Posted on WIRED
WHEN YOU THINK of spectator sports, you think of big crowds. Hot-dog stands. Beer vendors. Foam No. 1 fingers. Although some sports may actually be better on TV, at least there’s the option of watching the event live and in person.
The Drone Racing League won’t be like that, at least not at the beginning. Instead, the league will rely on immersive footage shot from drone-mounted cameras, a professional video production team, and emerging viewing technologies in order to draw fans in. It’ll still be a spectator sport, just an entirely new kind. You’ll watch races as if you’re sitting in a drone’s cockpit, and you’ll probably watch them after the fact. Online, on TV, or on a VR headset.
“We’re not really focused on live events,” says Drone Racing League CEO Nick Horbaczewski, who says that may change if the races become popular. The league has six races planned for 2016 across the United States, as well as a course that’ll weave through the tunnels of Miami’s Sun Life Stadium in December. “We’re focused on post-produced content. It’s the most compelling way to see this. Our goal is to create great content, and we’re sure it’ll find a home and an audience.”
The league’s custom-built drones will zip around at speeds of up to 90mph, avoiding walls, weaving through gates, and tailgating one another in midair. But the drones are just one piece of the draw: Each course will be designed to look really cool on video.
The speed and smallish size of the drones aren’t the only barriers to having crowds watch each race. The way the Drone Racing League sees it, the race courses will be so complex, with chunks of them hidden from view, that a crowd seeing an entire race would be difficult, if not impossible.
In fact, the pilots themselves would have a hard time steering the drones without some high-tech help. Each of them wear a pair of goggles, one that displays a video feed from a camera mounted on the front of their drone. It’s strictly analog and low-res to keep the video flowing quickly. After all, you don’t want any lag when you’re trying to avoid walls and other drones.
“We always say it’s like being in the cockpit of a drone,” Horbaczewski says. “Our courses are too complex to do line-of-sight flying. You need to be seeing what the drone is seeing if you’re going to be taking corners like that or weaving between pylons or cutting through gates.”
But even though the racers will get a standard-definition feed delivered in real time to their faces via a custom-built radio-frequency communications system, fans at home will get an even better view. There will be separate high-definition cameras mounted on the front of each drone, recording sharper footage to watch at home. The League says it will make the videos available on their website, but just like any other sports league, they’re also pursuing distribution deals.
Horbaczewski has experience in helping brand-new sports find a global audience. Before starting the Drone Racing League in early 2015, he spent two years in a leadership role at Tough Mudder.
That hellish obstacle-course event has seen its participation level grow from a few thousand people at its first event in 2010 to more than 1.5 million people at events all over the world. Horbaczewski says that experience opened his eyes to the growth potential of new sports and the excitement surrounding them.
In order to expand the appeal of drone racing to a mainstream audience, Horbaczewski says the Drone Racing League is focused on helping drone racers bust out of the “hobbyist” mold. There’s a reason why most drone racers are hard-core hobbyists now, according to Horbaczewski: Most major drone manufacturers don’t make racing drones, leaving it up to experienced pilots to design, build, repair, and race their own machines. They don’t just need to be great pilots, they also need to be serious gearheads.
The league wants to change that paradigm, not just by paying its pilots, but by taking care of all the equipment costs.
“We have a pit crew that manages the drones,” Horbaczewski says. “They keep them flying, keep them in order. Everybody in our league flies the same drone. That levels the playing field and ensures everyone is on equal footing. And so the pilots are coming in to fly in the same way that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t spend his weekends strapping parts onto his car. He’s a driver, that’s what he does.”