ESPN Could Make Drone Racing a Mainstream Sport

Two drones race during the final day of the first World Drone Prix in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, March 12, 2016.

Two drones race during the final day of the first World Drone Prix in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, March 12, 2016. Kamran Jebreili/AP

A sport for the 21st century.

There’s a hotel in Williamsburg—the expensive part of Brooklyn that still feels ‘edgy’ to a certain set—called the Wythe. It’s a trendy restored warehouse that often hosts hip soirees and parties for famous brands. On a freezing January evening, its exposed-brick walls and man-bunned bartenders hosted a launch party for a new sports league, called The Drone Racing League.

It’s the brainchild of Nick Horbaczewski, who previously helped turn Tough Mudder endurance runs into something that people enjoy doing, and Ryan Gury, a former advertising creative director and drone racer. The two have created a company that intends to be the cool face of drone racing.

DRL has secured over $8 million in funding from venture capital firms, as well as the owner of the Miami Dolphins, and the lead singer of the band Muse. Rapper 50 Cent shows up to their races. They intend to take what’s fun about watching small objects the size of a dinner plate hurtle through the air, and turn it into a global sport.

And they’re not alone. ESPN, the U.S. sports cable network, announced April 13  that it will broadcast a three-day drone-racing event in New York. The cable network will livestream the competition—organized by Scot Refsland, the man who hosted the first U.S. national drone racing competition last year—on ESPN3, its online channel.

It will also produce daily hour-long roundups for one of ESPN’s television channels. Add into the mix a drone-racing event in Dubai in March that had $1 million of prize money at stake, and it would be safe to say that first-person view (or FPV) drone racing is having a bit of a moment. This sport, that was almost entirely nonexistent just a few years ago, seems to be on the precipice of going mainstream.

What’s strange about drone racing, however, is that it’s not really like any sport that’s come before it. It’s got the fast-paced racing action of sports like Formula 1 and NASCAR, the DIY, outsidery feel of skateboarding, and the techy, sedentary nature of e-sports (or video game sports).

But unlike all of these other sports, or really any sport before it, drone racing is actually best viewed from a distance, after the fact. These drones are small and travel upward of 60 mph around large, three-dimensional racetracks. It’s hard to watch that live, in person, especially with today’s less-than-perfect technology. Millions of fans are sharing videos online of pilots juking and jiving through abandoned buildings, old power stations, parking lots, empty fields, and watching them on their phones, and laptops.

But very few people are showing up to see drones races in real life. Indeed, what we may be witnessing is the birth of the first new sport of the internet age: A sport that isn’t bound by time or collective experience, but instead a sport that is atomized and doled out in digital chunks, like so many Snapchats, Instagrams, Facebook links and tweets before them. A sport for the 21st century.

A DRL pilot preparing for a race.(Drone Racing League)

Creating a sport at the speed of the internet

Drone racing has gone from barely a concept to a fledgling sport with multiple leagues staking a claim that they are professional in a ridiculously short time. The term “drone racing” didn’t even really exist at the start of 2014.

One of the earliest viral videos to surface of the sport was from September 2014: A group of French pilots flew through a forest and millions of people watched, as the media compared the race to the speeder bike chase in the Star Wars film, "The Return of the Jedi." 

Since then, some drone pilots have gone on to amass large online followings. Perhaps none more so than Carlos Puertolas. Charpu, as he’s known in the racing community, can do unbelievable things with an FPV drone. His videos have racked up millions of hits online, and show what the sport could be like to watch.

Read the rest of the story here.