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NASCAR Games Have Never Felt Like Sports Titles But Here's How to Fix That

how to make nascar feel like a sports game


NASCAR Games Have Never Felt Like Sports Titles But Here's How to Fix That

I’m a big proponent of buying sports games every other year (or more) instead of every single release. Sometimes it feels like I’m being left out, like in the case of Madden adding a small dose of college football last year. But often enough it’s rewarding, especially when I see everywhere on the internet that “this game is just last year’s game with a new roster.”

While I’m reading those things about NASCAR Heat 5 in some places, I’m really enjoying it because the last version I have is NASCAR Heat 2. I should say I’m enjoying it for now, because with almost every NASCAR game I’ve played, the excitement can wear off pretty early. NASCAR games feel like a collection of “play now” races lumped together in a way that no other sports game does.

NASCAR games can borrow a lot from other sports titles to make them more, to use a buzzword, immersive. They can also borrow a lot from other sports titles just to make them feel like a sports title. Here are a number of things, ranging from “just pull back the curtain” to “this could be a two-year process,” that could help in this venture.

How To Make NASCAR Feel Like A Sports Game

A Roster With Ratings

There are a few things every sports game has in common, and one of them is a roster with ratings. Those are nowhere to be found in NASCAR Heat 5. They’re obviously in the game because each track lists “Top Drivers” in the track selection screen. There’s also a reason Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick aren’t routinely running 35th. If they’re in the game already, just let us see them. Better yet, let us edit them as we see fit.

Ideally, we’d see each driver have either a rating for every track or a rating for every track type. The new F1 game has an awareness rating and that could be included here. Maybe even have a badge system similar to NBA 2KI could see badges for things like someone who pushes other cars at superspeedways, someone who excels running the high line at certain tracks, and someone who will pay you back for rough racing the next chance they get.

how to make nascar feel like a sports game

Not only should the drivers have ratings, but the teams should too, outside of the tiered star system. The current alliances should be present as well, like the Wood Brothers with Penske, and Levine Family Racing with Joe Gibbs Racing (more on this later).

As I mentioned above, all these things should be editable. If I want to play a season or career mode where Michael McDowell is a legitimate championship contender, let me. In addition to the ratings being editable, the roster itself should be as well. If I want Justin Allgaier to have a full Cup Series ride, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to replace him with any other driver.

Okay, so there might be a reason why we can’t do that: sponsorships. If Shell is paying to sponsor Joey Logano, they might not be pleased to find him driving a Stewart-Haas car sponsored by Mobil 1. But here’s my issue with that reasoning: It’s a video game! Shell is also probably paying Logano to run upfront, but that wouldn’t stop me from wrecking him every race so he finishes 37th. In NBA 2K20, we’re able to trade anyone from the Cavaliers, who are sponsored by Goodyear, to the Milwaukee Bucks, a team sponsored by Harley-Davidson, with no issues. To repeat my earlier point: It’s a video game.


Admittedly, presentation is a harder thing to implement in NASCAR games than most other sports. There is currently no audio other than your spotter and car. Some text boxes appear on the screen pre-race and the same celebration happens after the race. There’s a Twitter feed after each race that is used to develop the Allies/Rivals system used in some past NASCAR games, which seems to be an appropriate way to manifest that for this generation.

If you watch NASCAR on television, you’ll notice two things that are absent from the current games. Both NBC and FOX use some sort of scrolling technique showing the position of the full field. The lineup scrolls across the top of the screen in a thin bar or along the left of the screen in more of a boxy shape. Both versions would use space currently available in NASCAR Heat 5.

The other thing you’ll notice is that there are commentators. When racing, you’re pretty much locked into your car at all times. I’ll admit it’d be rather difficult to fully implement a broadcast camera when trying to race around at 180 mph. But we could hear what’s going on in other areas of the track, battles for the lead, accidents, near-accidents, pit strategy, you name it. This is something that could take more than a year to fully implement and not have it be overly repetitive. But here’s the thing, it would be optional. If you’d rather listen to your spotter, you can go ahead and do that.

Implementing a full broadcast package would interfere with the driver tools used in the game, such as the track layout, the lap times and car damage/tire wear graphics. But this would just be another option that’s turned off, or able to be navigated through like the graphics I just mentioned.

