Drone racing is about to get an Olympic-style championship on ESPN

Drone racing is about to become a big deal. 

The International Drone Racing Association signed a multi-year, international deal with ESPN to broadcast the major drone events that it organizes —  the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, the World Drone Racing Championships, and the Drone World Cup series. 

The deal signifies a major development in the arena of drone racing since e-sports hit the primetime. It will mark the very first televised drone event.

Prior to signing its deal with ESPN, the IDRA livestreamed its events through content provider Rotor Sports, which has since merged with the IDRA.

“It basically legitimized it and moved it into a new platform,” Scot Refsland, founder and CEO of RotorSports, told Tech Insider of signing the deal with ESPN. 

Lifting off the ground


Drone racing has more or less stayed in the hobbyist domain. Races take place all across the globe with little oversight or tracking — something some may say isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But not all have been content remaining in the relative obscurity of the fields they fly in. The IDRA and a newly formed organisation, the Drone Racing League (DRL), have been making moves to legitimise racing as a sport.

Announced in January, the DRL has scheduled several major events to take place throughout the year ranging from locations like Sun Life Stadium to a “post-apocalyptic” mall, culminating in a world championship.

However, the DRL tapes its events and releases them online several week after the races take place. The YouTube videos barely scratch half a million views. It’s worth noting their first race in Miami garnered 100,000 viewers on Twitch, which marked the largest live audience on any platform to watch a drone race to date. But again, it wasn’t a live audience.

The DRL has said it’s interested in broadcasting or streaming its events live, but it’s not happening anytime soon — the DRL isn’t planning on offering live streaming until the end of 2016.

But while the DRL has slowly made its way into the public domain, the IDRA swept in on Wednesday when it announced its championships will also make its way on ESPN3 live, with a special one-hour showing on ESPN after the fact.

The U.S. championship will take place for the second time ever on Governors Island, New York August 5th to the 7th, and the Olympic-style World Champioship is slated for October in Hawaii.

“The DRL has been doing a really great job … we are competitors, but that’s only on the basketball court,” Refsland said. “Behind it, we talk about how to increase fan viewership.”

‘The full thrill’

Drone racing first person goggles

YouTube/IDRA

The IDRA has big plans to get people interested in watching drone racing.

While broadcasting the event live is a big step, Refsland notes there’s a lot of potential to have spectators get involved using virtual reality.

Virtual reality is already a big component of drone racing. All drones are equipped with tiny video cameras that provide a livestream of what it’s seeing to goggles worn by the racers. Dubbed first-person-viewing (FPV) racing, the technology gives racers the feeling that they’re flying on the drone while racing.

“It’s in the DNA of our bodies that we want to fly. Drone racing lets us do that,” Refsland said. “You get the full thrill, the adrenaline rush…That’s what so compelling about it.”

Refsland said he is interested in seeing how people can view races via virtual reality. They could pop the goggles on and be on the actual field with the racers or event feel view the race from the drone’s camera itself.

Although Refsland said this is still far in the future, as he doesn’t see it being technologically possible until 2017 at the earliest.

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