NASCAR comes back to console video games, with the Unreal Engine


Stock car racing is coming back to consoles and PC this fall and, appropriately enough, there’s a new engine under the hood.

NASCAR 21: Ignition, made in Unreal 4, will launch Oct. 28 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. It’s the second NASCAR title published by new label Motorsport Games, a subsidiary of the global media company Motorsport Network, best known for its Motorsport.com website.

“It’s a product that we’ve been building for over two years; it is a built-from-scratch product,” Dmitry Kozko, Motorsport Games’ chief executive, told Polygon in an interview.

That’s an important declaration, because last year’s NASCAR Heat 5 was largely a short-notice reconditioning of the previous year’s game. The development cycle was also affected by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the abrupt end of Monster Games’ run building the game.

The NASCAR Heat series, spanning 2016 to 2020, was built in the Unity engine, which gave its components a no-frills look. NASCAR 21: Ignition “has none of the Unity components,” Kozko said. “It has probably nothing except some concepts from the previous games that 704 Games published.”

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Motorsport Network has been a part owner of 704 Games since 2019, and this spring took over as its majority owner. Motorsport Games at the same time also completed its acquisition of Studio 397, makers of the high-end PC racing simulator rFactor 2. That deal came together after Studio 397 and Motorsport Network teamed up for two pandemic events, last June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans Virtual event, and the spring’s Formula E Race at Home Challenge.

The point is, Studio 397’s technology will also be a part of NASCAR 21: Ignition. “What’s underneath Unreal is rFactor physics,” Kozko said. “Of course, the main point is not to make it like a simulator, where only the drivers would understand how to operate it, but to bring that and make it accessible to anybody and everybody.”

Given the spotty history of NASCAR as a video games license in the two console generations since EA Sports walked away, Motorsport’s move is an unexpected doubling down. Kozko bluntly acknowledged that the preceding series “doesn’t compare to the modern triple-A [development] standards. … I don’t know why nobody has come around to make the proper investment to create that type of title, but I’m glad to be the one for the next decade with our licenses.

“That’s why we started from a blank slate and said, ‘If we were to take the latest and greatest technology today, from the biggest of the guys — from the EAs of the world, what would we do?” Kozko said.

Motorsport Games will be taking that approach to other big time racing licenses, some of which have had a limited video games presence, if ever. The Indianapolis 500, which hasn’t gotten AAA treatment since Codemasters’ IndyCar Series 2005 for Xbox and PlayStation 2, will also come to consoles and PC under Motorsport Games in 2023.

A turn on the road course at Watkins Glen International (no cars are present).
Venerable Watkins Glen International in upstate New York. The road course hosted last weekend’s Go Bowling at the Glen, won by Kyle Larson
Image: Motorsport Games

Kozko’s division will also make licensed games for the 24 Hours of Le Mans — which got a big closeup in 2019’s Oscar-nominated Ford v Ferrari — and the British Touring Car Championship, which was the basis for the Codemasters series that became Grid. Le Mans (actually the signature event of the FIA World Endurance Championship) is anticipated around the same time as the IndyCar Series game, Kozko said, with the BTCC game arriving in 2022.

“I have plenty of game [developers], guys with 20 to 30 years of experience, each. I have people who made Forza Horizon beautiful, and other things, and I’m very proud of that team,” Kozko sad. “And I’m also proud of the team that didn’t come from the game industry, that is part of our passionate group of people who will help challenge the norms in these games.”

NASCAR 21: Ignition will have an upgraded version for Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 sometime after its October launch, and buyers of the older console version will have a free upgrade, Motorsport Games said. The game brings back staple modes of play, like a multi-season career, online multiplayer, or racing in the current season as one of the sport’s real-life drivers. A news release on Thursday touted greater customization options for created drivers and teams, too. The game’s broadcast presentation is supported by commentary from MRN Radio, the sport’s longtime, NASCAR-owned radio network.

“We’re born out of a media company, which all it does is talk to this audience, and serves their passion,” Kozko said of Motorsport Network. “We believe that our company, having a focus on creating a portfolio of different racing disciplines, we could have an economy-of-scale opportunity here to create really, really good experiences.”

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.