Replay System

Another thing that all sports games have is a fully-functioning replay system. However, most of those game replays feature either the last two real-time minutes of action (NBA 2K & FIFA) or the last play/highlights (MLB The Show & Madden).

All of the races you’re competing in are longer than that. But we can already watch the full race in the replay after the race is over. But we’re left following your car around through all the camera angles we have now, plus two more. There shouldn’t be an issue navigating a free-roaming camera around any other parts of the track.

Paint Booth & Car Customization

Perhaps the feature that’s most mentioned in regards to NASCAR games is the paint booth (Bob mentioned it in his NASCAR Heat 5 review). While I’m not sure we’ll ever be back to the NASCAR 09 days of uploading full designs created outside the game, I think there are some steps to take to get closer.

First, any paint scheme or number font used by any team in the game should be available to use in the game. If I’m given the option to join Stewart-Haas Racing as a fifth driver, why would my car number font not match my teammates’? There should be more standard number fonts available as well, especially ones that don’t look like the default fonts in Microsoft Office. The number of custom schemes available should at least double in size.

Second, the way we pick colors should be similar to what you do in Microsoft Office: enter an RGB value or pick from a color wheel. Most of the shades included in the game just feel off. Instead of scrolling through color, number and font options, let us select from a whole new menu that pops up.

Third, we should be able to choose from sponsors that aren’t the main sponsors of other cars. Rarely does a company sponsor two different cars on two different teams. I’ going to bring that word out again: it kills the immersion. NASCAR 06 did this with brands that perhaps sponsored a race but not a car. I’m not sure how the community would feel about fake sponsors again, so I’m not sure if that’s a safe route.

Finally, we should be able to create alternate schemes for drivers in the game, create new cars/teams altogether, and share these online. If we’re not allowed to import our own images anymore, then give us a set number of graphics, icons, number fonts, etc. and there shouldn’t be any issues with intellectual property. The ability to add drivers to the roster, and be able to make full-time or part-time drivers, leads me into my next suggestion.


Almost every sports game features classic athletes in some facet. MLB The Show has legends and legend teams. NBA 2K has All-Time teams and classic teams. All games have classic players in the card-collecting modes. The NASCAR Heat series can do something like this, too.

While NBA 2K has a handful of teams from the same season or era, it’s a little more difficult to pull something like this off in a NASCAR game. You’re never going to be able to get approval for all drivers and sponsors from a given retro season. You also run into the different models of cars. Some people wouldn’t be cool with that, but the ability to add classic drivers yourself would be interesting.

What I’m suggesting are retro tracks. Maybe it’s something as simple as the old Phoenix layout, or the old Homestead-Miami track. But what would really be fun is the inclusion of old NASCAR tracks like Nazareth, Rockingham or Milwaukee. I’d even be excited about some fantasy Roval layouts.

Career Mode

Outside of a roster with ratings, my biggest fix would be for career mode. As far back as I can remember, career modes in NASCAR console video games have been glorified season modes. Race the same season over and over again with the same other drivers while you accumulate wins and stats that were sometimes tracked for you.

In NASCAR Heat 5 if I join Hendrick Motorsports as the driver of the #88 car, Alex Bowman disappears from the game. If I leave the team at the end of the season, he’s right back where he was. Outside of health reasons, I’ve never seen this happen in NASCAR before and it most likely never will.

As I said above, this is a video game, and there’s no reason the drivers should be restricted to one car only. There is no way the executives at NASCAR or its teams are worried that a teenager in Texas put Brad Keselowski on the Roush Fenway team. At the end of this year, Jimmie Johnson is retiring, and depending on who takes his ride, it could open up the door for one of the young stars of the Xfinity Series. Yet, in NASCAR Heat 5, Jimmie Johnson will continue to drive as long as my career lasts, while Austin Cindric will peak in the Xfinity Series.

What I’m asking for is an offseason. Every offseason, drivers go from team to team, some retire and some no longer have a ride. Others get the call from a lower series. I would love to see something like the coaching carousel that was in NCAA Football 14. Once Jimmie Johnson retires, a driver like Brad Keselowski fills his ride. Now the Penske #2 car is open. Matt DiBenedetto drives for a team aligned with Penske, and there’s also Penske’s Xfinity Series driver, Austin Cindric. If Cindric takes over, now his #22 Xfinity car is looking for a driver — and so on.

