LONDON (Reuters) - The Drone Racing League (DRL) is taking off in more ways than one as the coronavirus pandemic brings most other sport to a standstill around the world.
The New York-based robotic racing series that straddles the blurry line between real and virtual, with a global audience of millions, has seen viewing figures soar as countries have gone into lockdown.
DRL founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski said Chinese viewership of the 2019 season had reached around seven million — up 70% on 2018.
“We finished the 2019 season in November. We delayed the broadcast in China so it actually happened starting around Chinese New Year (Jan 25) and through the primary (virus) restriction period that followed that,” he told Reuters.
Horbaczewski said the DRL was also seeing changes in the U.S. audience.
“Our last stream of the phase of the simulator trials we’re in, we saw a 10% increase in viewership and we saw a 30% increase in participation among people who were trying out,” he said.
“People are at home, looking for things to do and still excited about sports but they just don’t have access to them right now.”
The DRL is broadcast on traditional TV channels such as NBC, Sky Sports and FOX Sports Asia as well as streamed on digital platforms Twitter, Weibo and Youku.
The global series involves professional pilots racing custom built drones that can reach speeds of more than 140 km per hour (90 miles an hour) around tight three-dimensional aerial circuits.
The last of 12 weekly online live-streamed global tournaments is this Thursday, from which 12 winners will advance to the April 2 DRL Sim Tryout finals with one securing a professional contract to join the championship as a pilot.
The main season takes place in the second half of the year with live action, unlike esports where the virtual replaces the real world.
Despite drone racing attracting thousands of live spectators, the championship could also adapt to crowd-free conditions better than high contact team sports played behind closed doors.
“One of the great challenges sports have now is the health concerns around the virus,” said Horbaczewski.
“It’s not just the fans in the stands. I think a lot of initial reactions were ‘We’ll just do the sport without the fans’, but you also have to worry about your athletes, as the NBA has really highlighted.”
North America’s National Basketball Association suspended its season this month after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus, with more players doing so since then.
Global soccer leagues have also been suspended with a number of players and staff testing positive.
“This is a sport where even at a physical event, the things making contact on the field of play are actually robots,” said Horbaczewski, who recently launched an online academy for students to learn about robotics, engineering and physics.
“I really believe robotic sports has a bright and exciting future.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris