The shutdown of almost every professional sport created a ripple affecting millions of people. Athletes can't compete. Advertisers and sponsors can't reach their target audiences. Every sports-only network is scrambling to fill airtime, which presents another problem: Unlike a Seinfeld rerun, far fewer people are willing to re-watch an event whose outcome they already know.
All of which leaves a huge hole in the lives of millions of fans, one most sports won't be able to fill.
Except possibly Nascar, which hopes to at least partly fill that hole with the iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a weekly e-sports event whose first race from a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway will air live this Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on FS1.
The series features a number of current Cup, Xfinity, and Truck series drivers. This weekend's lineup includes Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Larson, and theoretical presumptive favorite William Byron, whose early iRacing career was his springboard to Nascar.
If all that sounds a little odd -- some of the best drivers in the world going video game racing on live television -- keep in mind that iRacing bears little resemblance to playing Call of Duty on a game console.
Multiple monitors. Force feedback steering wheels. Adjustable load pedals. Seats that move, jostle, and bounce in response to track and race conditions. While you can race with a video game controller, the typical iRacing online simulator setup can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
The tools and technology mean no other e-sport simulates the real thing the way motorsports does.
And that same technology meant pulling together the technical and infrastructure details was, if not easy, accomplished surprisingly quickly.
"Everything came together through a combination of maybe a dozen text messages, a few phone calls, and an email or two," says Tim Clark, SVP of digital for Nascar. "Once the idea was hatched, everyone we spoke to was immediately on board."
That includes the drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on iRacing and similar platforms longer than most and played a role in landing a few key drivers. From there, driver interest snowballed; so many drivers have stepped forward that future races will feature different lineups. (In fact, this Sunday non-Cup drivers will have to qualify for the 35-car field.)
One is Ross Chastain, a rising star known for his willingness to drive any car, anytime, anywhere, and, more important, for consistently outperforming his equipment.
Except, possibly, this Sunday. As a full-time Xfinity driver for Kaulig Racing, and the recent fill-in for Ryan Newman at Roush Fenway Racing, Ross spends considerable time in the Chevy racing simulator and now spends little time on iRacing.
Still, "iRacing is a lot more real than most people give it credit for," Ross says. "In the past, I'd run a track on iRacing on Thursday, fly to the track and race that weekend, then come back and run the same track on iRacing, and always be faster."
Driving through a screen is still different than driving a real car, though, so on-track talent may not translate.
That's why Ross is hopeful but realistic, especially since he's borrowing a friend's more powerful computer and extensive iRacing setup. And he's a little surprised at yet another twist in his racing career. "I can't believe I'm going to play a video game that will be aired on national television," he says. "That's definitely something I never could have predicted."
So is predicting whether the iRacing Pro Invitational Series will be a success; that remains to be seen. As with most things, the proof will lie in the implementation pudding.
While hardcore fans are sure to be interested, if only to see how their favorite driver's on-track skills translate to the online world, casual fans may not.
But, then again, online gaming is wildly popular. Watching other people play video games has become a multimillion-dollar industry. A portion of that audience may check out the virtual series -- and possibly become fans of the real thing when on-track racing resumes.
Which in some ways is the real point: During times like these, the best thing a business can do is experiment.
"We're already extraordinarily happy about the iRacing series, because it's a win for the fans. If we can provide a distraction and entertainment, that's a win," Clark says.
"If there is a positive we can take out of a situation like this, it forced everyone to look at things through a different lens," he says. "To not overthink it, not overcomplicate it. To just make it happen."
Because you never know when what once would have seemed a crazy idea might actually turn out to be genius.