Competitive video gaming is a professional sport that generates more than $700 million a year, so why not drone racing?
That’s the bet Nick Horbaczewski is making by starting the Drone Racing League, with the backing of investors including Stephen Ross, owner of football’s Miami Dolphins, and Lerer Hippeau Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. Horbaczewski expects most fans to watch races online, using their phones, computers — eventually even virtual-reality headsets. Ultimately, he has ambitions of becoming a digital NASCAR for drones.
The league held the first race of its inaugural season at Sun Life Stadium in Miami last month, shooting video of drones zooming around the giant complex from various perspectives, which will be shown online next month. The aim is to evoke classic Star Wars battle scenes and grab the attention of the public.
In the last two years, drone racing has grown from a niche hobby to more serious business. Fat Shark, a virtual-reality goggles maker, sponsored a racing event last summer at the California State Fair that attracted more than 100 racers. There’s also the Michigan-based International Drone Racing Association, dedicated to setting up competitions and raising awareness of the sport. This year, Dubai will host the first World Drone Prix, a tournament with speed and freestyle categories.
Drone racing shares a number of similarities with e-sports, the term for competitive video gaming, which lets fans watch their favorite gamers go head to head online and in stadiums. The e-sports market generated about $750 million in revenue last year, mostly from advertising and sponsorships, according to SuperData Research, which tracks the gaming market. Meanwhile, live streams of gamers playing on such sites as Twitch generated about $3.8 billion in 2015, SuperData said.
Horbaczewski is chasing a similar model. For now, he’s focused on well-produced video content to be consumed on browsers and mobile devices, including ones that put the viewer in the pilot’s seat.
Whether the league will be able to bring the sport from hobby to professional will depend on whether the company can produce and show the content live, said Joost van Dreunen, chief executive of SuperData. “A live sports event is what makes it exciting, makes it something you can connect to emotionally,” he said. “Otherwise, how do you visualize the effort? Where is the drama?”
The live component will come later, said Matt Higgins, the CEO of RSE Ventures, Ross’ investment arm. Horbaczewski is first working out various technical problems — including how best to capture the races, optimize the various perspectives, and weave the most interesting narrative about the pilots, Higgins said. Horbaczewski is “first demonstrating to the world that watching a drone race in some form can be really compelling,” he said.
The Drone Racing League has raised about $8 million from investors, Horbaczewski said. The second of its six races for the 2016 season will take place in March at the abandoned Hawthorne Mall in Los Angeles.
The league is unique in that it designs and builds drones for use in its races, standardizing the equipment and reducing costs for pilots. That way, they only have to worry about navigating the drones, similar to a professional race car driver. Each drone costs a couple of hundred dollars to assemble, Horbaczewksi said.
Drone racers fly quadcopters, aircraft with four propellers. The controller has two joysticks and resembles a video game console. Often, pilots wear virtual reality goggles that receive a feed from the camera embedded on the drone and maneuver as if they were in the craft itself.
At the races in Miami, the league set up high-definition cameras on rigs and booms throughout the course, filming the drones as they scooted by. Strategically installed smoke machines amped up the drama.
Pilots sat near the sidelines just off midfield, with their drones starting from a pad above their heads. The lighted course, about a half-mile long, started out with a lap around the stadium near the pedestrian tunnels on the first level. The drones, moving as fast as 80 to 90 miles an hour, hit a couple of illuminated checkpoints and then dove into a 10-foot-wide tunnel. They eventually popped out through another tunnel, got a blast of fresh air, before doing a sharp 180 into another tunnel leading to the concourse. The pilots had to maneuver through twists and turns to get back to the stadium into a greenlit box for the final landing.