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How VR Could be the Next Big Platform for Esports

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Kornel Meszaros | Development Lead | XReal Games

24 Jan 2019 | 9 min read

Kornel Meszaros has been developing virtual reality games since the explosion in interest in the technology back in 2014. Since 2016, he has been working as part of the indie developer: XREAL Games. More recently, Kornel has led development on the VR shooter, Zero Caliber VR, which has been well received and earned critical praise from within the industry.

This article explores the current state of traditional Esports and also looks at the ways in which virtual reality could innovate audience interaction with players, exploring how VR has the potential to be the next big platform for Esports. As a quick note for the sake of clarity, when we refer to traditional Esports, we mean Esports in the area of console and PC gaming. 

The Current State of Traditional Esports

Esports is inarguably a massive international industry which continues to grow year on year. CNN reports that the industry is poised to be valued at $1bn by 2019 and the viewership numbers for Esports events are similarly impressive. In 2018, the International Dota 2 Championships drew 15 million concurrent viewers at its peak and Newzoo reports that 380 million people will watch Esports worldwide this year. In spite of the many detractors of Esports, it has grown into an international phenomenon and resultantly has seen increased media coverage, such as being featured prominently on historically sports orientated television channels like ESPN and Sky Sports.

There is a diverse range of games within the Esports space, some of the most notable are Fortnite, Dota 2, League of Legends, Counter-Strike Global Offensive, Overwatch and FIFA. With such high viewing figures, which continue to increase year on year, tournament prize pools have developed in line with this growth in popularity. Epic Games, the developers of Fortnite, have recently announced that they plan to establish a $100m prize pool for Fortnite tournaments across the globe while Blizzard’s Overwatch League features twelve city based teams competing for $3.5m in prize money.

Evidently, Esports is a big business and we will only see the continued upward trend of positive growth with more support from AAA publishers and developers like Blizzard, EA and Valve.

In the world of football, Premier League teams West Ham United and Manchester City have established their own dedicated Esports teams battling it out on the online football game: FIFA. Likewise, the NBA are supporting the NBA 2K League. Esports is branching into all areas of sport and the support of established brands like the NBA only adds validity to this rapidly growing industry as the line between traditional sport and Esports continues to blur.

The Current State of VR Esports

Virtual Reality Championships 2017/18:

In 2017, the first national Virtual Reality Championships took place in New York; this event was met with a hugely positive response from the public. In response to this, Oculus teamed up with Intel and ESL to create the VR League with a $200,000 general prize pool for players.

In September 2018, we saw the conclusion of season 2 of the VR League at Oculus Connect 5. The finals featured Echo Arena, the Unspoken, Sprint Vector and Onward. There is clearly an audience for VR Esports and it seems as though Oculus, Intel and the ESL are serious about gradually developing the industry.

UK Government Pledges £16 million to Weavr:

As of January 2019, the UK government have made a push to see the development of VR Esports and the next generation of audience participation with the help of virtual reality. The Industry Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF): Audience of the Future fund will see £33 million invested into next-generation storytelling through augmented and virtual reality in a bid to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of immersive technology. £16 million of the ISCF fund will be put toward an Esports and audience participation initiative named Weavr.

ESL x WEAVR LOGO

Weavr x ESL logo

ESL, Rewind, Focal Point VR, Cybula, Dock 10 and The University of York will all work on the project that aims to revolutionise the way we view Esports content with the use of AI and data learning to create personalised viewing experiences. According to reports, Weavr will produce “cross-reality viewing experiences that allow fans to immerse themselves in high fidelity statistics, visualisations and data-driven stories that give them deep insights into the live match. Enabling them to seamlessly move between virtual and physical viewing, as well as utilise second screens to watch immersive esports content on the go.” Innovation in the ways in which Esports content can be viewed, with useful iterations like statistics and player stories featured alongside live gameplay, is a vital first step to the development of VR Esports and the backing of the UK government is a great sign for future growth in the industry.

Comparing Software Ecosystems:

It is difficult to make direct comparisons between traditional console gaming and VR Esports, mostly because, within the virtual reality space, there’s a lack of content that could feasibly grow into a base for Esports. That is to say, VR lacks a ‘hit’ game with a huge player base to tap into. With that said, as we have seen with the games featured in the VR League, there are some games, such as Echo Arena, Sprint Vector and Beat Saber, that really lend themselves to high-level competitive play. Echo Arena, for example, could be a great base to build from because watching the game is a visceral and exciting experience but it is difficult to gauge whether it has the potential to grow into a ‘hit’ game because player numbers are kept tightly under wraps by Oculus.

