NASCAR Meets Esports: Tournament Provides Unique Opportunity For Boys & Girls Club Members

Michael McDowell has come a long way from racing BMX bikes in the north Valley. Sunday the Glendale native secured his first NASCAR victory by winning the Daytona 500. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton)

By Nick Zeller-Singh

PHOENIX – Phoenix Raceway was home to more than competition on the one-mile oval during NASCAR Championship weekend. The racetrack partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley to host a first-of-its-kind Rocket League tournament. The two organizations also joined forces with Zelus Esports to allow gamers to compete for cash and other prizes.

The partnership between Phoenix Raceway and Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley was nothing new. Instead, Cassidy Campana, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Boys & Girls Club of the Valley, said the relationship has grown.

“Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley every year has partnered with NASCAR and Phoenix Raceway,” Campana said. “They are making sure kids and teens have a place after school, have access to computers, have adults who care about them, and access to meals. Phoenix Raceway and championship weekend are like the Super Bowl, this event benefits everyone.”

Andrew Zlaket, a Zelus staff member and competitor in the tournament, said the synergy between Phoenix Raceway, the Boys & Girls Clubs and esports made for a special event.

“Obviously, what they do over there is phenomenal,” Zlaket said. “Sports and video games are a great way to bring awareness in a positive environment. People competing for a good cause, there is not much better than that.”

How does the esports tournament and partnership actually benefit the two sides?

Payton Richardson saw the teens she work with at the Boys & Girls Club earn a unique opportunity: going to the NASCAR Championships to compete and watch the race. (Photo by Jack Johnson/Cronkite News)

Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley have two main goals it hopes to achieve through the collaboration with the esports program. The main one is promoting the new STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – program.

“We have iPads for the kids where they are learning how to code on them,” Campana said. “It is a class at their own pace and they learn to build their own video games over time. A tournament like this is an extension of what we do in the club.”

Emily Hiltzik, Rival’s director of global partnerships, said the STEM program helps unite the Boys & Girls’ communities closer together.

“Video games are the future and Rocket League is in line with STEM initiatives,” Hiltzik said. “So, allowing these kids to participate, it is a different way to bring together the community of Boys & Girls Clubs who may not interact with each other so much.”

Besides promoting the new STEM program, the second goal of the esports tournament was to give teens an unforgettable experience through NASCAR. After setting up the tournament, Payton Richardson, a Boys & Girls Club staffer, noticed the impact it had on the participants.

“One of my teens practiced after he lost in the tournament,” Richardson said. “When he played again, he did a lot better. He was really happy and that was exciting for me to see where he started compared to how he is doing today.”

Although Richardson’s teens did not win the tournament, six made it to the finals. They were then invited to the NASCAR Cup Series Championships on Nov. 6 at Phoenix Raceway to compete against other esports participants and watch the race. Richardson said NASCAR gave some of the students something they will never forget.

“It is an opportunity of a lifetime that they wouldn’t get if they weren’t a part of the clubs,” Richardson said. “I’m not a NASCAR person but seeing them go makes me want to watch NASCAR. I love that the Boys & Girls Clubs get to partner with so many different organizations because it gives kids a lot of opportunities.”

Campana said the teens’ emotions could not be matched when they found out they were invited to NASCAR’s Championship Weekend.

“You would have thought these kids won the lottery,” Campana said. “It was so exciting and they had a lot of energy.”

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Phoenix Raceway, meanwhile, viewed the event as a chance to reach the younger demographic who might otherwise be mostly interested in video games.

Rival, a platform where enterprises and sports teams can host their own gaming communities, gave both organizations the opportunity to connect together and reach the gaming community.

Hiltzik said Phoenix Raceway took advantage of the video game tournament to reach out to younger viewers and participants.

“A lot of pro sport is having a tough time connecting with the younger demographic, so video games bring them together and convert kids into fans because of their constant engagement with the brand,” Hiltzik said.

Although the tournament made its debut this year, it is just the beginning for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley esports program. With Phoenix Raceway hosting the NASCAR championship in 2022, the tournament anticipates expanding one of the largest growing sports.

“If you are looking for something at a local level, it is a great cause of helping the youth of Arizona,” Zlaket said. “I can definitely see this tournament exploding in the next year.”

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