The Drone Racing League custom drones, the Racer3, in action at Alexandra Palace for the Allianz … [+] World Championship. (Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)
PA Images via Getty Images
Picture yourself playing Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road race using the traditional Nintendo console. But you’re not on your living room couch, you’re in a futuristic city at night. The sky is lit up in neon lights: not from fireworks or tall buildings, but from bubblegum-colored drones whizzing around above you. Basically, you’re Harrison Ford in the 1982 Blade Runner blockbuster.
For the 12 professional drone pilots who competed in the Drone Racing League’s Christmas Day 2021 competition, that was their real-life experience. The 12 competitors, all male, mostly between 18 and 30 years old, were cheered by thousands of live spectators in Las Vegas, streamed by 20 million fans over Twitter, and watched by many more on NBC, the TV rights holders for DRL, currently in its sixth annual season.
Among the league’s stars is a former fighter pilot, a firefighter, and serial winner Alex Vanover, 21, a Texan videographer who was a producer on several Justin Bieber music videos.
“It’s nothing like traditional stick-and-balls sports. We are powered by technology. Our race courses are like a real world video game come to life,” said Rachel Jacobson, DRL’s global president, who previously worked for a “stick-and-ball-sport,” the National Basketball Association.
The “powered by technology” part of the Drone Race League is now going crypto, too. DRL today announced a partnership with Algorand, an open-source blockchain, to release a virtual version of the Drone Race League. The cryptocurrency required to use Algorand, called ALGO, has a current market cap of $11.1 billion.
The new game, which could bring DRL to a nascent virtual reality version of the internet, known as the metaverse, is bankrolled in part by New York-based Hivemind Capital Partners, a $1.5 billion crypto investment fund launched in November 2021 by Matt Zhang, a former Citi executive on Wall Street.
The goal is to onboard new fans with play-to-earn incentives such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that can be used in-game – or traded on markets outside the game. In the case of DRL, the play-to-earn digital assets to be won online might include digital racing drones, or a new pair of digital clothes, for example.
In traditional video games like Electronic Arts’ soccer game FIFA, for example, a digital asset – such as a Lionel Messi player card purchased in FIFA 19 – can not be carried over to FIFA 20, or any future iterations of that product. Traditional video games are controlled by a centralized entity, usually the game’s developers, and are native to that company. As a result, you could not use your FIFA 19 Messi player card outside that Electronic Arts-owned product.
In the case of DRL’s drone racing game on the Algorand blockchain, the crypto-based, play-to-earn assets could, theoretically at least, be transported out-game through the metaverse, or traded for cryptocurrencies, including Algorand’s own ALGO token, on secondary marketplaces.
Just like other competitors like Solana or Cardano, Algorand intends to displace Ethereum as the primary blockchain home for the decentralized apps (dApps), DeFI projects, and crypto-native games of the future (or, in crypto-speak, the metaverse).
In recent months, environmentally friendlier cryptocurrencies that use a proof-of-stake model have fared better than their proof-of-work (i.e. mining) rivals. In the past six months, for example, Solana added $46.4 billion in market cap, climbing past 9 rival cryptocurrencies to land at #5 overall, while Dogecoin, which is mined just like Bitcoin, lost $1.3 billion and dropped eight places.
Designed from the ground up to use less energy than Ethereum (another PoW network) during the consensus process, Algorand’s environmental footprint, or lack thereof, could turn out to be a selling point for Drone Racing League’s Gen-Z target audience. The blockchain claims it is “carbon-negative,” because it operates as a pure proof-of-stake (PoS) network.
Algorand’s ALGO token, ranked at #20 on Forbes’ list of most influential digital assets, has the 18th highest market cap of any cryptocurrency, currently hovering around $ 11 billion. Whereas the world’s two largest cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Ethereum, are proof-of-work (PoW) networks, Algorand operates as a pure proof-of-stake (PoS) network, making it much more energy-efficient.
The PoW system, also known as mining, has come under increasing pressure from environmentalists and regulatory bodies in 2021. According to the Cambridge University Bitcoin Electricity Cosumption Index, the 123.02 terawatt-hours (TW/h) worth electrical energy used consumed annually by Bitcoin miners is equal to the total energy consumed in Argentina, Colombia, Norway, Sweden and Ukraine per year.
As for the analog, real-life drone racing competition happening in Las Vegas: it might come to a sky near you very soon. Munich, Germany’s BMW World, France’s Riviera, Arizona’s Chase Field, Miami’s Hard Rock stadium, Los Angeles’ Skate Park – and even the kingdom of Saudi Arabia – have hosted past races.
Launched in 2015, DRL now has 12 global TV partners, streaming races to 75 million fans in 140 countries. In 2021, the league’s TikTok channel grew threefold to 2 million followers. Rachel Jabson, DRL’s global president, says making the competition more diverse – and, ideally, female – is a priority for the company. Competitors include DroneRacing MultiGP, based in Florida, the Federation Aeronautique International’s Drone Sports League (Switzerland), and the Drone Champions League (Liechtenstein and Germany).
As more drone hobbyists get their hands on the hardware, an increased number of piloting talents could fly towards DLR. The global drone market, valued at $9.5 billion in 2020, is expected to expand at an annual growth rate of 25% and reach $92 billion by 2030, according to ABI Research, a global technology intelligence firm from New York. ABI forecasts that 70% ($63 billion) of this revenue will be in the commercial sector, so outside of drone applications in military, police or public surveillance use.
Whether the new crop of young drone pilots prefers the tokenized, metaverse version of DRL, or the real-life event under nightlit skies, remains to be seen.