For all that you may have been told about them by your elders when you were young, video games have become far more than mere recreation and anything but a waste of time. The new digital and ever-online world has transformed the video game industry like never before, making it feasible not only to plug and play, but also to make gaming a job and way of life. Whether that’s through the industry itself, its many media opportunities, or by becoming a competitive gamer and entering the ever-proliferating world of eSports.
Such growth is part of what prompted Keegan Leahy — who had studied to become a meteorologist at one of the most prestigious universities in his native Nova Scotia — to instead become a full-time professional sim racer. And while doing that may have meant deferring his ambition of becoming an operational forecaster, it’s led to him earning another title he can take pride in — being a NASCAR champion.
Leahy won the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series championship for 2021, prevailing in the final race of the season at iRacing’s Texas Motor Speedway to become the newest champion of NASCAR’s premier eSports series. With NASCAR having ramped up their eSports efforts in recent years and gotten the top teams and drivers in Cup on board, Leahy’s championship is weighed just as grandly and just as legitimately as any crown handed out in stock car racing — as evidenced by his $100,000 prize — contributing to the surreal feelings he’s now processing.
“It’s starting to sink in a little bit,” Leahy told CBS Sports. “I’ve done a few of these media obligations, these interviews the last couple days, and it’s given me the opportunity to really talk it through and express my feelings. Not only to the interviewer, but also to myself. So I’m kind of reconciling it a little bit. I’m starting to feel what I should feel, which is definitely a lot of excitement, a little relief. And I’m very, very proud as well.”
Driving for 23XI Racing, Leahy won his championship by virtue of a race at Texas that played to his strengths. With no cautions in the entire 167 lap event, strategy was at a premium, and Leahy — a skilled poker player — executed one that saw him short-pit from the race lead in order to stay at the front of the field. That strategy paid off, as Leahy was able to hold off a hard-charging Logan Clampitt in the final laps to win both the race and the championship.
“To play poker well, you need to maximize probability and think of stuff in terms of being the most likely to win,” Leahy said. “That’s all I did during the race was every decision I made, it was based off of maximizing my probability of winning. For example, I was the first to make a pit stop even though I was the leader. A lot of people would cringe at that decision and say ‘Why would you give up the lead to pit first? You’re just putting yourself on the back foot.’ But I wanted to maximize the amount of time I was the leader in case a caution came out, and I wanted to avoid having to race my championship competitors as much as possible in case they hit me or something.
“So much can go wrong for $100k, especially when you’re not leading the race. So that’s why I chose to pit first, and that allowed me to stay out in front. Sure, I was playing defense at the end of the race, but I never really lost control.”
Leahy, who originally got into sim racing through Forza Motorsport, went from racing for fun to going pro through iRacing, earning a license to compete in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series while also working as an instructor and content creator for Virtual Racing School. In the past, few could have imagined that sim racing — which was once merely a hobby pursued by tech-savvy racers and race fans — would offer the sort of opportunities that Leahy has now taken advantage of. Luckily for Leahy, his car owner is one with a longtime sim racing background and one who has seen the potential in what it offers to racing as a whole — NASCAR Cup Series star Denny Hamlin.
“It’s always good to work with somebody that knows racing at least because you’re talking on the same level. But especially with Denny,” Leahy said. “He’s also an extremely competent sim racer, he’s been sim racing way longer than I have, and he won Pro Invitational races this year. He’s no slouch on these and he knows what’s going on. So when he watches these races, he knows what I’m fighting, what challenges are happening through the race, and when stuff’s going well.
“It’s really nice to talk to him on a one-to-one level about that. And as for working with him and being on the 23XI team, that’s also pretty amazing. And I said I haven’t really let the championship win sink in – honestly, I haven’t even let the fact that I’m racing for Denny Hamlin and 23XI sink in. That hasn’t really registered for me yet. But yeah, it is a pretty big deal and I’m very grateful for that.”
Becoming a champion, no doubt, is a boost to Leahy personally, professionally, and financially. He plans to be responsible with his $100,000 payday, and his focus is on continuing to grow the Virtual Racing School he works for — A business which has become far more than simple coaching services to sim racers.
“I think my best path forward is continuing to work with Virtual Racing School. Because we don’t just do driver coaching and content creation for that sort of thing, there’s also hardware,” Leahy said. “So we’re selling wheels and pedals and stuff now, so that is definitely a growing market and we’re a growing company and there’s always gonna be work for me because I’ve dedicated a lot of time to VRS. And I think I’ve contributed to growing it and I really like the guys I work with. That’s my plan going forward.”
Leahy now goes into the record books as the ninth champion in the 12-year history of the Coca-Cola iRacing Series, NASCAR’s longest-running officially sanctioned eSports league. Leahy’s Texas win was the 11th of his career, which tied him for fourth all-time with 2014 series champion Michael Conti.