In August 2016, Valve Corporation hosted the sixth DOTA 2 International tournament, bringing together the best DOTA 2 players globally to compete for a $20 million prize pool. The event was seen by 17,000 fans live at the Seattle KeyArena, and millions more watched live-streams online.
Meanwhile, in sunny Central Florida, I was developing a VR arcade called HubVR. My goal at the time was to help VR reach mainstream success, and as I noticed the impressive prize pools and viewership numbers involved in eSports, I began to take a closer look.
What I uncovered was a burgeoning industry showing impressive growth, fueled by a core group of high-quality competitive games including League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and StarCraft. This was an industry that had seemingly come out of nowhere, and was now approaching mainstream popularity among gamer-heavy demographics (eSports viewership isestimated to exceed that of the MLB and NBA within the next 3 years).
This is an area perfectly suited for VR gaming, with plenty to offer and plenty to gain from getting involved with this new digital medium, and there are already major players exploring what such a union could accomplish.
In a broad sense, there are two ways to combine VR and eSports, both currently under experimentation and development, but with very different sets of challenges:
Spectating in VR
It’s already here, and it’s already amazing. The ability to place oneself in a multiplayer game and stand directly beside pro players’ avatars as they compete brings with it an unprecedented level of audience engagement, with both professional players and the games themselves. Startups likeSliver.tv are actively working to bring VR spectating to more competitive games and VR viewing devices.
Above: A DOTA 2 spectator in VR approaches a player-controlled monster at human-scale
Competitive VR play
This is an entirely different ballgame, in which pro players themselves are viewing the game through a VR headset, and may even be controlling their in-game avatars via motion tracking, rather than a keyboard setup or controller. Games like RIGS Mechanized Combat League for the Playstation VR are already being designed expressly for competitive VR play, as are locomotion devices with eSports use cases like the Virtuix Omni.
Both VR spectating and VR gameplay have major disruptive potential within the eSports space, and early VR entrepreneurs and incumbents continue to make progress in developing these forms of interactivity. Here are a few of the effects that widespread VR spectating and gameplay could have on the eSports industry as a result:
- A new breed of eSports players. Professional eSports players today are, on average, no more athletic than most white-collar adults, hardly surprising given the sedentary nature of their profession. Expect that to change when the 10–12 hours many pros spend training with a controller or mouse/keyboard each day are instead spent in motion simulators and omnidirectional treadmills. Given the success one gamer had losing weight by only playing one hour of high-intensity VR each day, we could very well see an entirely new fitness science industry cropping up around eSports, not to mention a new fitness standard — at least for the VR side of the industry — on par with those of traditional sports.
- A larger, more engaged audience. Let’s be honest, nobody is paying all that much attention to the players themselves in a typical eSports game; they are more-or-less just sitting there for 99% of each match. Everyone is just watching the screens, because the players in any given tournament are boring. How much better would it be if players were running, crouching, and jumping in a treadmill or motion capture rig? On the spectating side, how much better would it be to virtually stand beside the team you’re rooting for, in-game? More audience-player engagement, combined with a new generation of athletic eSports players, means we may soon witness far more eSports viewership from traditionally non-gaming demographics.
- Increased legitimacy as a sport. It’s no secret that most people outside of South Korea don’t consider gaming to be a real sport. VR is poised to change that in several ways. For one, VR spectating will allow audiences to better engage and connect with pro players, giving them a sense of “realness” and making their personas more substantial than just their digital avatars, more akin to celebrity athletes in traditional sports. Additionally, the larger viewership brought by VR — and consequently, the much larger cash flow — will render eSports more legitimate by its sheer impact and market size. Perhaps most importantly, the demand-side economies of scale (aka network effects) at play will come into effect, as larger audiences give way to more events, giving way to more discussion, giving way to more new viewers… and so on.
Above: A gamer using a Virtuix Omni treadmill enters a combat scenario in Far Cry 3
Of course, the VR industry as a whole stands to gain as well. It, too, is struggling to find mainstream success, and despite its much larger potential impact, the challenges associated with creating and innovating in this new medium have made adoption slow. Purely in terms of aiding VR adoption, eSports could be a game-changer in one crucial way:
By 2020, eSports is expected to bring in $5 billion in revenue each year, globally; this figure will be even higher if VR does help boost public interest in eSports. That means a much larger pie for the VR industry to take from. Namely:
- Content developers will benefit from the eSports betting scene, which is proportionally much larger than those of traditional sports, if they can successfully monetize player and spectator betting.
- Professional VR gamers, whose traditional eSports contemporaries are already getting paid more than some tennis and racing champions, will benefit from attractive prize pools.
- VR technology enablers will benefit from better contracts, for bigger and more frequent events, and for a much larger variety of clients wishing to jump into this new and growing scene.
- And everyone will benefit from the sheer exposure that a public-facing role in a new, growing industry like eSports will offer.
Of course, once fans begin viewing matches from within VR, everyone else already deriving value from eSports —namely distributors, sponsors, and organizers — will be singing VR’s praises, which certainly couldn’t hurt it on the path to mainstream adoption. As I have argued before, finding ways for VR to benefit professionals, rather than just gamers, is an excellent way to help validate the medium as more than just a toy or fad.
Given all this potential, why hasn’t the VR eSports industry taken off yet?
Aside from the general reasons for why VR still isn’t mainstream — price barriers, clunky hardware, and a lack of killer apps to name a few — there are two issues specific to eSports worth discussing.
- A lack of content. Out of thousands of computer games released each year, the PC eSports scene really matured around a core group of 4 or 5. To date, no blockbuster multiplayer VR games have been released, and none of the more successful eSports developers — Valve, Blizzard, and Riot Games in particular— appear interested in changing that. VR gaming is simply not at the point where it can offer a game that’s well-designed, popular, and comfortable enough to seed an entire eSports community. This is hardly surprising, given that content developers have only been designing for this generation of VR for a few years now, and the industry is still focused on experimentation, rather than iteration and improvement.
Above: Raw Data, the best-selling VR multiplayer game to date
- A small community. The vast majority of eSports enthusiasts either actively play the games they are spectating, or have played them in the past and are very familiar with the rules. VR is so new, and so inaccessible to so much of the gaming population, that there simply aren’t enough people excited about VR to support a VR professional gaming ecosystem. This is especially problematic, because a small community means less of the network effects I described earlier that are so crucial for building out an ecosystem like this one. Additionally, a large community brings the financial support of sponsors as well as game publishers themselves; for now, the level of cash flow that would attract talented professional players just isn’t there.
So, with these obstacles in mind, can we bet on VR eSports making it big anytime soon? Well, good news, bad news.
Bad news first. VR isn’t likely to radically transform eSports until the former has already gone mainstream. By the time the conditions are met to establish a viable VR eSports ecosystem of chiseled VR athletes and billion-dollar betting pools, the gaming community at-large will have already embraced VR (my goalpost for mainstream in this case). We’re still at least 2–3 years away from clearing the biggest technical and design hurdles facing VR.
The good news? Even if eSports isn’t likely to propel VR into the mainstream, it will certainly be a key driver in VR’s growth phase, where VR will need to move beyond traditional gaming niches and become a more universally-embraced medium for communication and expression. Moreover, those publishers and content developers that survive until that phase will be better-equipped to support the VR eSports ecosystem, and attract the talent and audience needed to make it a success.
So when it does go big — I’ll place my bets for 2020 — one thing is certain: we’ll see it coming from a mile away.