunately, I’d expect it to be in any future title. Maybe something akin to Podium Pass in F1 22 or MotorPass in The Crew 2, where purely cosmetic items can be unlocked as optional extras and other things are paid unlocks.

Maybe some sort of mini-games could be fun. I vividly remember the autographs mini-game in NASCAR 2005: Chase For The Cup, and while it was a simple mechanic to just hit a corresponding button as quickly as possible, it added to the experience and brought more depth to the career.

There’s probably more that could be accomplished than something as simple as pressing the right button as fast and accurately as possible, but this was still a fun side game to do.

I think, more than anything, that my perfect NASCAR video game needs to work, needs to be fun, and needs to be logical, the last point referring to how drivers would race for wins that would never in the real-world. Those are three things I didn’t experience in NASCAR 21: Ignition.

My dream wishlist is definitely not plausible for the next NASCAR game that’s scheduled to release at some point 2023, but hopefully, the right eyes can use this to build the best future titles beyond that.

eNASCAR Coca-Cola: Ray Alfalla scores record 27th career win at Nashville
I just want to have a NASCAR video game that lives up to the hype. iRacing can never be that with its strong simulation ties. Nothing we’ve had in almost two decades has been any good, in my opinion.

I’m not a game developer. I don’t know how hard it is to program these sorts of things, but I don’t think anything I’ve asked for in my wish list here is anything that hasn’t been done before.

It’s just a matter of making it all work together so that all of the future generations can grow up loving NASCAR the same way many of us did with our incredible roster of prior NASCAR games. I hope we aren’t moving backwards anymore.

Full disclosure – Traxion.GG is part of Motorsport Games and the Motorsport Games family of brands. All Traxion.GG content is editorially removed from Motorsport Games video game development and created by a dedicated team. This is an ‘ideal NASCAR game’ editorial piece, opinion, and not in any way indicative of potential Motorsport Games productions.

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