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Thursday [3.8.17]2 min read

Drone racing: The next big thing in sports

Aircraft race through a darkened complex, engines screaming, pilot’s eyes straining. Rounding pillars, dipping under barriers, slipping between gateways – one false move will smash their small, agile craft to pieces, ending their hopes for victory.

Welcome to the world of drone racing – a new challenger to the eSports industry.

The rise of the drone

It looks, sounds, and plays like a video game. But while it clearly draws inspiration from gaming and movies, drone racing is a legitimate, real-world sport. Its rise will come as no surprise to its rabid fan base; there are countless drone racing tracks in Australia and all over the world, including major venues like the home of the Miami Dolphins.

Thanks to the Drone Racing League (DRL), the sport has seen sensational growth in just a few short years. As its name implies, participants race agile, custom-built drones. These flying machines are kitted out with wireless cameras that feed the pilots’ VR-style head-mounted displays that project a live feed from the drone’s point of view.

“It could be huge,” says Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of the DRL. While the look and feel of drone racing has clear similarities to video gaming, Nicholas believes its physicality offers something the digital world lacks – something that could propel it to the heights of eSports. “There’s just something about the feeling that this is happening in real life.”

Given the DRL’s success so far, Nicholas might be onto something. ESPN picked up the league’s 2016 season and it was broadcast to 30 million Americans.

Can drone racing really compare to eSports?

A report on the commercial applications of drone technology predicts that drone racing could achieve similar success to eSports. With an $8.8 billion valuation in the entertainment and media industry, it’s not hard to see why drone racing is drawing comparisons with the hugely popular eSports industry.

When you break down the key elements of both eSports and drone racing, you see that both are built on a mix of skill and strategy. It doesn’t matter if a player is manoeuvring on a monitor or steering a real-life drone through a stadium – it’s the adrenaline rush and the competitive element that matters. And, of course, the fans.

Fans have been vital to propelling eSports to crazy new heights, with the powerful resource of live streaming helping their rise. The same can be said of drone racing. Easy access to live races allows gamers and fans alike to witness the talents of the racers and the manufacturing minds behind the diverse aircraft.

In Australia, Freedom Drone Sports builds and tests prototypes that are nearly 10 times larger than current racing drones. And in addition to their size, Freedom Class Giant Drones simply roar in comparison to the buzz and howl of smaller aircraft. And with their dramatic increase in size comes an improved spectator experience – smaller drones are difficult to see with the naked eye, particularly when flying at speed.

“Future pilots will have to go through specialised training to fly them, starting with a scaled-down 50-centimetre version,” says Dave Heavyside, media manager at Freedom Drone Sports. It’s clear that he believes drone racing is already a sport, with racers needing to hone their craft and improve their skills if they wish to stay competitive – just like the best DOTA and League of Legends eSports stars.

“We definitely think that drone racing has the ingredients to become as big if not bigger than eSports, as it combines aspects of gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality and real-world racing. We see a future where online races will be combined with the real races, and both offline and online racers can compete in real-time. It's a very exciting future.”

Dare to drone?

Thanks to the rise of effective and cheap commercial drones, professional drone racing will soon have a massive talent pool to recruit from. The ability to pick up an affordable drone at a local electronics shop or online store is what kick-started the sport in the first place, and it continues to fuel the worldwide amateur scene. Couple that with new technology and we can look forward to more sophisticated, faster and better-looking drones.

For Aussies interested in either watching or competing in drone racing, the Australian Drone Nationals is a good place to start. With qualifiers, live streams and competitive tournaments taking place across the country every year, there’s no denying that drone racing is here to stay.

While it’s true that drone racing currently sits in the shadow of eSports, its remarkable growth speaks for itself. Whether it’s watching a live stream with friends, entering an amateur tournament or competing at a professional level, gamers and sports fanatics are embracing the drone racing phenomenon.

And judging by its multi-billion-dollar valuation and a thriving global community, the sky is the limit for this next big thing in sports.

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