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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - -Jing Cao

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

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