Is VR The Future of Esports?

Electronic Sports. That’s what we’re talking about when we say ‘esports’. Competitive videogames have been around since the very dawn of videogames themselves. Esports have been fighting to gain mainstream recognition in recent years, a struggle familiar to those in the virtual reality (VR) sector. So, what can these two videogame-related industries offer each other? Can VR and esports combine and rule?

Competitive videogames are intricately tied to the development of videogaming as a whole. It’s not widely known, but the first videogame tournament was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972. The title involved was Spacewar! And the prize was a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Its been a common refrain of the mainstream media from the early years of videogames up until very recently to decry videogames – particularly console games – as isolating and anti-social. A sentiment that VR users will be familiar with.

Sports are regarded as a very physical thing. Even racing drivers have to be in peak condition in order to handle to g-forces they are subjected to. There’s a perception of videogaming as exactly the opposite, a lazy activity. However, Starcraft II players often engage in gym workouts as well as hours behind a PC desk to keep their skills sharp. It is difficult to see that during an esports broadcast, however, when all the audience sees is the player concentrating intently, fingers twitching across keyboard and mouse.

Would esports see more mainstream acceptance if spectators could see more action from the players? It’s possible. For people trying to get into esports, matches at higher levels can be utterly bewildering, with action moving so quickly that it’s impossible to understand what is going on, and that players move so little means its much harder to track a player’s physical action to what is happening on screen.

VR, is a far more physical experience. Motion controls and head tracking mean that movement is much more telegraphed, easier to see and understand for an audience. A player raises a hand in real life, the avatar raises high a sword in the VR world.

Physical-based VR titles such as Sparc by CCP Games and Sprint Vector may encourage physical fitness, and many believe they would make excellent esports, but focussing on something so purely physical limits the field to the same kind of people who are already good at mainstream sports. It’s also worth noting that one of the reasons for the popularity of esports is the low barrier to entry – a £1000 for a high-spec PC rig and some talent can easily get you entry without needing a huge well of cash or years and years of training.

Thomas Nicholls, former organiser of the SCVRush Starcraft II Tournament says: “VR for spectators could be amazing and a good way to get revenue in because you can set up a camera rig in the venue and anyone who pays can get the front row seat they can see and hear like they’re right there. For players, though… It’s not there yet. My reckoning is that for some games, it could be used but would change everything about how those games were designed and played before they made good esports. It’s in terms of FPS where I see it being the most interesting the idea of playing Counterstrike and being able to d things like just pop your head around a corner. The technology needs to catch up with the fantasy.”

VR and Esports could do great things together, but with VR still in relative infancy, it needs some time to mature to offer the kind of experience that dreams (or Dreamhacks) are made of.