In the search for the next great spectator sport, ESPN has already given us the X Games, the World Series of Poker and e-sports. Now it’s about to experiment with a radically new sport that’s at the intersection of technology and athletic competition: drone racing.
In September, the major cable network announced plans to air 10 episodes of the Drone Racing League on ESPN and ESPN2, starting on Thursday and Saturday nights. The final two-hour championship will take place Nov. 20.
What is drone racing?
Drone racing attempts to capture the excitement of watching a 100-meter sprint or a horse race like the Kentucky Derby, but this time it’s drone quadcopters that are doing the racing, not humans or horses. Competitor drones will race through an obstacle-filled course at up to 80 mph, piloted by human “athletes” who are wearing special headsets that give them a live view of the action on the obstacle course. The drone pilots use joystick-like controllers to guide the drones. Thanks to tiny cams hooked up to the drones, the pilots can see how to maneuver around obstacles. You can find a review of the best drones for racing and other fun activities.
What’s the appeal?
For viewers, drone racing combines the non-stop action of a videogame with the exciting action of an Olympic sprint or other short competition. According to ESPN, everything will be prerecorded, so that the final edited mix will give viewers the best possible views and camera angles of how each race takes place.
There’s also a reality TV angle to drone racing. That’s because reality TV legend Mark Burnett – who created “Survivor” – is going to be part of an effort by ESPN to turn the drone pilots into real-life characters and heroes. Many of these drone athletes got into competitive drone racing after flying these quadcopters in parking lots or fields as just a hobby – so we’ll get to find out their motivations and inspirations for getting into competitive drone racing.
What about the drones?
For the first season, all competitors will fly the exact same drones, with the exact same weight, size and speed. So this won’t be like watching Formula One or NASCAR, where pit crews and modified vehicles from world-class automotive companies are part of the allure. Each drone competitor will be a bare-bones quadcopter, covered with just enough distinguishing markings (i.e. LED lights) to make them stand out from each other.
Is this really the future of sports?
ESPN certainly thinks so. To appeal to the young millennial demographic, ESPN has constantly been pushing the envelope on what’s possible with emerging extreme sports. And the choice of venues for the races is also interesting – everything from the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami to a mall in Los Angeles and an abandoned auto plant in Detroit.
Given the tech allure of drone racing, the show might also be a crossover hit with young gadget lovers and members of the DIY “maker” generation. In fact, the Drone Racing League actually received a venture capital infusion of $12 million, the same way a young tech company gets funding to bring a new tech product to market.
Moreover, ESPN thinks that drone racing might have some international appeal as well. The 10 weeks of drone racing will be simulcast on Sky Sports Mix, a new sports channel for UK and Irish audiences.
Starting in late October, we’ll see how these plans pan out, and whether the 25 drone pilots who will be part of the inaugural Drone Racing League will become TV heroes the way other professional athletes are.