The art of flight - why governing bodies can learn lessons from the rise of the Drone Racing League

We discuss how the meteoric rise of the Drone Racing League is something that all governing bodies of sport should be paying more attention to.

The circumstances in which modern day­ sports emerge are pretty unique, and the Drone Racing League (DRL) is no different. Rewind ten or so years, and not many people would have bet that a technology which was intended for military use, would become one of the world’s most popular tech trends. The fact that you can now pick up a drone for less than £200 has seen the technology find its place in everyday life; they are used to survey land, capture incredible broadcast footage, deliver packages and even protected swimmers from sharks on Australia’s beaches. So it was only a matter of time before Drones made their mark in the world of sport.

So how do I explain the Drone Racing League? Imagine Formula 1, meets E-sports, meets science fiction. Specially built, dinner plate-sized racing drones fly around elaborate, neon-lit courses in 65,000-seat stadiums and abandoned warehouses, at speeds of up to 80mph. They are controlled by pilots who are strapped into first-person-view (FPV) headsets that give a cockpit-style view using the drone’s HD camera. “It’s like you’re a bird”, says Luke Bannister, the 16-year-old winner of the World Drone Prix. The sport is truly like something which has been plucked straight out of a sci-fi film. Take a look for yourself:

Video credit: Drone Racing League

Drone Racing blurs the lines between some of the biggest industries on our planet – sport, technology and gaming. These industries share an ultra-competitive nature and we often see them cross over into one and other. We have seen age-old sporting institutes turn to new technologies to drive the progress of their sport but we always seem to be caught off-guard when it works the other way. When technology itself gives birth to a new sport that becomes a monster in its own right, and rips up the rule book along the way. This has already happened with E-sports (competitive gaming), and I’m confident Drone Racing is heading down the same path.

Having watched the video I’m sure you can see why the DRL has captured the attention of a lot of people, and even in its infancy it has recorded some pretty impressive milestones. At just two years old, the DRL has become a professional sports league, has teamed up with high profile investors, secured broadcast deals with Sky and ESPN, among others, and its sponsors include the likes of Budweiser and Allianz. The DRL’s surface level appeal has played an important role in the sport’s growth, but if you delve a little deeper you begin to reveal a more sophisticated side of the Drone Racing League.

The DRL has done something very clever. Just like E-sports before it, it is reaping the rewards of taking the time to craft a sport that connects with millions of competitive and tech savvy individuals and in doing so, has delivered an experience that warms to the sports fan, gamer and techie in all of us. Take a closer look at the DRL website and you will see what I mean. Everything has been considered; from the subtle use of a triangle in the DRL logo that looks like a ‘play’ button or paper plane, through to an event calendar that presents the league’s competitions as ‘Levels’. If you click on level 2, ‘L.A.POCALYPSE’, or level 3, ‘Project Manhattan’, you’ll see courses that wouldn’t look out of place in a blockbuster video game.

Video credit: Drone Racing League

The references to gaming even go as far as the pilots themselves. Each has their own alter ego, including Ummagawd, Mad_Air, GAB707, Provo and Zoomas. Anyone familiar with online gaming will see the parallels between these names and the username chosen by a gamer, otherwise known as a ‘gamertag’. As you immerse yourself further in the world of DRL there are countless other examples of references taken from the worlds of gaming, technology, film, and extreme sports. The DRL is essentially a melting pot of popular culture, and has been incredibly measured in creating the image of a sport that warms to very people who will drive its growth in years to come.

This thinking goes beyond the DRL’s brand. A lot of thought has gone into the format of drone racing, and how to make the sport accessible. Drone racing solely places focus on the pilot’s ability to fly a drone, and unlike traditional sports, there’s much less (if any) onus placed on physical prowess. While this often brings drone racing’s label of a ‘sport’ into contention, what it actually does is open the door to a much wider audience. For all intents and purposes, drone racing is an inclusive sport; there are no barriers for pilots with disabilities, there is no gender split and age plays no role, even at highest level of the sport. As I mentioned earlier, the winner of last year’s Grand Prix in Dubai was a 16-year-old, and there are pilots who are even younger.

So we’ve established that the DRL has appeal and that it’s inclusive. We’re just one step away from the holy trinity, so what’s next on the list? Engagement.

The DRL has done a very good job of using its digital presence as a toolkit for recruiting a new generation of drone pilots. This is something you’d expect from a sports organization that has referred to itself as a technology company. The DRL website is littered with ‘how to’ video content including Drone Racing 101, best practice for throttle control, launch and passing strategies, and interviews with elite pilots. All of the DRL’s content is pumped across its social media channels, and accessible from your laptop, tablet or smartphone 24 hours a day. I would be surprised if you hadn’t seen some drone racing related content whilst flicking through your Facebook or Twitter feeds.

Not stopping there, the DRL has taken online engagement to the next level. Last year it launched the Drone Racing Simulator, opening up the world of drone racing to budding pilots around the world. The simulator is free to download and takes new pilots through the basics of flying a racing drone. It then allows them to navigate through actual DRL courses and, in true online multiplayer style, compete against each other on the internet. If you get good enough at the simulator there’s also a chance that you could be competing in the DRL itself. If you choose to enter the ‘DRL Tryouts’ and finish in the top 24 qualifiers, you’ll be invited to compete in a live racing simulator tournament, the winner of which receives a $75,000 contract to fly for the DRL in the 2017 season.

Video credit: Drone Racing League

The DRL is but one entity in the global drone racing community, there are many more leagues, organizations and event organizers that are doing their best to make the sport accessible outside the realms of the internet. The sport now has an international federation and the phenomenon is spreading to nations around the world. As a result, there are many more FPV or RC clubs popping up and it’s becoming remarkably inexpensive to get into the sport. You can pick up a beginners drone racing DIY kit for very little and it only takes 30 minutes to put together. We are also starting to see an emergence of different drone racing formats including ‘micro’ racing that works on a much smaller scale that the glamour of the DRL.

It’s interesting that the emergence of drone racing and the DRL has come about at a point when ‘change’ is the word of the moment in the sports industry. ‘Disruptive technologies’ are changing the shape of the sports industry and this has proved the perfect breeding ground for new sports to emerge. Even the DRL’s CEO, Nicholas Horbaczewski has highlighted the importance of this in a recent interview, saying, “One of the best things about being a brand new sport is when you come onto the scene when other changes are going on, you can sort of ride the front of that wave.”

What the DRL has highlighted is that change should be embraced, and not feared. Forward-thinking initiatives and the use of technology can be an incredibly powerful combination in the world of sport. While I understand that the DRL has started from an almost clean slate, it’s a great example of how embracing new ideas and aligning yourself with the needs and wants of a modern day audience can drive the growth of a sport. The DRL has taken the time to gather intelligence on its audience, and create a brand and offering that ticks all of the required boxes. They’ve also played a role in making the sport becoming more accessible, and have delivered engaging initiatives to drive participation.

We are often asked for advice on new ways of growing participation in a sport, and the next time I’m asked this, I will be pointing them in the direction of the Drone Racing League.