While there will almost inevitably come a day when we can interface with our favorite pieces of hardware, plugging our brains into the TV to eke out a truly miserable existence in virtual Westeros or swapping the living room for the bridge of a spaceship just by giving Microsoft access to our cerebral cortexes, today, we have to be content with the immersive worlds found in our virtual reality (VR) headsets.
VR technology, a phenomenon associated largely with just two companies, Oculus and HTC, although Samsung, Sony, and Google have had a fair crack at cornering the market, is something that isn’t going away; in fact, with the announcement of VR versions of Bethesda’s DOOM, Fallout 4, and the 23m-selling Skyrim at E3 2017, it’s not too difficult to imagine a time when just about every major release comes with support for the technology.
VR, combined with new innovations like the Virtuix Omni, has the potential to completely change one aspect of video gaming forever, though – eSports. While conjuring up images of young gamers sat with keyboard and mouse before games like League of Legends and Dota 2, a VR-based version of the industry would get players on their feet, lending credence to eSports’ claim to be a sport and creating an entirely new way to play games.
The Virtuix Omni is a circular treadmill that raised $1.1m on Kickstarter and allows players to walk, run, and turn in place without the risk of damage and injury that comes with the more vigorous VR experiences today. As its users are usually pictured with a plastic gun, the most obvious applications of the technology are in Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Overwatch tournaments, although it could conceivably be used in sports games like EA’s FIFA.
eSports has been one of the bigger success stories in gaming recently and, inevitably, it has attracted the attention of big-name sponsors and mainstream advertisers – just like the Premier League and NFL. For example, iGaming brand Betway sponsors Counter-Strike team Ninjas in Pyjamas, while Coca-Cola, Monster, and Audi Automotors pay to have their names on official broadcasts. Consequently, eSports is now an industry worth $696m worldwide.
Component manufacturer Intel has made arguably the first effort to unite VR and eSports with its VR Challenger League, a tournament focusing on Echo Arena or “virtual reality frisbee” to quote Engadget, and The Unspoken, a title from Insomniac Games that has players control dueling sorcerers in a dark, magical twist on gunslinging in the Wild West. It’s still the sit-down kind of VR but Intel’s contest is an important first step for the technology – with more than $200,000 on offer to the victors.
Obviously, the more vertical versions of VR bring a new and frightening paradigm to eSports – physical fitness. Playing as a soldier character in a Counter-Strike tournament, for example, could one day require at least the ability to move around for the duration of a single match; the need for an entirely different motion-based control scheme could also mean that current keyboard and mouse players on the pro circuit are excluded by default.
Spectating in VR
Another company pushing VR in eSports is PC gaming giant Valve. Gabe Newell and co recently announced the Dota 2 VR Hub, which lets headset wearers enjoy a battlefield-level view of the proceedings or opt for a more cinema-style experience, with player data displayed on consoles around a central viewing screen. It feels more like an experiment than a permanent feature but it brings us nicely around to another potential use of VR – spectating.
Spectating is one of the more interesting and novel uses of VR, with the potential to put any person in the stands of any event, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the technology required for live action spectating at the World Cup Final, for example, is prohibitive because cameras that can reproduce the natural movements of each spectator’s head (all at the same time) are still on the wishlist at Silicon Valley. Japan is actually pushing the reverse for its 2022 World Cup bid – using holograms to put live matches in any stadium around the world.
Simultaneously the most encouraging and disappointing aspect of VR eSports is that it’s still so far off becoming an accessible hobby (or job). There’s a lot to look forward to but there are only a handful of relevant games, the requisite technology is in its infancy, and it’s probably fair to say that the existing players aren’t really prepared for it. Still, it’s easily one of the most anticipated new areas of gaming, as evidenced by the feverish way developers are jumping on VR in general.