The teens of the Sato Academy drone soccer team experienced a lot of big firsts last weekend.
For some, it was their first excursion outside of Long Beach. For others, it was their first time flying in an airplane. And now, the players of the Sato Dragons drone soccer team are the first national champions of the U.S. Drone Soccer National Championship, a title they took home Sunday, April 16, after a heated competition in Utica, New York.
The Sato Dragons competed against 12 other teams from four regional championships represented by Alabama, California, Colorado and New York. Because the Sato Dragons have 17 players on their team, competitively they played as three different teams: the Red Dragons, White Dragons and Blue Dragons.
The Sato Red Dragons, comprising Alana Arroyo, 15, Ivan Rios, 15, Daniela Espinoza, 14, Jack Mest, 14, and Sam Jacela, 14, made it to the final match and secured the first-place victory for their school.
“They were so excited,” said Sato Dragons’ coach Albert Gallo. “We actually dethroned the two-time reigning drone soccer team.”
The Sato Red Dragons defeated the Colorado Sky Blazers, an independent and highly competitive team considered to be pioneers in the emerging esport and were the undefeated state and regional champions in Colorado since 2021.
“We had heard a lot about them, and I think we were all a little bit scared,” said Arroyo, who plays goalie on the Sato Red Dragons.
Drone soccer games are a battle for the greatest number of points scored in a three-minute match. Each game consists of three rounds, and the first team to win two matches wins. The Sato Red Dragons started out strong with a first-round win. The team was primed to take the second win with a score of 20 to 16, but had committed a penalty, which gave the Colorado Sky Blazers’ striker (the only drone allowed to score points) the chance to go head-to-head with the Sato Dragons’ goalie.
“They had 10 seconds to score as many points as they could,” Arroyo said. “It was very tense because we were so close.”
The Sky Blazers’ striker managed to fly two times through the Sato Red Dragons’ goal before time was up. The Dragons won with a score of 20 to 18.
“I just started jumping up and down and screaming and then everybody rushed in. It was the most incredible feeling ever because I’ve been practicing with these incredible people for six months,” Arroyo said. “To be at this point and bring home the win for my school, it was just an amazing honor for me.”
The Sato Dragons also secured a third place and fifth place win, with the White Dragons taking home third and the Blue Dragons in fifth.
The wins are an exciting accomplishment for the STEM school, which only formed its drone soccer team seven months ago, in September 2022, earning the title as the first California high school to do so. Cabrillo High School followed shortly after, forming its own team in January 2023. That team also competed in the U.S. Drone Soccer National Tournament last weekend and took home a ninth-place win.
Though drone soccer has now emerged on a national scale in the United States, the sport has yet to hit the kind of mainstream popularity (and funding) that similar esports, like drone racing, have reached.
Despite its popularity in South Korea for the last seven years, where the sport originated, drone soccer is still relatively new to the U.S. The first competitive drone soccer tournament only launched in April 2021, and the sport has largely been regarded as an educational enrichment tool for middle and high school students studying aerospace and aeronautics.
But momentum is building. This year saw the first regional and national competitions in the country, and soon the U.S. Drone Soccer League will be building a national team to compete in the Korea Drone Soccer International Open Cup in Namwon, South Korea from October 6-9.
The Sato Dragons will have the opportunity to compete in the Rocky Mountain State Games Tournament in July, where players from a variety of teams will be evaluated for a slot on the first official U.S. Drone Soccer Team. Coach Gallo said Sato Academy is considering competing but hasn’t made a decision yet. The team is largely supported by fundraising efforts.
In the meantime, the Sato Dragons are riding the high from their big win. In addition to a very shiny, large trophy to tow home, the students also got a highly coveted team photo that featured Coach Gallo laying down in front of the students.
“He made a promise that if we won nationals, he would do that,” Arroyo said. “So we did get that picture, finally.”