- Observations from the World Games
Drone racing was an event at the World Games in my city. Now I know it exists (as does canoe polo!).
The composition of contestants was interesting. One pilot was only 14 years old, the youngest person competing in the 2022 World Games. Another pilot was in a wheelchair. Drone racing is for sports like Work From Home is for professional jobs – the number of competitors is potentially enormous.
Spectators reported that it was hard to follow the actual drones with your eyes. People in the stadium for the race usually watched the jumbo screens that show the point of view of the pilots. This raises the question: why bother with the drones at all when we could just be doing e-sports? There is something special about the extra challenge of a physical race. The machinery adds a NASCAR-like element, and it gives people an excuse to gather together.
Videos, if you’d like to get a sense of how the sport works:
“Championship Race: Xfinity CA Drone Speed Challenge, 2018”
“Maine drone racer heads to the World Games”
2. Thoughts on the Future
Polaris published an industry report that predicts growth.
Drone racing will grow in the United States. This seems like a sport that will appeal to Generation Alpha and their parents.
As a parent, I would support it. It’s expensive, so that’s going to be prohibitive for a while, but millions of Americans bought drones at some point in the last decade. Drones get broken in races, but the cost of components is coming down. Part of the sport is being able to repair and build your own custom drones.
A handful of US high school already have drone racing clubs. Adults will be able to point to the value of learning technology that comes along with racing for fun.
I would not be surprised if an affordable drone racing kit is a Christmas gift for teen boys in 2024. Don’t underestimate the Great Force of Christmas and Birthdays in America. There is like a giant sucking sound that everyone should be hearing. Adults want to present boxes to children and teens.
Demand curves slope down. If the price of racing drones falls, people will buy more. The cost of a starter kit will fall, maybe to the point where we have a cheap box on the shelf of every Walmart. You won’t win the World Games with a cheap kit from Walmart. However, parents regularly buy their kids cheap wiffleball sets because it’s fun and a steppingstone to real baseball. The headsets for drone pilots are hi-tech, but maybe someone can link it up to the Oculus headsets that so many Americans now have sitting in the basement.
If the market share of drone racing increases, will it primarily pull more kids away from baseball and into e-sports, or will it pull the marginal kid away from pure video games and back toward the 3D world? My prediction is that it will not affect the number of children who play traditional sports. Among teens, it will mostly pull from the people who were not already going to make a high school sports team. As for spectators, I am less certain.
Will we ever have drone racing rinks, like an ice-skating/internet cafe? The biggest problem I see with that is the liability of crashing a high-quality drone. If interest really took off, you could have courses that people bring their own drones to, like golf courses.
I predict that drone racing will never get as big as golf, in America. It could grow as large as chess, in terms of global engagement. It’s probably always going to be considered niche, but that might be part of the fun for insiders.
In the most negative view, drone racing is the worst of all worlds. You have the expense and unreliability of the physical experience detracting from the pure thrill that comes from performance in a video game. But you are mostly sitting around, so you don’t get the physical benefits of playing sports. It’s worse than tennis for exercise. It’s worse than chess for strategy. It’s worse than basketball for celebrity status. If someone does drone racing as at student, they are likely to drop it as an adult.
In the most positive view, drone racing is the best of both worlds. You get the excitement of e-sports that is enhanced by the interaction with the physical world. Participants are enriched by learning about hardware, and you have to get up from your chair pretty often.
Drone racing will grow, and people are going to have a lot of fun with this for decades to come. However, due to the drawbacks, it’s never going to grow as large as basketball. People with the means to have a physical experience will have a better physical experience than drone racing. And people who want to plunge into the metaverse will go flying in a fake world without the inconvenience of piloting an actual craft through the hazardous real world.
Tyler’s latest podcast was on the metaverse. And, more Tyler content worth mentioning: YouTube his talk on Adam Smith in Columbia.