This year’s Rocky Mountain State Games had a certain buzz about it. It was probably all the drones flying in the surrounding area as the games introduced a new competitive sport.
Drone soccer took the stage for the first time at the state games in July with members of Hillside Connection joining the historic competition.
Known as the local Olympics, the state games allow Coloradans to compete in dozens of events such as tennis, track and field, basketball, indoor/outdoor soccer, weightlifting and more.
This year, the games opened the venue to drone soccer to allow youth to have an opportunity to showcase their talents as flyers, engineers and builders.
But what the heck is drone soccer?
“It’s taking the concept of aerospace technology and drones and then they create this competitive team activity of getting three of those drones and wrapping it in something that looks like a soccer ball,” said Theo Gregory, Colorado Springs Sports Corp. Foundation and Sponsorship Relations director. “They get in this closed arena – it’s three against three; one is a striker who tries to score and the other two are trying to block the striker.”
Participants use a remote control, similar to a PlayStation or Xbox controller, to operate the drone. Contests occur on a 10-by-20-foot court which is 10-feet high, with a net-like cage keeping spectators and players clear of the drones.
The “field” has the look and feel of a soccer pitch. One drone is the striker, which needs to pass through the opposition’s hoop to score. The other two drones play middle or defense to keep the opposition striker at bay.
Teams play three sets and the squad with the most points wins. Players build their own drone from a set, in this case, provided by their sponsors. Should a drone become too damaged to play, it is out for the remainder of that set.
“We’ve been doing our test leagues with high schools in Colorado and that’s when we made the connection to the Rocky Mountain State Games,” said Kyle Sanders, U.S. Drone Soccer vice president of education and development. “Colorado Springs is interested in highlighting both its aerospace presence and athletics … it was a unique opportunity to showcase aerospace and athletics through the state games.”
Gregory hoped to provide more science, technology, engineering and math opportunities for local kids and saw drone soccer as the perfect opportunity.
Colorado Springs Sports Corp., Gregory’s current employer, tasked him to sell sponsorships for the event at the Rocky Mountain State Games. Immediately, Gregory knew he wanted to serve as a benefactor.
Gregory previously worked for the El Pomar Foundation for 23 years and when he retired, he used some of his accrued vacation payout to put $4,000 toward a sponsorship to provide an all-expenses paid opportunity for Hillside Connection kids.
“I will support a team and not only that I’m going to give that team to Terrell [Brown] so he can find the kids and parents who can make it happen,” Gregory said. “I went to an organization I knew could deliver. I don’t just have $4,000 [lying around] but it’s all about the moment and being ready to move when you get an opportunity.”
Gregory recognized the sponsorship meant more than an opportunity to play with drones at the Rocky Mountain State Games.
While Hillside Connection develops youth through basketball, Gregory hoped to highlight STEM.
“The younger you can start with kids in an organized environment, the better chance they have to get through middle school, high school and start looking for something after high school that’s meaningful that they have skills and passion to do,” Gregory said. “Hope is something you can quantify by what you do. Hillside Connection is one of those organizations of hope that create pathways for kids to better their lives.”
Hillside participants had around a week to prepare for competition at the Games, but Sanders said they moved swiftly.
The young people approached drone soccer with the same mentality and tenacity they would a basketball game.
“It’s exciting to see [drone soccer] is not just an educational tool; it really is a sport and the kids treated it that way,” Sanders said. “For them, the exciting thing is, this is a real sport to them. They show up ready to compete and take it seriously. As soon as it’s done the parents and kids are like, when’s the next competition.”
Esports continue to surface in colleges and high schools across the country. Locally, Coronado High School has a drone soccer team and Sierra has an esports squad that focuses on video games. Careers are beginning to open up in esports.
Sanders said six high school teams have enrolled in drone soccer and he hopes to have a complete season in the spring.
“It’s a skill they can apply that’s going to be relevant 20 years from now,” Gregory said. “It’s important for the career and technical education kids can get from drone soccer.”
It has potential to be lucrative as well. In a story by Forbes Magazine on July 30, David Hambling wrote, “It’s a big step forward for a high-tech team game that could overtake drone racing in popularity.”
Hambling also said drone racing went from “nothing to being a regular on ESPN.” In 2016, the Drone Racing League, which is exactly what the name implies, held its inaugural season, and was broadcast in more than 40 countries and attracted more than 75 million fans, according to techcrunch.com.
The first season of DRL, Jordan Temkin of Fort Collins, won $100,000 contract to become the first professional drone racer, according to 5280.com.
“What’s exciting to me is they’re playing a game but learning a skill that can get them a well-paying job even in high school,” Sanders said. “That’s the secret and that’s my motivation. If we can get some of these students into a good-paying career field early that will make such a difference in their lives. That’s the real reason I’m doing it.”
The field yields rewarding payment on the mechanical side too.
“If they can learn to fix or repair a drone, they could make $30 – $100 an hour, in high school, which is a lot better than fast food,” Sanders said with a laugh.
That is Gregory’s hope: To provide additional resources to locals to benefit their futures. Gregory spent decades at El Pomar and as athletic director at UCCS helped student-athletes and youth.
He is grateful to provide avenues outside of normal athletics that benefit the community.
“This is helping young people and an organization supporting young people who don’t always have an opportunity like this,” Gregory said. “As I retire, I want to continue to be that person that provides opportunities to people who help young people.”