Can virtual reality transform eSports?

The first VR headsets are hitting the market, but what does this mean for our favourite titles?
Virtual reality could revolutionise gaming
Virtual reality could revolutionise gaming © HTC / Virtuix Omni
By Alex Dyet

With Oculus VR releasing their first consumer-targeted headset at the end of March, we’re about to find out if virtual reality will live up to all the hype.

We’ve seen breakthrough technologies fail to catch on in the past, 3D TVs for instance, but virtual reality headsets are being backed by a bunch of the biggest developers out there. Valve have already been experimenting with introducing eSports like Dota 2 to VR, and we’re going to find out soon whether these experiments evolve into exciting new game modes. PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and Microsoft’s HoloLens are all on the horizon, along with the Oculus Rift.

The long development phase for these products means they’ll be featuring top specifications, with high-definition resolutions, fast refresh rates, and advanced motion sensors. They’re going to be pricey, though, and it could take several years before we can really tell how revolutionary they’re going to be.

While many blockbuster games already offer VR support, such as Alien Isolation, and some games have been built from the ground up with VR in mind like EVE Valkyrie, the impact VR will have on established eSports is harder to predict. First-person shooters like CS:GO or Blizzard’s upcoming Overwatch might well look into VR once the headsets come down in price, but how could this technology benefit MOBAs like Dota 2 or League of Legends which are played from an aerial perspective? Could we even see the emergence of huge new eSports titles to take advantage of these headsets? And what about the spectators? Whether your liked or loathed 1992 sci-fi horror film The Lawnmower Man, it seems inevitable that we’ll be seeing the first virtual reality eSports stadiums in the near future.

Despite plenty of initial scepticism when VR began to emerge several years ago, enormous amounts of money have been channelled into its development now, and when we talked to Patrick Walker, the vice-president of insights and analytics at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, he told us that he fully expects VR to be a huge success:

“I believe strongly that VR eventually becomes mainstream. Being able to engage in a realistic sensory experience remotely has many powerful applications. There are so many hypothetical use cases for the technology across entertainment [eco-tourism], education [experiencing historical events], and business [better remote meetings]. Although there are a lot of questions about the short-term path of VR because of the many barriers, like high price and limited software, the long-term usefulness of the technology will win out, especially considering all the large, innovative companies making a heavy investment (Google, Apple, Facebook, Valve, etc). This is very different from 3D televisions, which were a feature upgrade to an already existing technology that consumers ultimately didn’t want.”

© Oculus

While Valve and Blizzard haven’t taken up the cause yet for their big competitive games – the former’s Dota 2 VR demo for the HTC Vive simply lets you walk around the Secret Shop – Patrick told us that there's potential for VR to have an impact on a wide range of eSports, thanks to its capacity to provide a more immersive experience for spectators:

“It's important to distinguish between the eSports gameplay and the eSports viewing experience,” he says. “One of the many use cases predicted for VR is the ability to attend live sports games remotely. In a similar way, there's a lot of opportunity for VR to create a new type of viewing experience even using the currently successful eSports game genres. In addition, it's very hard to predict what types of experience will emerge on new hardware after developers learn what works best. The mobile phone games of the mature 2016 market are very different from the available games in 2008. Therefore, I think there's also a lot of opportunity for new eSports to emerge that are built from the ground up with VR gameplay in mind.”

© IGN

In other words, a few years down the line, rather than watching Valve’s The International through an online stream, you could be watching it though your VR headset as through you were part of the actual crowd, looking up at the big screen and cheering on your side. Alternatively, you might want a truly, 'in-game' experience and choose to step onto the map itself. You’ll wander up the mid-lane to watch an early rune fight or shadow a carry player’s rotations around the map. But VR’s potential does not stop there:

“Games are often the frontrunning experience for a new technology because gamers are often passionate, early adopters who will purchase the technology when it's still at a high price. But I think that VR has tremendous potential outside of gaming as well. How much more productive would phone conferences be if you could tell that the people in the room were really listening to you? How much more excited would children be to learn if they could experience the past instead of just reading about it? How many more people would experience the pyramids if the cost to ‘visit’ Egypt were drastically reduced? At its core, virtual reality is a democratising technology that has the potential to open up all types of experiences to people by lowering the barrier to the experience.”

© Virtuix Omni

A company that’s at the forefront of Active VR, Virtuix Omni launched the first virtual reality eSports tournament this year, featuring their first-person shooter Omni Arena. Chris Shelton, Virtuix’s head of sales and marketing and one of the men organising the event, told us it’s the start-up’s belief that adding a physical dimension to eSports could take games in exciting new directions:

“We think eSports really highlights how fun it is to run and move quickly in a large virtual environment, an experience you can only get on the Omni,” he explains. “We also think adding an active physical component takes eSports out of the chair and makes the experience more exciting for both competitors and spectators. We think virtual reality in general, and Active VR specifically, will become more mainstream in the gaming world over the next several years. I also think you will start to see non-gaming industries begin to develop Active VR applications.”

The Omni VR equipment allows you to navigate your way around a game by walking and running on their concave platform, the harness allowing jumps and quick, 360-degree rotations. The physical demands of the platform could mean that future eSports champions might more closely resemble athletes, their real-life fitness and speed allowing them to excel in the virtual world. In future VR shooters, for instance, you’ll be able to watch a player spin about on their platform and duck, as their on-screen avatar dodges a laser blast from behind, before raising their gun and sprinting forwards to chase down their target.

Shelton also told us that Virtuix is excited about applications for their technology outside eSports and the possibilities are endless for how this might develop:

“Active VR, where your actions in the virtual world are controlled by first-person navigation like walking or running, creates an unprecedented sense of immersion and presence within virtual worlds and does so without the negative side-effects of motion sickness. This can be a benefit regardless of what type of virtual environment you're in and we've seen interest from a number of industries including real estate, architecture, virtual tourism, fitness and engineering services, among others.”

It looks like VR has the potential to have a huge impact on eSports over the next decade, and many other areas of our lives. But given that the technology is expensive and still developing it will be a while before it truly begins to change competitive eSports. Developers like Riot, Blizzard or Valve are unlikely to take much of an interest until there’s a healthy demand. A few years down the road, though, you’ll be playing Hearthstone in a firelit medieval tavern, a harpist playing in background and a crowd of drunken goblins and dwarfs cheering on your every move.

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