However, you’re going to run into an issue of having more cars than drivers. This is where there would be a free agent list of drivers, or even regenerated drivers for the ones who retired with different names. All of the names used would be in an audio bank announced by the commentary team that would hopefully be added. Building on the ratings point from above, all drivers would have a prime ability window and an expected retirement age.

Finally, every other sports game has the option to start your career as a singular athlete, coach or team owner. In NASCAR Heat 5, you can own your own team or race as your singular character. There’s no option to start a career as, say, Chase Elliott. There’s also no option to own the Hendrick Motorsports team. Give us a chance to race as a driver and field offers from other teams. Give us a chance to operate a current team and hire crew members, from pit crews to crew chiefs to engineers.

Season Mode/Race Customization

If allowing drivers to move from team to team is some strange hassle, then season mode needs to be updated.

Most other sports games allow you to take control of multiple teams at once and switch between them. EA’s NASCAR games allowed you to race a season and switch the active driver between each race. A few of the games offered you the chance to switch drivers during races. These might be the two old features that I want back the most.

NASCAR Heat 5 allows you to race a customized schedule, but you can’t select any track that the series doesn’t currently race at. We should be able to customize not only the schedule but the points/playoff system you’d want to run. Want to run the mid-2000s Chase format with today’s points system? Go for it. Want to race a full season with no postseason whatsoever? It’s your world.

To go even further, allow us to customize each race. Currently, you can run one of eight selected percentages of race lengths. No other sports game lists the option this way. MLB The Show doesn’t give you the option to play 67 percent of the innings. Let us select the exact number of laps we want to run, and let us set the stage lengths as well.

how to make nascar feel like a sports game

Lastly, every other outdoor sports game allows for different kinds of weather. NASCAR Heat 5 has three skies: Nighttime, Sunny and Dark Clouds in Turn 1. Bring on the rainouts! Have the threat of weather play a role in the decision I make. Want to risk gas mileage because the race might end early? Make it happen! MLB The Show has rain delays and it affects your pitcher. A NASCAR rain delay would affect the track itself, and everyone would have to adjust.

Bottom Line

Playing a NASCAR game right now feels like opening up Madden and the only mode available is Face of the Franchise (although the dev notes certainly make it feel that way). And to be clear, this isn’t a 704Games thing. This has been happening as long as I can remember, regardless of who makes the game. It all comes down to what the developers want you to get out of their game. Do they want you to play a sports game centered around NASCAR? Or a single-player role-playing experience? Why not have both?

What would you add to the NASCAR Heat series to make more like a sports game?


