The Drone Racing League offers fans “a real-life video game”
▶ A venture-backed startup tries to turn hobbyist pilots into pros ▶ “We’re creating a whole new form of entertainment”
Conrad Miller, a 36-year-old tech support guy from Boise, Idaho, has spent a year and a half practicing for a moment like this. He’s at Sun Life Stadium, where the Miami Dolphins play, standing near the sidelines just off midfield, waiting for a match to start. The competitors don’t have helmets or pads on, though—they’re all rotors and cameras. Today, the drones have taken over.
It’s shortly before Christmas, and colored lights dotting the stadium highlight obstacles and checkpoints that a dozen pilots must navigate as they steer their quadcopters for three laps around a half-mile course. That’s harder than it sounds, because the drones are moving as fast as 90 miles per hour. In his first practice run, Miller, who says he practices 20 to 50 hours a week, crashes into one of the first obstacles, landing near three other drones. A series of HD cameras on rigs and booms around the course captures it all.
This was the first contest organized by the Drone Racing League, which posted video from the Miami event a month later. Miller is full of analogies. “With the professional cameras, it’s like watching a real F1 race,” he says. “They’re making this into a real-life video game.”
Both comparisons interest Nick Horbaczewski, the league’s chief executive officer, and his investors, who include Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Superdata Research estimates that competitive video gaming generated $750 million last year, mostly in video ad sales and sponsorships. Horbaczewski’s league is trying to mimic elements of that model, recording videos that can give people a drone’s-eye view. Eventually, he says, he also wants it to look just as much like Nascar for drones. “We’re creating a whole new form of entertainment that straddles the digital and the real,” Horbaczewski says.
The dozen pilots the DRL invited to Miami used drones custom-built by the league for a couple hundred bucks each. The two-joystick controllers work pretty much like those for an Xbox or Playstation, and VR goggles let the pilots see through their drones’ front cameras in real time. They’re scored on each lap based on how many checkpoints they reach and how quickly they reach them. After each lap, a DRLprovided pit crew patches up crashed drones or hands the pilots new ones.
There are other drone races out
there. In July a race at the California State Fair drew 120 pilots to battle for a $25,000 prize pool. But Horbaczewski’s venture marks the first step toward a pro league with a sustainable business model.
He started thinking about building a league in his previous job as chief revenue officer for Tough Mudder, a leading organizer of arduous obstaclecourse races. About a year ago, he went to an amateur drone race on Long Island, N.Y., and he says its potential mainstream appeal was obvious. He’s raised $8 million from Ross’s RSE Ventures, seed fund Lerer Hippeau Ventures, and other investors. Among the sources of revenue under consideration: video ads, sponsorships, and broadcast rights.
Some of that is a long way off. The league has 12 full-time employees and is still working out how to edit its HD feeds together. (That’s why none of the footage from Miami went online for a month.) So it can’t yet count on distribution deals with live-video sites such as Amazon.com’s Twitch, which have proved profitable for gaming groups. And while DRL teasers call drone racing “the sport of the future,” the early video looks a little retro. For ’90s kids, the colored lights and strategically placed smoke machines give off a strong whiff of Guts, Nickelodeon’s American Gladiators rip-off.
That said, it’s pretty cool to watch the little copters zip around at top speed. Matt Higgins, CEO of RSE Ventures, says Horbaczewski’s immediate challenge is “demonstrating to the world that watching a drone race in some form can be really compelling.” There will be five more races in DRL’S inaugural season, the next in March at the abandoned Hawthorne Mall in Los Angeles. Around that time, Dubai will host the first World Drone Prix, a tournament backed by Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
“We have a lot of confidence in the way we’re creating this media,” Horbaczewski says, citing the tens of millions of views the DRL’S videos racked up in a week. He’s still got some work to do, though: Even Higgins says he gets bored with most drone videos in 30 seconds or so.
The bottom line The Drone Racing League is trying to attract viewers with high-speed footage, but it’s still working out how to broadcast it.
Pilots compete bysteering their drones through thelighted checkpoints
The pilots’ headsets displayvideo from the drones’ cameras inreal time