The Drone Racing League has already come further than a lot of people would have predicted. It’s been televised for multiple years by ESPN networks, investment is still coming into the sport, and this past fall pilots competed for a $100,000 prize purse. While it’s still far too soon to call drone racing a major sport, as some seem to want to do, it’s clear that there is a path forward for it, and that it can be a sustainable form of entertainment.
One interesting way to look at it is with other sports in mind. That is, it can be interesting to consider fringe spectator sports and how some of them might be models for drone racing’s future. For reasons that will become clear, we’re looking specifically at eSports, poker, and Formula 1.
eSports have been mentioned before as a potential model for drone racing because in a way, the two are similar in nature. Both are pseudo sports, based on technology to some degree, and involving the idea of watching people competing with controllers. eSports were dismissed by some skeptics early on, via the simple argument that no one would want to watch someone else play games, but those skeptics have already been proven woefully wrong. Competitive gaming now accounts for massive revenues and almost unbelievable streaming audiences, which in some cases rival those viewing major sporting events. Drone racing cannot match the variety of eSports, but it does embrace a similar basic concept: that of watching others compete, not in a professional sport, but in something you could go out and do with your friends. There is then some logic to the notion that if eSports can become a major industry, the DRL has a chance at prolonged, lucrative success as well.
Poker is actually somewhat like eSports, fundamentally, given that it’s a competitive, high-stakes activity that amateurs can practice and relate to. In the early 2000s, millions of people got used to watching poker on television, and even on ESPN networks. Now, however, the industry is thriving online as well, via streaming models that may be more helpful for the DRL. Online poker was once a clunky, somewhat unsophisticated activity; now, it’s becoming a very good imitation of poker in a real casino. In casino gaming in general, people can play their favorite games with real dealers on any mobile device or desktop, and this includes poker tournaments. Thus, the tournaments are run more professionally and realistically than ever before, and streaming from established poker sites, Twitch, and other services can turn these tournaments into spectator events. The DRL and other drone racing entities may want to emulate the sheer breadth and availability of competitive online poker in order to achieve maximum revenues.
Formula 1 is more of a “real” sport, and is an absolutely massive comparison for something as new and relatively small as drone racing. For instance, F1 recently reported $10 million in digital revenue as a bad number, whereas the same figure associated with drone racing would potentially be celebrated. Nevertheless, here we’re talking more about the structure of the sport than the streaming options or revenue model. Right now, the DRL is somewhat devoid of characters and personalities. F1 on the other hand is built on the differences and rivalries between car manufacturers and drivers. If the DRL simply wants to generate more interest, an internal effort to establish pilots as known characters and drones as being representative of competing companies could go a long way toward establishing F1-like rooting interests. This would in turn lead to more attention, more demand, and more revenue.