Luke Bannister, a 15-year-old from Sussex, England, a few weeks ago pocketed $250,000 as a racing pilot. A whiz in the growing world of virtual reality turned sport, the sprite of a schoolboy navigated his tiny, lightweight racing drone to victory at an outdoor course in Dubai, besting a field of some 300 competitors in the inaugural World Drone Prix.
Luke’s mom thought it was cool, but didn’t focus so much on the fact he took home the biggest chunk of the $1 million purse.
“This,’’ a thankful Karen Bannister told the assembled media on the day of her son’s victory, “gets him out of the bedroom.’’
If you’ve been too occupied with playing fields as we’ve known them, don’t look now but video games and virtual reality (VR) are fast moving into the sports world, and they’re doing it especially on the backs, and from the imaginary cockpits, of remote-controlled racing drones. Most of the drones have four propellers, weigh roughly one pound, and zip around race courses at speeds upward of 60 miles per hour.
Drones also tend to break a lot, especially when beginner pilots first take control of the two joysticks of the control box.
“One of the key tenets of drone racing,’’ said local enthusiast Dave Shevett, a 51-year-old systems engineer who recently started the US Drone Racing Association (usdra.org), “is that you will crash your drone, usually within the first 10 seconds of flying. There’s a great T-shirt that a lot of racers wear that says, ‘Fly. Crash. Repair. Repeat.’ It’s a nonstop cycle.’’
Yet amid the rubble, drone racing is gaining traction, and some are betting that it will be the next big thing in the sports entertainment business. For instance, ESPN recently agreed to live stream both the US National Drone Racing Championships from Governors Island in New York (Aug. 5-7) and later the World Drone Racing Championships from Kualoa Ranch, Hawaii, (Oct. 17-22) on its ESPN3 platform.
Over the last two years, the sport has gone from being merely a plaything of backyard hobbyists to a nascent entertainment industry that recently had Stephen Ross, owner of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, join a group of investors that pooled $8 million to help finance the professional Drone Racing League.
“We’re creating a whole new form of entertainment,’’ DRL founder Nick Horbaczewski recently noted to Bloomberg News, “that straddles the digital and the real.’’
Dr. Scot Refsland, founder and chairman of the California-based International Drone Racing Association (IDRA), has a PhD in virtual reality (who knew?). By his eye, drone racing is the “most hyper-accelerated market’’ of the era, one that he believes by 2020 “could be a multibillion-dollar industry with as many viewers as the NFL.’’
Heady stuff, right, challenging the cash-rich behemoth that is the NFL? But who knows? Because although the racers love it for the thrills — typically immersed into the VR world via high-tech First Person View goggles that provide a video link to the drone’s cockpit — it remains to be seen if the event truly can be packaged as a spectator sport.
The drones are small, roughly the size and weight of a textbook, noted Shevett, and paying customers could find it a challenge to follow the action, whether the races are staged across an obstacle course in an enclosed arena or, say, an open-air ballpark or stadium.
“It’s a big question’’ said Shevett, who works for Billerica-based Curriculum Associates. ‘‘Think about what you’re watching. You’re looking at, say, a football field and you have something small tearing around out there at something like 60 miles an hour. What are you actually watching? You can barely see what’s happening.’’
A fan’s excitement, said Shevett, could be more in watching the video or digital streams of the races, something that would give the viewer a sense of piloting the drone, like being immersed in a chase scene in a “Star Wars” movie.
“I think the big organizations are still trying to figure out how to monetize attendance and tickets and whatnot,’’ he said. “I don’t know if they are going to make it. I think they are going to succeed on videoing and promoting results of the race and getting sponsors for it.’’
Both Shevett and Refsland agree that the sport today has elements of the wild, wild west. Leagues are forming. Money is being put in play. Broadcasters are hedging programming bets. A kid too young for the senior prom can pull on a Formula One-like set of coveralls, snug up his FPV goggles, and be crowned a $250,000 space cowboy.
“There’s a lot of territorial land-grabbing going on right now,’’ noted Refsland, 52, who grew up “a mountain boy’’ in West Virginia. “Because of the ESPN deal, it solidified that we are a true sport. Whether we are going to be a successful true sport or not, that still remains to be seen. Investors are asking now, ‘Did we get in too early? Did we get in too late? And what is that peak moment?’ We are in the peak moment now.’’
In Dubai, where the elfish Bannister was the top gun, there are plans for another big drone race in December 2017, when the UAE will stage the first World Future Sports Games. The drones will be part of a multisport field that includes robotic swimming, running, wrestling, and car racing. R2-D2 and C-3PO, this one’s for you.
Mohammed Al Gergawi, the UAE’s Minister of Cabinet Affairs, told the AP after the Drone Prix, “We are trying to bring the future closer to us.’’
The future is here, folks. Drone racing. For about $35, said Shevett, would-be avionic athletes can get started with a simple “toy” drone available at most hobby stores. A true racing drone, with FPV goggles, comes in comfortably under $1,000. This ain’t your granddaddy’s Sopwith Camel.
“Flying racers is like the videos you see of people racing Red Bull planes on the Hudson,’’ said Shevett. “You see planes flying in and out of pylons. Except when they make mistakes, they die, and that’s a $50 million plane. You make a mistake flying a drone, all you do is pull it off a bush.’’
Higher. Faster. Stronger. Dronier. The games we play never stop changing.Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.