Drones are going mainstream: The Federal Aviation Administration anticipates that by the end of 2016, people will own more than 2.5 million in the United States alone. But competitive drone-ing is newer still, and televised drone sports are practically uncharted territory, at least in the U.S. That will change Thursday night when the first of a 10-episode season featuring the Drone Racing League airs on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. Eastern.
“This is an incredibly exciting day for DRL,” the league’s CEO, Nicholas Horbaczewski, said in a press release.
But will it be exciting for viewers? After all, this isn’t the first time competitive drone operation will be on TV, and the reviews of a previous effort were not positive. In February, the BBC launched a children’s show called Airmageddon that showed kids flying drones around obstacle courses. My colleague Justin Peters scoped out the show and reflected thusly:
I was not entertained by Airmageddon. The drones go really slow, and—at least in the episode I watched—there aren’t nearly enough crashes. The youthful drone pilots weren’t very good, and the obstacles were not very exciting. The Guardian’s [Joel] Golby characterized Airmageddon’s version of suspense as “picking up magnets and putting them down inside a loop of LED lighting arranged artlessly on a concrete floor.” That said, the show is for kids. I’m trying to put myself into a kid’s shoes right now—it’s hard, my feet are too big—and if I were 12 years old in 2016, I would probably think that Airmageddon was sort of cool.
The DRL drones do go faster—more than 80 mph, but the idea is essentially the same. “DRL races feature six pilots each flying a custom designed, hand built and identical DRL drone, the DRL Racer 2, through complex, thematic, three-dimensional racecourses that have been compared to a real life video game,” the press release said. Here’s a taste.
The Drone Racing League has also been compared to Battle Bots, a show ABC revived in 2015 in which “robots duel to the death to win the coveted Golden Nut.” The show’s ratings were good enough that ABC brought it back for a second season. Despite its sports-like color commentary and playoff structure, Battle Bots is billed more as entertainment than sport. With its TV contracts with sports networks, DRL is trying to plant the league firmly in the realm of mainstream sports. The company says “drone racing is a rapidly growing sport with a passionate global fan base,” and some of the courses are even located in NFL stadiums. And because sports need stakes, the show’s 25 pilots from eight countries compete “for a professional contract in the 2017 season and the coveted title, ‘World’s Greatest Drone Pilot.’ ” The championships will air on ESPN on Nov. 20.
While drone racing has all the trappings of what we’ve come to expect from sports, it lacks the characteristic physical exertion. But, as Faine Greenwood wrote last year in Slate, defining what is and isn’t sport is an increasingly tricky task:
[Done racing] is a sport that exists in the same complex gray area as professional and sponsored video game players, or NASCAR drivers, or aerobatic jet pilots—pursuits where success depends far more on quick reflexes and strategic thinking than physical mass or speed, where human ability and mechanical innovation are fused into something we can’t exactly define.
The prospect of drone racing as a sport is intriguing. Drones are inherently cool. Watching them crash and smash through stuff is entertaining. And the pilots wear goggles that show them the view from the drone’s cockpit as it swoops and veers, which sounds awesome, though watching someone watch the feed from a speeding drone sounds … less awesome. But you never know! And given the choice is between watching tonight’s suboptimal football game between the Jets and the Bills and getting a first look at a potential sport of the future, I’ll likely tune into drones.