Drone racing has gotten VC money, glitz, and polish—how will the public (and the hobby) respond?
Immediately after watching the Drone Racing League's launch video at its party in Brooklyn last night, the league's premise reminded me of something, but I wasn't quite sure what. Halfway through its series of keynote presentations, something one of the league's executives said made it click.
"You have to start with a vision," Tony Budding, the league's director of media, said. "What are the stories? Is it true sport? Is it entertainment? Are we going WWE, is it NASCAR? Formula 1? There are all sorts of ways we can address it."
The DRL is an attempt to take the niche hobby of first person view drone racing—in which pilots strap on video goggles that show a live stream of a front-facing camera on the drone, which can go nearly 100 mph—and turn it into the world's next big sport. It's a mix between Star Wars pod racing, Mario Kart, and NASCAR.
But what felt most familiar about the DRL, which announced its existence to the world today, is its allusions to professional wrestling. Racers have been stripped of their real names and have been given new ones like "Legacy," "Ummagawd," and "Kittycopter," the league will emphasize personality and interpersonal beefs almost as much as the racing itself, and there's a glitz and glamor about the whole thing that you won't find at a DIY racing setup in a park.
I'm wondering how the drone racing community, which is typically made up of low-key tinkerers, will respond to DRL's launch.
Budding's team employs the sorts of camera crews used for NFL games (the first race was at the Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium in Miami in December), and the races are one-on-one to play up the tension between racers and make it easier to follow. From what I saw last night, the production values are extremely high, the racetracks are exotic, the drones are custom engineered for and owned by the league. The pilots are professionally employed by the league itself (there are no teams, each racer competes individually using DRL-designed drones).
There's a promo video of a DRL drone racing a Porsche 911. At one point during the party, a DRL marketing person suggested that the plan is to eventually have a Hunger Games-style command center that can be used to give specific drones speed boosts or can be used to remotely shut off a drone.
The drama is there from the start: At one point in a video we were shown, a racer named Ummagawd who got into racing because he saw the LED lights of a drone flying at Coachella (!) solemnly says that he's flying because his recently deceased father would have wanted him to make the sport and himself famous. Alex Walsh, a drone pilot we met in the Bronx last year, is now Legacy, a don't-fuck-with-me native New Yorker who honed his fast-twitch muscles playing Call of Duty. The league's races are filmed, then produced, then will air weeks or months after they actually took place.
Budding said during his presentation that some of the crashes shown in promo videos are "enhanced for effect."
"What we tend to do is, after everything is done, for some spectacular crashes we loosen the bolts and we put some plastic parts on and fly them as fast as we can into something very hard," he said. "It makes them spectacular."
In other words, this is a business that is making a very serious go of making drone racing into a verifiable thing, with personalities and drama that the types of people who are into the NFL, the WWE or, at the very least, esports can get into.
The DRL is flooded with venture capital money (one of its investors is RSE Ventures, which is owned by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross) is being run by people who have a history of successfully hyping sports lifestyle events—its founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski, was an exec at Tough Mudder and Budding was heavily involved in Crossfit—and is being marketed as the next biggest sport in the world.
I'm very curious to see how it all works out. Over the last year or so, there's been greater interest in FPV racing, and a few smaller leagues have launched. There have been meetups organized in parks and tennis bubbles and forest trails around the world. Part of the whole appeal of drone racing has thus far been the customizability and uniqueness of each individual drone.
"Every other league has tried to do it from the ground up," one hobby drone pilot I met last night, who is not affiliated with the DRL, told me at the party. "These guys are saying, 'Here's the money, make something that people want to watch.' They're trying to solve the marketing and the product and are hoping the other parts fall into place."
That may be a bit reductive, but it's fair to wonder if drone pilots will think this is the best way to introduce the sport to the public. DRL's director of product is Ryan Gury, a drone designer who we profiled last year and who is as tapped into the drone racing community as anyone. Many of the pilots DRL has signed up are first rate and its courses certainly look top-notch. I left feeling impressed, but I'm not a drone racer. So I'm wondering: Will the DRL be "real" enough for the hobby's diehards? If it's popular with the masses, will it even matter?