Drone Racing League Founder: Building A High Intensity, Engaging Sport Culture From Scratch
In the lead-up to our PSFK 2017 conference, we look back at key speakers from past years. DRL's founder Nick Horbaczewski spoke on building excitement in nascent drone racing community
Whether it’s NASCAR or the Kentucky Derby, there is a certain human thrill to racing. At PSFK 2016, and returning again at PSFK 2017, Nick Horbaczewski spoke about a new sport that offers thrill and excitement, but replaces the cars and horses with drones and substitutes the well-manicured circuits with abandoned malls, subway tunnels, and other 3D racecourses. As founder of the Drone Racing League (DRL), will be returning this year to give an update at PSFK 2017!
Like other racing sports, there are winners, there are losers, but above all drone racing promises an adrenaline pumping, anxiety inducing, hold-onto-your-seats viewing experience for fans around the world. We spoke with Horbaczewski to learn more about this sport. Check out his full presentation at our 2016 conference here:
What is drone racing?
We think the sport of drone racing started down in Australia. Folks down there started building some very fast drones and putting cameras on them so they could see what the drones see. It allowed them to get into the driver’s seat and fly very fast through a three-dimensional course. Once that happened, of course, they started racing each other and interest in the sport has exploded around the world since then.
Why did you decide to create the DRL?
I came across drone racing early in 2015 and thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It’s a fast, exciting sport. It has all the excitement of car racing, but add another dimension as the drones zip through the air. Before the DRL, I was the Chief Revenue Officer at Tough Mudder, the global mud run series, so I have had some experience cultivating these high-intensity off-beat sports. The goal of the DRL is to elevate this incredible, community-driven hobby and this niche underground sport into something that mass audiences can watch, and enjoy, follow, and get excited about.
Who are the people watching these races?
When you start something new, your audience finds you as opposed to you going and finding an audience. Right now, our viewers are primarily people who love e-sports, technology, and drones. There is also another group that just loves racing of all forms from NASCAR to Motocross. We have also been very fortunate in finding our audience through engaging video clips. After our first race in Miami, we ended up on the front page of YouTube, the top of the videos list on Reddit, and there were a few other places that are very influential where someone was out there saying, “This is really cool!”
You’ve hooked me. Where can I go to watch a race?
We are more focused on telecasting the sport as opposed to live events right now. We invite a few hundred people to our live events, but building a new sport is challenging enough, so we focus on filming the races. With that content, we can reach tens of millions, whereas even on the very best day, putting 5,000 or 10,000 people in a stadium is a huge project. Over time, drone racing will become much more of a live audience sport, but you have to start somewhere.
What should I expect to see during my first DRL viewing experience?
One of the great things about drone racing is it lends itself to so many different formats. There are these short, intense races with breaks in‑between them, which are like downs in football. It allows you to break up the content into digestible pieces in digital, but it also makes a compelling long‑form narrative if you want to do it on your TV. As we launched DRL, the digital and distribution landscapes are changing so fast. Even over the past year, we’ve seen opportunities emerge to distribute our content and start to do things like 4K and 360‑degree video that weren’t even out there 10 months ago.
Where can I watch a race online?
We’re in conversations with everybody from traditional broadcast linear TV to over‑the‑top digital platform. We’re experimenting with all kinds of different distribution platforms. We premiered our first event on Twitch and got an incredible reception. It was one of the best new channel watches Twitch has ever had, so there’s definitely a place for this in the digital space. Twitch is an incredible platform because people can talk to each other in real time. In order to be successful, you need people to care about the participants and feel invested in the outcome. On Twitch, you genuinely see them starting to root for people and gravitate toward or away from a specific pilot. Rather than a professional, often serious commentators, you get lots and lots of small, short, raw thoughts from the audience and we love that. You get a real sense of what they’re thinking as they’re watching it.
As you’re telecasting your events, what are you thinking about to create the best experience for your viewers?
In the end, it’s about really compelling and exciting racing. That is our core focus. But to make the best viewing experience, you need to balance many factors, including educating viewers about the sport or getting them rooting for a particular pilot. Just as an example, we fly on three-dimensional courses, so we’re faced with the challenge of: how do you communicate an invisible 3D racetrack to the viewer, and how do you help them keep track of where the drones are on the course and who is winning? On the flip of these challenges are opportunities to create novel racing elements and we’ve learned a lot about what people get excited about. For example, we had a vertical hairpin in one of our early events. It’s just like a hairpin turn in racing, only turned on its side, so the drones are inverting and going down and reversing direction. People love that and talked about that so we’ve incorporated it into more of our courses.
Where do you hope DRL will be five years from?
We hope to follow the growth trajectory of eSports which started with a small, but passionate community and now sells out mass arenas. But it’s still early. With exciting new things like drone racing, it’s very easy to hype them up. If you promise something or say something’s going to be amazing, you really have to deliver it. With a digital audience, they have a real‑time way to communicate, and leave comments and feedback to tell you whether or not they really agree with the hype. We’ve been very careful to plot a course that lets us meet people’s expectations of the possibility of drone racing to build our community. In the end, the audience is will be our judge.
Brands quickly infiltrated eSports soon after they took off. Do you see that happening with drone racing as well?
Drone racing is an interesting space, from a brand perspective, because there are no endemic brands in drone racing. If you’re in surfing, there’s Quicksilver; if you’re in snowboarding, there’s Burton. There isn’t natural product relationship in drone racing. We’re still very early and how brands get integrated is very important. You have to be careful about how you do that in a way that is both beneficial to the brands and authentic to the audience and the participants.
Can you give us a teaser for your talk at the conference?
Drone racing is a really interesting thing to look at because it touches so many issues that are relevant right now around changes in content distribution and the role of digital, the role of technology, the emergence of new sports, and the migration of Millennial fans from traditional sports to new outlets. As we discussed, meeting expectations for this new sport while navigating those other changes is an interesting challenge to explore.