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Catch the Buzz: Drone Racing Is the Next Frontier for Sports

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As drones have flown from the fringe to the front line of public awareness, it was only a matter of time until they buzzed their way into yet another domain: competitive racing. This exciting, hyperspeed esport grabbed an estimated 28 million viewers when it was first broadcast on ESPN in 2016.

The first season of the Drone Racing League (DRL)’s Allianz World Championship Series introduced mass audiences to first-person view (FPV) drone racing on ESPN and ESPN2 in 2016. Season two, which debuted earlier this summer, culminates with eight pilots vying for the top spot in London. This new test of motor and flight skills has found an audience among gamers, who appreciate its adaptation of gaming mechanics and dynamics in the real world.

The DRL has outpaced rival leagues with high-profile partnerships with ESPN and Allianz, as well as its $20 million Series B investment from Sky, Lux Capital, Liberty Media, and its collaboration with Amazon Prime Video. The league has also done much to develop drone racing into a more refined spectator sport, going to extreme lengths to standardize the rules, drones, and courses used for its events.

Although they share some similarities with consumer drones, professional racing drones— small quadcopters purpose-built for racing—are designed to reach speeds of 90–100 mph. They’re quite different from drones used for aerial photography/videography, which primarily hover for smooth or steady shots.

FPV drone racing allows the pilots to see from the perspective of the drone via a live video feed transmitted directly to the pilot’s VR headset-like goggles. Races are held in most major cities around the world and require a racing drone, flight controller, and goggles.

The DRL has released simulator software for the Mac and PCs that allow potential pilots to run through simulations of some of the actual courses to test their skills. Pilots who do well in simulations may be invited to compete in a qualifying tournament.

Drone racing requires a unique skill set that skews slightly toward a younger market since it combines the quick response and skills required for gaming and tinkering, as well as some knowledge of mechanical design and engineering. It combines the real and virtual worlds in the manner of a real-life video game.

The DRL is doing a lot of things right, but before it can become a mass-appeal sport, it must overcome several hurdles. Because the DRL is not able to stream races in real time, all productions are currently pre-taped episodes. Onboard camera footage is added postproduction, since the live feeds from the drones can be unstable and are prone to interference. Once this issue is resolved, many new viewers will anxiously be waiting to experience the event as it is happening.

Drone racing is still geared toward hobbyists, and must jump from geek culture to pop culture. By focusing more on the narrative and human elements, the sport’s proponents can make it more accessible to a wider audience. The DRL must also make the drones easier to follow on screen by adding graphic overlays that track the drones as they zip around.

Another necessity is making races easily viewable online because young people don’t watch “legacy” TV. The DRL has limited its viewership to traditional channels. Fortunately, FPV drone racing is seeing the emergence of personalities who will attract fans to the DRL as it grows and becomes available to more media outlets and online platforms.

With its fast-paced action, compelling narratives, crisp commentary, slick graphics, quick-cutting camera angles, instant replays, and appealing hosts, it’s easy to see why FPV drone racing is generating so much buzz.

[This article appears in the July/August 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "The Buzz Is Real: Drone Racing Is the Next Frontier for Live Streaming."]

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