When casinos and most athletic competition shut down last March due to the coronavirus pandemic, gamblers bet on obscure and little-known sports, among them table tennis. The success of such wagers proved that bettors will bet on just about everything.
The latest competition to prove the adage is drone racing. That’s right. In these contests, the peculiar remote-controlled devices that deliver packages to your doorstep race under the guided hand of pilots. There’s even a Drone Racing League. New Jersey, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee and West Virginia accept bets on league competitions.
“Fan engagement is so much broader than we had ever anticipated,” said Johnny Avello, director of race and sportsbook for DraftKings, which has a partnership with the league. “The Drone Racing League is the epitome of next-generation sports entertainment with an entirely new fan base for DraftKings to reach.”
Avello describes the sport as Formula 1 meets Twitch. “Races are true spectacles straight out of a sci-fi movie and we’re proud to make history with the first-ever regulated wagering on aerial sports as an official partner.”
DraftKings introduces traditional sports bettors to drone race wagering as a new sport while also familiarizing the tech-savvy DRL audiences with the DraftKings’ mobile sportsbook, Avello said. The partnership gives the sportsbook exclusive marketing rights around sports betting and branding integrations, including custom gates, through the culmination of the current 2020 DRL Allianz World Championship season.
For the current DRL Allianz World Championship Season, pilots race digital versions of custom DRL Racer4 drones remotely on the DRL SIM, a true-to-life drone racing video game available on Xbox and Steam, said DRL President Rachel Jacobson. “Because the physics are one-to-one in the game, the level of the competition mirrors live racing.”
DraftKings first introduced customers to the drone league with a free-to-play pool during the 2020 DRL season before betting was available. The pool saw 30 percent more entries in its opening week than DraftKings averages for new sport launches. These pools on DraftKings have attracted over 175,000 total entries to date.
“The opportunity for us to elevate our engagement through all forms of gaming and gambling will only increase as mobile betting becomes more adopted across the country,” Jacobson said.
To date, DraftKings offers two bets: winning pilot and heat winner, with prop bets in the near future as the league gains betting converts, Avello said.
New Jersey permits wagers on both virtual and live racing. “Live racing is considered an athletic event and virtual falls under esports,” said Lee Moore, a spokesman for the Division of Gaming Enforcement.
Other rules in New Jersey for drone racing: no wagering will be permitted on races taped in advance or produced for television. For virtual events, competitors under 18 will not be permitted to pilot. If live, a majority of pilots must be 18 or older.
The drone races so far with DraftKings are virtual. “But we see engagement potential be it physical or virtual. We have witnessed that engagement objective with NASCAR, iRacing, Call of Duty, Rocket League, League of Legends and Overwatch,” Avello said.
DRL’s Level 14 race took place in the U.S. Air Force Boneyard map, inspired by the world’s largest military aircraft maintenance facility. “Our Level 15 and 16 races will take place at virtual replicas of the Biosphere, the world’s largest indoor ecological center in Oracle, Arizona, and Allianz Riviera, an iconic arena in Nice, France,” said Jacobson, who spent 21 years with the NBA in various roles.
With live racing, unlike traditional motorsports that feature flat tracks with consistent left turns, drones zip down buildings, spin through gates and soar through tunnels, weaving around LED-lit aerial racecourses, said Jacobson, who’s all for racing in her home state of New Jersey.
“Now that DRL is taking bets there, racing drones around casinos in Atlantic City would be amazing, and we’d be happy to speak with any venue owners there looking to bring a bold, visually spectacular sporting event, watched by tens of millions of fans in 50 countries on top sports networks around the world.”
DRL integrates both virtual and live drone racing events. “We’ve hosted the DRL SIM Tryouts, annual, player-to-pilot esports tournaments, then pit our pilots against each other through live courses in the Allianz World Championship Season,” Jacobson said. “While we’ve doubled down on the esports side of our business this season due to Covid, moving forward, you’ll see us continuing to bridge simulated-racing competition with physical live drone racing events.”
Pilot Phluxy said he discovered drone racing at a time when he wanted to make cool videos. On YouTube, he found First Person View freestyle content, which highlights cinematic shots from drones that are both fast and flexible. “So I took flying lessons through the DRL Simulator.”
The Simulator features 54-missions teaching basic flying lessons so you can fly without worrying about breaking anything if you crash, Phluxy said. “I found a great community of drone racers and started getting into it competitively. I tried out during the annual esports tournament in 2018 and in 2019, which earned a contract to compete.”
For the past two seasons, Phluxy has been racing against the world’s best drone pilots. “While racing physical drones throughout my rookie year in the 2019 DRL Allianz World Championship Season, I made podium three times and even won an entire level.”
The DRL Simulator is a perfect 1:1 replica of what it’s like racing a real drone, he said. “When flying a physical course, we wear a pair of goggles that live stream a video feed from a camera mounted on the drone, so we see what the drone sees. It almost feels like you’re leaving your body and racing through a real-life video game. The only difference is with the Simulator game, the drones don’t collide. During live races, crashes are part of the fun.”