A year ago, I stood in 100-degree weather in drought-ridden Sacramento, California to watch a group of hobbyists fly homemade drones around a race track, in front of a handful of spectators. Thousands of dollars were on the line in what was the first US national drone-racing competition, and while there was a ton of drama, excitement, and excellent racing on display, almost no one showed up.
A year later, the second event is being held on an island in the most populous city in the US, is being presented by international brands like GoPro, AIG, and Ernst & Young, and will be broadcast on ESPN this weekend. That’s in stark contrast to last year’s dusty, empty, racetrack. But there’s still no guarantee that anyone plans on showing up.
Over the last year, a bevy of leagues, racing invitationals, and groups have sprung up, all with the stated purpose of bringing drone racing to the masses. Venture capital has been poured into startups, popular brands have jumped on board, and celebrities have even been looped in, just to sell drone racing to the world.
At its best, it’s easy to see why so many people have jumped on the potential sport. It combines the thrill of racing sports like NASCAR and Formula 1, the high-tech nerdiness of endeavors like videogame e-sports, the feeling of flying—and ostensibly, anyone can take part without having to get up from their seat. But in reality, drones whipping through tight spaces at upwards of 80 miles per hour are incredibly difficult to film, and even harder for a live audience to follow. Some have compared it to trying to follow a dinner plate being flung through a forest. On top of that, the technology of relaying the live feeds from the drones to pilots or spectators isn’t quite there yet: Due to issues in being able to broadcast in real-time, the feeds looks like an old VHS tape that’s been through the ringer a few times.
It remains to be seen whether ESPN and the competition’s organizers have managed to work out any of the technical kinks that have hindered the sport over the last year, and whether they’ve figured out a way to make it worth someone’s time to show up to one of these races live, rather than watch the most exciting parts of the races edited together on YouTube later.
Quartz will be attending the second Drone Nationals, which take place on Governor’s Island in New York city Aug. 5-7. Practices start today (Aug. 5), with the competition starting in earnest on Saturday (Aug. 6). We’ll be there to find out whether now that the organizers have built the event they envisioned, and the brands have shown up, if anyone else will.