ESPN Takes on the Drone Major Leagues

In the past two years, drones have experienced a tipping point, emerging from their place as a hobbyist niche to mainstream recreation, ripe with economic potential. Chances are you’ve seen them buzzing about low airspace, recording stellar panoramas, or perhaps shuttling a parcel from a warehouse to your porch. Now, the 21st century’s darling invention is redefining televised spectator sports as we know it. Enter: the Drone Racing League (DRL).

Last week, New York-based DRL announced a partnership with ESPN to broadcast 10 episodes that chronicle a tournament of 25 elite drone racers, vying for the title of world champion slated to air this October. This deal represents the most recent cresting wave in the wake of a veritable cultural phenomenon: the normalization of drone tech for civilian use. Just last month, the White House hosted its first-ever drone workshop, a summit that brought together drone industry leaders and government agencies in a gesture that signals the government’s recognition of an industry at the cusp of its maturity and preparation of clear regulatory pathways to facilitate widespread use. Earlier this March, Dubai hosted the first-ever World Drone Prix, which boasted a cash pot totaling $1 million. Meanwhile, drones have become increasingly affordable, and the industry fertile with competition. In this context, breaching the syndicated entertainment industry seems the logical next step, as evidenced by ESPN’s $12 million bet on DRL.

In an interview with the Guardian, DRL’s founder and chief executive Nicholas Horbaczewski claims that the watershed ESPN deal and similar deals with European broadcasters Sky and ProSieben preface his ultimate goal of bringing drone racing to millions of screens across the world.

The first official trailer depicts high torque shots of drones racing through an LED-lit, pop-up warehouse track, like cyborg hummingbirds in some Philip K. Dick fantasy. Requisite dubstep included.

Racers don virtual reality goggles, giving them a first-person view of the race as they navigate their custom-built machines that accelerate to about 60-80 mph through three dimensional obstacle courses in a promising instance of seamless digital-physical game design. Competitors are shown tinkering and soldering microchips to gutted quadcopters on work tables reminiscent of a mythological tech prodigy’s Palo Alto garage. It’s scruffy and unpolished and, to a degree, badass.

The heavy emphasis on DIY robotics evokes the tech heroism of “Robot Wars” (which coincidentally has been revamped this year), while peculiarly mixing the sedentary strategizing of eSports bred with the speed demon pace of F1.

What’s evocative about this brand of drone racing is not its spiritual predecessors, but rather how its fans engage with the sport. Drone races simply don’t merit, nor accommodate, stadiums of roaring spectators. While the pilots experience the cyber reality of white-knuckle drone flight in their seats, real life spectators are left squinting at four or five zipping blurs. Collective fanaticism happens on social media communities like Reddit or YouTube in the form of highly-edited clips of races past, consumed by individuals through individual screens, unbound by the limits of space and time.

Yet with all the egalitarian ethos of the Internet unifying its fanbase and the advent of retail drones, DRL-style drone racing remains an extremely exclusive club. The overhead fees include working knowledge of circuitry and radio tech, sourcing hard-to-find parts to construct your machine and handling brick-sized batteries that allow your drone a whopping 10 minutes of flight (and are prone to spontaneous combustion). Despite these seemingly unnegotiable prerequisites, venture capitalists remain undeterred and continue to pour millions into augmented and virtual reality.

As DRL partners with ESPN, drone racing might follow the path of Major League Gaming. No doubt eSports’ meteoric commercial success, which garnered about $500 million in revenue this year according to Newzoo’s 2016 Global eSports Market Report, has fueled this move to appeal to the millennial market. With executive producer powerhouse Mark Burnett (the mind behind “Survivor,” “The Voice” and “Celebrity Apprentice” to name a few) heading the show, this 10-episode series will likely wax dramatic, ushering in the digitalization of sports with narrative-driven presentation, to capture the hearts of the elusive, relatively affluent, growing target demographic: the millennial nerd.

Should Anteaters expect an annexed drone stadium to our shiny new Major League Gaming arena? I, and a slew of venture capitalists heartily say “yes.”