At first glance, it may seem esports, auto racing and horse racing have little-to-nothing in common. However, after taking a deeper look, they do share an important anecdotal characteristic – all three are a vibrant representation of American society over the past 100 years, albeit during very different eras.
Horse racing epitomized mainstream back in the days of Seabiscuit and War Admiral. During the 1920s and 1930s, racetracks across the country were packed with regularity and horse racing was perpetually prominently covered by the time period’s mass media outlets of newspapers and radio. Horse racing’s popularity had to do with several factors, but one could argue it was notably a function of the then middle-aged population of America growing up around horses, and in many cases using them as a primary means of transportation, economic gain and recreation – all of which lead to an extreme affinity for the horse. As people moved off the farm and America became increasingly urban, horses were no longer a part of the majority’s everyday life. This coupled with the widespread proliferation of the automobile, as a much more efficient form of transportation, caused horse racing to lose the direct connection to our souls and precipitated its loss of 24/7 mainstream appeal.
During auto racing’s heyday of the 1980s with IndyCar and the 1990s and early 2000s with NASCAR, the then middle-aged baby boomers had grown up infatuated with the automobile. A person’s car was a primary source of identification, freedom and expression during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Back then people worked on their cars themselves and were proud to do so. Popular culture revolved around the automobile, as it was a way to interact with peers, be entertained and experience life. All these factors naturally led to auto racing being very popular in the decades that would follow. In the 1980s cars (ironically) began evolving toward their current form – a computer on wheels, nearly impossible for the average person to work on. Since the run-of-the-mill person could no longer complete the necessary maintenance/improvements a car requires, much of the pride in one’s auto eventually faded. This coupled with volatile, ever-increasing fuel prices and the boomers having children, caused people to value functionality rather than speed – all of which has drastically impacted auto racing’s link to our core as beings.
In 1986, with the release of the Nintendo in the United States, home video games started their journey to full-fledged Americana status. From the Nintendo spawned numerous other gaming systems that nearly every kid owned, or at the very least, had a neighbor who shared access to. Fast-forward ten years, the paramount turning point was the widespread availability of the internet in the mid 1990s. Just like the auto had been used to communicate with friends and “fillies,” the internet gave people an extremely efficient way to interact. Simultaneously, a major faction of internet users quickly realized it was more enjoyable to play video games with/against another human online than it was to play solo or “against the computer.” These dynamics ultimately created a huge market for online gaming, and while it remains to be seen if competitive esports as a spectator sport will ever reach the level of popularity once seen domestically by horse and auto racing, it is undisputable that the five-to-35-year-olds of today have largely grown up playing video games, overwhelmingly never been to a horse race and probably more likely to buy an autonomous vehicle than they are to ever change their own oil.
Perhaps, horse racing, auto racing and esports are more different than they are alike, and each certainly has its own unique reasons, beyond what was discussed, for rising and falling popularity. However, it is safe to assert they are all uniquely representative of the age they thrived (or will thrive) in.