DRONE RACING LEAGUE WRAPS UP VIRTUAL CIRCUIT AMID ONGOING PANDEMIC
“99 percent of fans won’t have a courtside seat, or even go to a live sporting event, so you always have to think about how you bring that experience closer to them in meaningful ways with these unbelievable immersive experiences through technology. As much as sports is in my DNA,” Jacobson says, referring to her 21-year career in the NBA, “technology is in the DNA of drone racing.”
Typically, levels are hosted in stadiums around the world, and pilots use first-person view technology to fly the drones. The DRL custom drones are equipped with cameras that send a live video feed to the pilots, who wear goggles that allow them to watch the flight through the drone’s perspective as they remotely control their device. The goal is simple: traverse a complex course in the fastest time.
The 2020 season, however, looked a little different. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and in-person sporting events were being canceled around the world, many turned to virtual events. The transition to virtual competitions was natural for DRL, as they already had an operating esports league. DRL SIM, launched in 2007 on Steam and 2020 on Xbox, is exactly what it sounds like, a drone racing simulator game, available on PC and Xbox, which DRL worked with Georgia Tech on to ensure the aerodynamics of DRL SIM were a perfect match to real life.
The DRL SIM made for a simple transition for the 2020 circuit, shifting to virtual events, and DRL worked to make the virtual tracks as real as possible, including using a map creator to render fresh, never-before-seen tracks in the game. Veteran and new fans of drone racing responded positively to the efforts put out by the league.
“We’ve kept [the fans] engaged. It’s been incredible to see the growth of our sport. We took the time during this period to get smarter about our fans and test out new technologies and innovative programming that we could continue to roll out in 21,” says Jacobson.
Pilots, meanwhile, found the transition from in-person flying to the SIM tournament relatively simple, albeit with some adjustments.
“The practice that we do on the simulator is more, ‘hold it at full throttle and just get through the track,’” says DRL pilot Chris “Phluxy” Spangler. “You don’t have to worry about charging batteries or breaking things. You clip a gate in real life and you can keep flying, but your propellers have taken a bit of damage. We’re not flying as conservatively as we would in real life.”
Christian “Amari” VanSloun, on the other hand, was a rookie in the 2020 season. He had won the SIM Tryout tournament the year prior, a victory that earned him a contract in the DRL. “I’ve started looking into and figuring out different car racing sims,” he says. “Studying how to take lines and things like that, because your level is all spec racing. No one comes to the event with a technological or mechanical advantage. It comes down to lines at the end of the day and studying those is really what’s been helping me to do well this season.”
As other sporting leagues turned to virtual events at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, such as Nascar with esports racing org iRacing, DRL saw conversion of traditional sports fans who previously knew nothing about drone racing. According to Jacobson, of all sports fans who found DRL during the pandemic, approximately 60 percent reported they would continue to watch future seasons.
Whether DRL reverts to in-person races in 2021 remains to be seen, depending entirely on their ability to host races safely.
In addition to adapting to a global pandemic, DRL forged several new partnerships in 2020. Most notable is its partnership with DraftKings, a popular app which coordinates and operates sports betting, making DRL the first aerial sport to be approved for sports betting. Betting on DRL is currently available in six states: Colorado, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee, West Virginia and Illinois. There is also a free-to-play pool, which is open for all 50 states to participate in, currently boasting 200 thousand users.
DRL’s final race of the 2020 circuit is on Saturday at 1:30 pm PT. The event will air live on NBC, Twitter and Facebook. Check out the trailer for the race:
Photo courtesy of The Drone Racing League