Leave a Reply

  1. Bingo what you said!!!
    Especially the TV style presentation option (commentary), and being able to switch active drivers in season mode.
    I've been looking for those additions in every single Nascar game I've had.
    Yup... said it before, will say it again. All the Nascar Heat teams needs to do is look at the F1 2020 game and strive for that. All of these items here were essentially already in the F1 series or added/expanded upon this year with the My Team mode. Having an active drivers market & drivers change teams is a great way to keep the mode fresh and feeling like your season/career evolves overtime. Especially with the inclusion of F2 and how their drivers are in the market pool and progress towards ratings of F1 drivers as they grow.
    It's easy for a Nascar game that already includes Xfinity & Trucks. No reason they can't create that type of system to implement into a Nascar game.
    However, that being said the team in place over there seem to be content with DLC paint packs, using a stale engine & putting in the bare minimum when it comes to upgrading the game. I doubt it happens any time soon. Hopefully this year was just a copy/paste type release and they're working on something big for next year, but given the track record I'm not going to hold my breath on that.
    It's a shame really, because these few features make the F1 game that much fun to keep playing and would do the same for a Nascar game. Especially how the F1 series handles career mode with their R&D, vehicle/team upgrades approach that was always part of career & how it's evolved with the My Team mode. It's quite funny to see what Heat does in comparison to F1. Heat: buy upgrade. increase Engine from 90 to 95. F1.. earn R&D points & cash by racing. Spend cash to upgrade facilities and departments (aero, chassis, engine, marketing, etc, etc). Spend R&D points to develop car upgrades that take time to make & have a chance of failing, causing you to have to spend more on R&D. Regulation changes that can set back development by making you upgrade parts again to comply with new rules, etc. etc. All these things together make developing and building your driver and career actually feel worthwhile and rewarding.
    It's an interesting article here because it's all true, it's all area's Nascar games have lacked and it's stuff that's in the F1 game that really shows when you play it. They're great additions and can't come soon enough to a Nascar game; I'm just not sure the Nascar game we have now will ever see elements like this brought to it until some major changes are made to it. The folks in charge of the Heat series need to take a good hard look at other racing titles and have a serious look in the mirror, they're miles behind after 5 games and that gap gets wider and wider every year but their price points gets higher and higher too. It's just not adding up.
    1: Ratings are there, they are just hidden. If you did deep in the PC files, each driver is rated on short track, speedways & road courses. Even have a few more ratings that I don't recall. Now how well they work...that I can't tell you.
    2: this one doesn't interest me at all. I prefer sim style. Sure pre race stuff like F1 is fine. But I'd just prefer a relative black box like iRacing has that tells you the drivers around you and their position. So you know who you know whether you need to push to try and catch the guy ahead or if you have enough of a lead over guy behind that you should take it easy.
    3:Replay I agree. I hate seeing something exciting happen and I can't immediately go back and replay it.
    4:Paint booth I agree 100%. Not really as much as a issue on PC as I can mod any scheme I want but should be built in.
    5: classics. Yeah that doesn't interest me at all.
    6: I agree. Every sports game has players change teams. Nascar should be no different.
    7: Rain doesn't really bother me. Nascar doesn't rain on rain except for road courses. Would it add to the game, sure but it'd just be more I skip cutscene for.
    I'm gonna go out out on a limb and say the author isn't a sim racer. How damage isn't #1 on that list, I have no clue. That's by far the biggest issue with Heat. I shouldn't be able to hit the wall going 175mph, pit and car be back to 100%. Also no mention of controlling car under yellow (again a sim thing).
    Also no mention of original drivers name above the door but the players name on back/front window.

    I'm gonna go out out on a limb and say the author isn't a sim racer. How damage isn't #1 on that list, I have no clue. That's by far the biggest issue with Heat. I shouldn't be able to hit the wall going 175mph, pit and car be back to 100%. Also no mention of controlling car under yellow (again a sim thing).
    Also no mention of original drivers name above the door but the players name on back/front window.

    You are right in that I'm not a sim racer. I also have the PS4 version of the game, so I can't really dig into the PC files.
    The reason damage isn't on this list is because the point of the article was to see how NASCAR games can be more like sports games in general, rather than what needs to be done to fix specifically NASCAR Heat 5. Seeing that damage is a NASCAR-specific thing, it's really tough to see what they can borrow from, say, MLB The Show in that regard.
    You are right in that I'm not a sim racer. I also have the PS4 version of the game, so I can't really dig into the PC files.
    The reason damage isn't on this list is because the point of the article was to see how NASCAR games can be more like sports games in general, rather than what needs to be done to fix specifically NASCAR Heat 5. Seeing that damage is a NASCAR-specific thing, it's really tough to see what they can borrow from, say, MLB The Show in that regard.
    You are right. That's my bad. Kinda realize to most people damage doesn't really go with the rest of the article. To me I kinda link it to being the same as having NBA 2k20 or MLB The Show 20 without injuries or stamina.
    Sent from my Pixel 3 XL using Tapatalk
    Really good article. I spent a lot of time with NASCAR Thunder 2003 and NASCAR Chase For The Cup 2005 on GameCube.  I haven't played those games in well over a decade but I don't really remember the generating of new drivers as older ones retired. I think that's really essential to "career modes"
    I keep really wanting to jump into the Heat series. Racing really isn't my forte but I do have an itch to play on occasion just like with baseball games. The Show's career mode is the best career mode on the market imo and it keeps me coming back to buy a title every other year or so.  I'd likely do the same with an advanced career mode for a NASCAR series.  
    I agree with you, but just like Madden, so many of these features were available back in the PS2 days. All it would take to make these games more enjoyable is to simply look back at what used to be and implement those features. For example, I loved the Intimidator feature and the Hero/Villain factor in the EA games. It's not like these developers would really have to think outside the box. Just go back to what worked in the past, and you could win back a lot of fans.

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