BIRMINGHAM, England—Near the back of the EGX Expo hall, two players battle it out over a game of Hearthstone. Watching their moves on two large screens is a crowd of maybe 40 people, with commentators discussing each play.
Surrounding the players are suits of armor and fake bags of loot from the eSports League and Intel, two organizations looking to push eSports further into the public consciousness.
EGX isn't Intel's first foray into the eSports market. It's been hosting much bigger events for 12 years now, starting in 2006 with the first Intel Extreme Masters, a series of international eSports tournaments. This year, there have been Masters' events in Sydney and Shanghai; later this year, the competition comes to Chicagobefore stopping in Katowice, Poland, early next year.
The phenomenon is only going to grow, Scott Gillingham, Intel's VR and eSports lead, told PCMag at EGX. He pointed to the 2017 Katowice competition, which attracted 173,000 attendees in the arena and more than 46 million viewers online. Gillingham tells us that the number of online views hit an astonishing two billion.
For Intel, the increased interest in eSports has a number of benefits—most notably that more people will need computers capable of running today's most popular PC games. On the EGX show floor, there were a number of compact laptops and tiny gaming powerhouses, as well as the more traditional "gamer PCs."
These PCs must support a collaborative experience, something Intel touted on banners that read: "Game, Record, Stream."
"Gamers [are] recording their game and they're streaming it on Twitch and they're sharing it socially with their community and their friends," said Gillingham. "Now if you're doing that at the same time, you need much more performance...to maintain 60 or 70 frames per second."
According to Statista, the average number of concurrent viewers on Twitch during Q2 2018 was about 1,040,000 versus 326,000 for YouTube Gaming Live, up from 953,000 and 271,000, respectively, the previous quarter.
Twitch has seen a steady climb since Q3 2017, whereas YouTube has had ups and downs. YouTube recently discontinued its standalone YouTube Gaming app after three years in favor of a new gaming hub, where you can browse uploaded videos and live streams.
With 2.21 billion gamers worldwide at the end of 2017, according to Statista, there's still room to grow.
VR on the Horizon
But there's another area of tech where powerful computers are necessary and that's virtual reality. Intel is hoping to push VR into the mainstream, which will require powerful chips and—for now—gaming PCs.
While Hearthstone or Dota 2 don't work well with a VR headset, Intel's partnership with ESL and Oculus has resulted in competitions like the VR Challenger League at this year's Intel Extreme Master, where players battled it out playing Echo Arena from Ready At Dawn Studios and The Unspoken from Insomniac Games.
Adoption is still slow, though. "I think the overall eSports players, they're not all rushing to do this... that's a slow process. But the ones that have done it have [had] a great experience, [so] there's a definite future there with VR coming," said Gillingham.
"I think there's a stigma today that [for virtual reality] I've got to have a huge PC. At the end of the day, VR is a luxury thing today, [but] let's build a product that's a bit more consumer-friendly".
Intel's already taking that step with products such as the Hades Canyon, which is Intel's smallest VR-capable system. It arrived this spring looking like a tricked-out wireless router and is the sort of thing you could see sitting under your television in lieu of cable box.
That comparison becomes more apt in the UK, considering Sky's push into the VR space, BT's experiments with VR sports in 2016, and Intel's own True Viewtechnology, which has also been used to watch the American NFL, NBA, and NCAA tournaments in VR.
VR headsets and gaming PCs still don't come cheap, which Gillingham acknowledged. But he predicts a price drop over time, like most product categories.
As if to underline his point, Facebook recently showcased the Oculus Quest, a $399 wireless headset that CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes as the "all-in-one VR experience we have been waiting for."
But while wireless connectivity is an important step forward, the headset still looks big and bulky, and it remains to be seen how much this gets adapted in the US and the UK.
Nevertheless, Intel is betting that products like the Quest will fuel ease-of-access in the home and attract more people to live events. "A lot of the weekly [stuff] is done online, and that can be through Twitch, it can be through Facebook, it can be through lots of different online platforms, but there's also a passion to come to an event and view it live," Gillingham said.
And while a company will always say that the flow of the market dictates product launches, in this particular space it does seem possible that the eSports community could help shape the future of PC tech.