DRL is rapidly approaching the end of their 2017 season. The London championships are days away from airing and soon a season two victor will emerge.
I wanted to review what DRL is doing right and what DRL could improve upon as the final event draws near. I previously wrote a summary of the original Miami Lights YouTube release a little over a year ago, so it will be fun to look at how the league has changed over two seasons.
Since that article, DRL has partnered with ESPN, released a simulator, and put on two full seasons of drone racing. It’s crazy how much the organization has grown, and we wish them continued success. That said, nobody is perfect, and we wanted to give our feedback on what we think is going well and what could be improved.
What DRL does right
Before we jump into criticism, lets talk about what the team at DRL is doing right for televised drone racing:
Personalities that embody the drone racing community
The Drone Racing League team has done a great job selecting pilots to represent the organization. Pilots like Jet, Wild Willy, and Nurk are FPV mainstays on YouTube, and it is great to see them featured on TV. We’ve even featured these DRL pilot’s antics on their own channels in our Five Favorites series.
All of the pilots have a unique backstory in a hobby that is just starting to receive mainstream appeal. We feel this is absolutely critical for creating long-term fans of the sport – you need fan favorites, rivalries, and pilots to cheer for.
Making drone racing approachable to the everyday person
There is no question that having DRL showcased on ESPN grows the sport. Furthermore, partnerships with Bud Light, Allianz, and Amazon, help strengthen the legitimacy of the league. I mean, what legitimate sport doesn’t have a domestic US beer partnership?!
Jokes aside, the funding raised and partnerships developed allow for DRL to increase its global reach. It’s still crazy for me to walk into a bar and see drone racing on TV.
Furthermore, DRL does a decent job explaining drone racing without overwhelming the viewer with technical details. Most mainstream viewers don’t need to know about tuning, adjusting rates, and all the components that make up the quads – they just need to understand the core concepts. Small details like showing the racers putting on / taking off their Fat Shark goggles before and after a race emphasize how the pilots are controlling these flying machines.
As DRL continues to grow, I hope they reiterate the basics to the audience and slowly build towards more advanced topics.
Color coordination… and bright LEDs
I love how easy pilots are to identify via their color scheme. Racing drones are difficult to follow from a third person perspective, but the LED wrapped DRL Racer 3 is very easy to identify by color. Adding LEDs to the top and bottom of the drone is a brilliant way to quickly identify pilots across nearly any obstacle.
Furthermore, matching the onscreen leaderboard coloring with the LEDs is a great reminder as to who’s who during the race.
What DRL could improve upon
Nobody is perfect. While DRL is doing great things to bring drone racing to the world, here are some areas I think could use improvement:
There probably is no ‘right’ way to offer a solution here. DRL is contractually tied to ESPN – a cable giant. There is likely no way for DRL to open event replays or stream events to non-cable subscribers.
This is a shame, as the multicopter community skews to the 30 and under crowd. You know, the same group cutting the cord from cable at record rates. The multicopter community is made up of tech-savvy hobbyists that are less and less inclined to pay for cable versus other online services. Offering a streaming option or delayed replay could be a way for DRL to capture the people already active and spending money in the sport.
Interestingly, as we mentioned before, Amazon is a sponsor of DRL. Now that Twitch is an Amazon subsidiary, maybe that’s the way DRL can bring FPV action to those without cable TV.
On the YouTube front, DRL’s channel is mostly promotional material or featured events showcasing their simulator. You can’t watch any racing content for the current season. Similarly, other than a few edited clips and a showcase of some of the early Miami Lights heats, you can’t watch any footage from the 2016 season either.
We would love to see the Drone Racing League embrace the FPV racing community that has largely grown online. While we have massive channels like Rotor Riot, UAV Futures, and Joshua Bardwell creating great entertainment and educational content, there is a void for well-produced episodic racing content.
Camera work and track layout
While I do think DRL is making drone racing approachable to the public, they still have a long way to go in making easy to follow races. Racer position on the course is hard to follow, FPV camera angles are mostly used to highlight crashes, and many of the tracks are filled with noisy design concepts that take away from the racing.
While I like the color-coded leaderboard for racer identification, it does a poor job of showing the racer positions. FPV racing is a game of inches, and the positions are going to rapidly update. DRL needs some sort of mapping system to showcase where the racers are on the track relative to each other. The team at Tiny Whoop has done a fantastic job of this on their channel, clearly taking inspiration from racing games like Mario Kart.
Moreover, drone racing is all about FPV. The perspective of the pilot is from the FPV camera, and understanding the 3D space and flight lines are what separates aerial drone racing from on the ground NASCAR style racing. Sadly, most of the DRL camera angles are wide shots from a variety of third person cameras following the action. When they do cut to FPV, it is usually to highlight a close pass or a crash.
I think the issue stems from the fast-paced nature of flying FPV. The twitchy flying camera may be dizzying to an audience unfamiliar with strapping on a pair of Fat Sharks. Moreover, highlighting the spinning crash-outs in FPV probably exacerbates that issue.
However, I think the root of many of these problems is the noisy course design on certain levels. While it is awesome that FPV races can occur in three dimensions, using too many twists, hairpins, and looping through the same lines makes the action difficult to follow.
I think the perfect example of this came from the “Mardi Gras World” level. The visually varied floats and carnival style lighting are interesting, but made for a hard to follow event. The FPV camera looks washed out from all the ambient lighting, and the track is a confusing combination of twists and turns that are near impossible for the viewer to follow.
On the other hand, check out this clip using a Lightrax system very similar to what DRL uses for their gates:
Notice how much easier the FPV camera is to follow? You still get the same verticality, interesting course design, and fast racing but without the extra noise or dizziness. While it is likely impractical to race in a pitch-black environment, surely adapting similar course design and aesthetics would make the FPV action and track positioning easier to follow.
Grow the personalities outside of the races.
We would love to see more features on the pilots outside of the race. While DRL has done a great job selecting personalities, I feel that the pilots need to be featured more leading up to the races, rather than short interviews during the actual events.
The UFC / professional fighting does a great job highlighting fighters leading up to events, and I think DRL could learn a thing or two from that. The fight camps, training sessions, and pre-fight build up put the fans into a fervor for their favorite fighters.
Just look at the Mayweather vs McGregor boxing spectacle going on right now. Love or hate it, you can’t argue that the promotion of the personalities is getting people talking about the event
The pacing of some of the races is still a bit odd when they cut from the heats to quickly interview a pilot, but it seems to be improving. Getting feedback and info from the pilots during the event is great, but people need to get to know the pilots better before the events. Some of the editing for interviews and downtime at the races feels highly scripted and more reality show than racing. Separating the two components and building up pilots BEFORE the season would do a lot to give people pilots to cheer for and add real tension to the races. Plus, it would be a great way to create content between race seasons.
Where does DRL go from here?
After the dust settles in London, it will be interesting to see the plans for DRL season 3. I would love to know how many viewers the DRL races receive on average. Hopefully the partnership with ESPN allows DRL to continue to invest and improve the organization.
The folks at DRL are obviously pouring a ton of money into each event. Looking at the pilots, drones used, locations, set design, cameras, etc. it must cost a ton to put a single race together. While they do have big name sponsors, most of the brands are from outside the multicopter world. It will be interesting to see how DRL iterates after London wraps and the team prepares for the next season. Getting drone racing mainstream appeal is a herculean task, and while DRL has rapidly grown over the past year with its strategic partnerships, there is still room for improvement.
Here’s to season three!