The key principle of making a game that is successful as a part of Esports, in both the emerging VR industry and the massive console and PC gaming scene, is entertainment. The viewers are a critical element in any successful Esports game. Teams like Cloud 9 and Optic Gaming have legions of fans and huge social presences, with Twitter followings of 717k and 3.3m followers respectively. They are established brands which have grown rapidly over the past few years, and there aren’t yet any comparably popular teams in the VR space. However, it is good news that there is an existing audience, albeit a relatively small one, for VR Esports.

What are the Key Differences between Traditional and VR Esports?

We should look to three key areas where VR Esports can improve upon the tried and tested formula of traditional PC and Console Esports.

Physicality:

The difference between traditional Esports and the burgeoning industry of VR Esports is that the latter bares a much stronger resemblance to conventional athletic sports. Playing games in virtual reality (Beat Saber being another game with the potential to grow into a bonafide Esport game in its own right) is a far more physical experience. VR Esports stands as the perfect combination of the athleticism of traditional sport and the lightning fast reaction time of PC gaming. The skills required are a mixture of hand-eye coordination, reaction time, stamina and form, skills we would typically associate with both conventional athletic sports and traditional gaming.

In a BBC report, Tim McGuinness, who is one of the top VR athletes in the world, said that VR Esports is “a sort of mix between traditional sports and traditional gaming […] you will break out in a sweat after a 10 minute match. Hand-eye coordination is a big part of it, form, practise, endurance. At the world finals, we had to play for almost 12 hours straight.”

Immersion & Spectating:

In terms of spectating, we’re seeing a great deal of innovation here too. VR allows audience members to actively participate in an event or game rather than be reduced to passively watching a stream. In the current climate, most Esports games restrict viewers to being able to overview a match, or they can view a player’s first person perspective in 2D. Virtual reality however, has the potential to really immerse viewers by transporting them straight into a game. In a shooter, for example, the viewer could effectively spectate inside the game in a full 3D environment, complete with both the sights and sounds of battle.

With techniques like green screen backgrounds, the players can be put directly into game and they appear in the virtual worlds as themselves rather than in the form of an avatar. This happens in real time with no need for additional editing. This looks like an extremely promising development and could work toward closing the gap between traditional sports and Esports for the viewers while making VR games more appealing to watch.

Active Audience Interaction:  

Virtual reality has the potential to focus upon active audience interaction, giving the audience a level of influence over real-time gameplay and importantly, providing the audience with a real sense of agency. As a reference point, think of the similar dynamics within the film The Hunger Games, the audience votes for certain actions that have an immediate effect on the game itself.

In the future, we could begin to see social VR gaming applications that lean on audience interaction as a core gameplay mechanic. In this context, every match played within a specific game would be completely dynamic, with pro-players having to actively respond to unpredictable scenarios and actions. Not only would this make watching the game more enjoyable, but playing the game would require a whole new skillset.

My Experience with Zero Caliber and Making VR Games More Social:

From my experience developing Zero Caliber, I have found that one thing is still missing from VR games: the social element. Players need ways to express themselves for both other players and viewers alike. In standard Esport games the players are disconnected from their avatars and have only limited tools for communications (text chat or voice chat). Emotes came into Esport games as preset communication forms, but they are only considered nice extras, not full communication features.

Zero Caliber – Launch Trailer

In high-end VR games on the other hand, the player’s body, head, facing direction and hand positions are present from the beginning, easily leading to basic forms of communication. As a player, you can point or face towards something, as well as show that you are standing or crouching and in game, your avatar reacts in tandem with your movements in a natural and realistic way. A lot of postures can be expressed this way; for example taunting other players or using a victory stance.

During the development of Zero Caliber VR, we found that our players needed more tools for expressions. Therefore, in a first for VR shooters, we added hand gestures and poses. The advancement of VR controllers will eventually lead to a point where this will be automatic but at the moment it needs to be manually developed. With this feature, our players can give commands, show gratitude, use rude gestures, show their music taste (with metal horns) or simply say yes or no silently. All these are still pre-set but give an extra layer of immersion for our players.

What the Future could hold for VR Esports:

The future of VR Esports hinges on the general development and growth of the virtual reality industry as a whole. We need to see the sales and adoption levels of HMD’s continue to gradually increase and crucially, we need to see the software ecosystems continue to develop in tandem. Once we arrive at a point of mass adoption, forecasts vary wildly on when exactly this will happen, and the software ecosystem becomes filled with high-quality content, then the Esports market will grow organically and its potential, much like the potential of VR technology itself, is limitless.

About the author:

Kornel is a Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) developer with a great number of shipped mobile and PC games, mostly working with Unity3D and Unreal Engine. Recently, he has led development on XREAL Games' first person VR Shooter Zero Caliber. Besides programming and software architecture design, Kornel often gets involved in game, art and user experience design.

Twitter: @kornel_meszaros
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kornelmeszaros/

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