Let me begin with a controversial statement: I will never be a professional basketball player. My physical attributes don’t immediately disqualify me. At six feet tall and 185 pounds, I have the same vital statistics as San Antonio Spurs reserve guard Patty Mills, and we’re only three months apart in age. Where we do diverge is in talent — Mills’s is world-class, mine is non-existent — and in experience — Mills has been honing his game since he was four, and I… well, I had a lot of other things going on in preschool, okay?
Whatever tiniest scintilla of potential I may once have had, it’s long since gone. The closest I’ll ever get to playing alongside Mills or any other NBA player is to pick up a video game, and mastering that will only make me expert at mashing buttons, not at any of the myriad physical and mental skills required of an actual player. The same is true of any sport you might care to name.
That’s the big selling point for the Drone Racing League, set to begin its third season in 2018. The competitors race their souped-up drones at 80 miles per hour through wickedly complex courses that would give even most experienced pilots fits. And DRL is holding a tournament in which gamers can play a specially designed simulator to hone their skills and earn their way into a real-life tournament for a league contract. Whoever posts the 24 lowest cumulative times in tryouts between now and January 15 advances to the live competition on February 3.
“It’s a chance for anyone in the world over the age of 18 to try out to become a pro drone racer,” DRL founder and CEO Nick Horbaczewski tells Inverse. “We did this last year with a simpler version of the simulator to prove that you could put it out into the world and get a pilot.”
The previous year’s winner, Jacob “Jawz” Schneider, ended up coming in seventh place at the DRL World Championship — even though he had only moderate experience with and interest in drones before picking up the simulator. That’s a remarkable showing considering that most of his competitors had at least thousands of hours of expert flying under their belt, according to Horbaczewski.
Even so, Jawz wasn’t a total novice: Could someone like me, who has never flown a (non-virtual) drone in his life, possibly have what it takes to win this year’s tournament and earn that DRL contract? The attempt to answer that question is how I found myself in the company’s Manhattan office, speaking with Horbaczewski and psyching myself up to give the simulator a try myself.
But while it’s easy to see why a Madden champion shouldn’t automatically be given an NFL starting job — though it’s entirely possible the Buffalo Bills would want to take a long, hard look at him — does it really follow that mastering drone flight on a video game would prepare someone to cross over into real-life competition with very real drones?
As the DRL team explains, the setup on the player’s controller — be it XBox, Playstation, or connected to the computer — is an exact match for the actual racing controls, so there’s nothing lost in translation. The team built the physics engine from the ground up to capture the experience of flying an actual drone, which is part of the reason Horbaczewski says they prefer the term “simulator” to game. This thing aims to provide direct training for picking up a drone, even if the user never makes it to the DRL tourney.
“If you can fly well in the simulator, you can fly well in real life,” he says, and that includes a dangerously unqualified beginner like me. “If you’ve never flown before, we’ve built these tutorial missions, it’ll teach you how to fly. And once you’re through those, or if you already know how to fly, you can go in and fly the real race courses, and once you’re ready to try out you go into tryouts.”
There are 50 missions, with the early ones each focusing on developing specific unique skills. The team’s theory that isolating each necessary ability accelerates how fast the user can learn all of them. Things start simple, but get almost incomprehensibly complex by the end.
“The road to pro is no joke,” says Horbaczewski. “It’s like real racing.”
Feeling generous in his estimation of my abilities, Horbaczewski advanced me all the way to level three, in which I had to maneuver the drone not just forward but also up and down to fly it through ringed gates. The drone was on an invisible track that stopped me from going left or right so as to simplify the task, but I could still fly too high, forcing the drone to reset its position. Which I did. Twice.
But even that was a positive, according to Horbaczewski: “Learning that will save you from what destroys a lot of drones people get for the holidays — you lose a sense of what makes it go up and down, so people fly it way up into the sky.”
Those resets, some jittery flying, and at least one scrape through a gate cost me in the final accounting, as my performance rated only three out of five stars. Mediocre.
“It’s medium, I wouldn’t say mediocre,” says Horbaczewski, pointing out this is about the level you would want to be at to feel confident time with a real drone wouldn’t end in a sudden, expensive crash. We then discuss game strategy: He likes to zip through the first 20 or so levels, picking up three-star performances along the way, then loop back and pick up the full five stars once he’s built up his expertise. I admit I’m probably too anal for that, needing to get the perfect five before I can continue.
Yep, I had just challenged myself to a rematch.
With the pressure really on — in that four pleasant strangers were watching — I redid the course. I thought I had botched it from the very start when I flew up and backwards, but I righted myself quickly, working to adjust both my height and my speed at the same time as I lined up with each of the successive gates.
It definitely wasn’t perfect… but it was five stars. And yes, the four-person crowd went wild.
I can’t say for sure this is how Patty Mills felt when he won the 2014 NBA Championship. But we should probably compare notes next time he’s in New York to play the Knicks or Nets. Or, equally plausibly, the next time I’m in San Antonio for a DRL competition.