First there was poker. Then there was the spelling bee, Scrabble and the recent emergence of e-sports.
Now ESPN is betting that speeding drones will be the next noncontact “sport” to find a mass audience.
The Drone Racing League announced on Wednesday that it had signed deals to broadcast a 10-episode season on ESPN and ESPN2, along with the European stations Sky Sports Mix and 7Sports. The schedule begins with an introduction to drone racing on Thursday at 11 p.m. on ESPN2.
Competition will begin on Oct. 23. ESPN2 will broadcast episodes on Thursday and Saturday nights, and ESPN will show the final episodes, including the two-hour championship on Nov. 20.
Drone … racing? It would be fair to wonder what that is. The technology to race drones is just a few years old, as is the technology to compellingly film them racing.
The league’s officials say the drones will zip through obstacle-filled courses at up to 80 miles per hour, piloted by six stationary humans wearing something akin to a virtual reality headset. Tiny cameras mounted on the drones offer the pilots a cockpit-like view, and they steer using joysticks similar to what you’d find on an Xbox controller.
“It’s an exciting, real-life experience mixed with video-gamelike dynamics,” said Nicholas Horbaczewski, the chief executive and founder of the league. “These races are short sprints. It has that thrill of a 100-meter dash or horse racing.”
The races are prerecorded, so viewers will see an edited mix of drone footage and set cameras during the races. It won’t be difficult to follow the action, Mr. Horbaczewski said.
Taking a cue from ESPN’s other nonathletic programming, the series is expected to focus on turning the pilots into characters you can root for. Cameras followed several of the pilots to their homes, interviewing them about their lives and what brought them to the activity, Mr. Horbaczewski said. MGM Television, with Mark Burnett as executive producer, is onboard to create unscripted shows around the pilots and the technology behind the races.
Each of the 25 pilots will use an identical drone measured down to the ounce, Mr. Horbaczewski said. They will be quadcoptors “stripped down to the bare minimum” and outfitted with colored LED lights.
The pilots will navigate obstacle courses in the corridors of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, an abandoned mall in Los Angeles, a laboratory in New York, a paper mill in Hamilton, Ohio, and an auto plant in Detroit. The winner will get a salaried contract to race in the 2017 season.
It’s the biggest move yet into the mainstream for an activity that started just recently. It bloomed quickly from hobbyists gawking in parking lots into a competitive industry. A variety of organizations have emerged to put on drone races, including the Drone Sports Association, which had its championship streamed live on ESPN’s digital properties in August. An edited, one-hour version is scheduled for Sept. 18 on ESPN2.
Matthew Volk, the director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, said drone racing fit in with other recent shows ESPN had broadcast, including CrossFit and BattleFrog.
“We think that they are emerging sports with emerging audiences because they’re the kind of activities that any fan can go out and do,” said Mr. Volk.
The Drone Racing League races will be simulcast on Sky Sports Mix, a new channel for the United Kingdom and Ireland created in August, at the same time they are shown on ESPN, but because that’s 4 a.m. local time they will be repeated at 5 p.m., said Emma Lloyd the director for corporate development, partnerships and investments at Sky.
Sky is among the early investors in the league; in addition to the TV deal, the league also announced it had closed an investment round of more than $12 million, led by RSE Ventures and Lux Capital.
“It’s an area that could become very important for our customers,” Ms. Lloyd said.