This is a guest post by Virtual Reality developer Hugh Hancock, creator of VR horror RPG Left-Hand Path.</a>
In the discussion of my last post, Philippa Cowderoy and Geoff Hart brought up an interesting question around esports in VR. Will e-sports in VR ever become a thing?
I was actually there at the start of the dawn of esports as a whole - I ran "News From The Front", a website which covered the competitive Quake scene back in 1996. (It may actually have been the first dedicated esports news site in the world.) And more recently, I've gotten back into PvP games and esports with the game DOTA2, which has consumed an enormous amount of my time over the last year or so.
And, of course, I'm a virtual reality developer by trade - my first VR game, the horror/rpg Left-Hand Path, left Early Access and entered full release last Friday. I should stress at this point that I don't have a professional dog in the esports race: I'm mostly interested in creating single-player experiences, often with heavy RPG bents. Whilst Left-Hand Path is certainly difficult, inspired as it is by Dark Souls, it's not PvP, and my next major game will probably also be a single-player experience. So I have no financial interest in pushing the whole VR esport concept.
Nonetheless, the esport question is fascinating to me. In five years, will we be seeing the equivalent of The International in VR?
We're further along than you might think
Well, in actual fact you could have watched this year's
International in VR. DOTA2 has had a VR spectator mode available for some time. It's not quite ready for prime time yet - I still prefer the big-screen-with-snacks approach to DOTA game watching - but it's evidence that VR's advancing on the esport thing much faster than you might think.
In fact, there's been an esport tournament in VR in just the last week.
Eleven, the spookily-accurate VR table tennis sim, just held its first Virtual Reality tournament, in which 32 players around the world competed in a completely virtual space. From all reports, the tournament went off very well, and more similar contests are likely to be on the way.
Meanwhile, other VR games are already popular and esport-ready. Onward, which is essentially Counterstrike in VR, has a peak concurrent player count of around 100 every day, making it one of the 10 or 11 most popular VR experiences on Steam of any kind. Players report spending hours in-game sniping at each other.
And Echo Arena, a weird-but-cool zero-G Frisbee game, is probably even more popular. Concurrent player numbers are hard to acquire because it's on the Oculus platform, but it has certainly sold well and gotten breathlessly positive reviews even from non-gamers.
Many other VR games boast popular coop modes, from zombie-blaster Arizona Sunshine to forearm-punishing archery game Elven Assassin. Some of them are even effectively coop-only: the king of those experiences is the blisteringly popular Star Trek: Bridge Crew, as immortalised in this Penny Arcade comic strip
There are already a lot of people in VR competing or cooperating.
But Why Would You Want A VR E-Sport?
It's very important to clearly hold one dichotomy in your head when you're thinking about VR entertainment as a whole.
These things simultaneously are computer games - fast, fun, violent, and not limited by reality - and aren't computer games. They're physical experiences, using an interface that's far, far closer to Real Life than the gamepad-mediated world of computer gaming.
The crossover makes games like Eleven or Sports Bar VR (a pool simulator) incredibly powerful. If you can play table tennis, you can play Eleven. Absolutely no computer gaming experience required. And the experience is very much like playing table tennis with a friend - it feels right, it's fun, it's a good social experience - but doesn't require the two of you to be present in the same physical space.
Added to that, head-and-hands visualisation of another person turns out to be surprisingly powerful in communicating presence. It's much better even than a video call in many ways: these abstract avatars combined with voice give a very strong illusion that you're in the same physical space. A good physical representation of the space you're in helps even more, as does a powerful shared context - that's why table tennis, pool, or Star Trek all work so well.
So if nothing else, VR offers the chance to play pool with your friends on another continent, whenever you want. That's a pretty world-changing offer all by itself.
VR is also, by its nature, physical. For some people that's a downside: they want to play games at rest, sitting on a couch. But for other people - and I'm very much in this category - having a video game which actually requires you to move your body is a massive plus. These esports are sports - I've sweated so much playing gladiatorial game GORN that my headset started having problems with the sweat drips.
That's a hell of a lot of fun, but more than that, it's an effective form of exercise. You can get "gassed" boxing opponents in Thrill Of The Fight almost as much as in real life: I've watched a Tae Kwon Do black belt play that game, and he was definitely puffing and sweating after a few rounds.
But at the same time, it's still a game. There's none of the tedium of running on a treadmill - even if you are literally running on a treadmill. Just like playing a real-life sport, it's very easy to get lost in the experience - in fact, even more so than most sports. And unlike real-life sports, these VR esports have far less physical limitations and are available whenever you want to play them. I can't jump up and play a game of zero-G Frisbee, or a tense round of gladiatorial combat, in real life - but I can be doing either of those things in five minutes from the desk at which I'm currently sitting.
That's not only cool and fun, but also pretty impactful on physical fitness. If I'd spent all the hours that I spent playing DOTA last year doing something requiring physical activity, I'd be athlete-level fit. (Particularly given the competitive gamer mantra of "git gud". If you tie the DOTA world's MMR rating to their physical fitness, there would actually be a noticable world uptick in fitness amongst that demographic.)
Indeed, my work on Left-Hand Path has definitely impacted my physical fitness. It's not primarily designed as a fitness game, but dodging away from monsters, rapidly drawing symbols in the air, and squatting to touch your staff to the ground for various rituals all adds up. I would not be surprised if my move from animation (sedentary as hell) to VR has added a couple of years to my life expectancy.
A couple of commenters asked about injury potential, and I've been asked elsewhere about fatigue in VR too. As far as I'm concerned, fatigue is a feature not a bug, for the reasons listed above. I like gaming anyway, but if it also happens to cause a reduction in my likely all-cause mortality, that's a pretty good bonus.
And as for injury: VR gaming won't end up more intense than equivalent real-world sports. If the populace at large is safe playing football, or rugby, or training Brazilian Jujitsu, they'll be OK doing equivalent things in VR too. (Although we may have to start building in "seriously, go get a glass of water" warnings!)
So what does the future hold?
It's mostly here, just not evenly distributed. As usual.
As mentioned above, I can already call my friends in New York and challenge them to a casual game of table tennis. That's considerably world-changing. In a world where people move around more and more, and travel is both ecologically dodgy and increasingly expensive, being able to hang out with friends around the world in a well-simulated physical space is pretty astonishing, and as time moves forward I think it'll be one of the major selling points of VR.
Microsoft just bought the social VR app Altspace, and the equivalent Rec Room is gathering VC funding at a rate of knots. VR tournaments are just getting started, and they'll get bigger and bigger - not least because, as physical sports, they'll make pretty good viewing too. If the guys making Echo Arena aren't working on a broadcaster / spectator mode I'd be very surprised.
(It may be noted that another key problem in 2017 is loneliness, and engaging in physical sports with other people is an excellent way of making new friends. )
There's no reason that the social esports have to be limited to high-physical-activity, either. Poker would be a very obvious candidate for a VR edition, and a VR poker game would overcome many of the issues of playing poker online. There's still enough physical movement to attempt to read opponents - eye trackers are just around the corner too - and in VR it will be a much more social experience than playing on a flat screen. (This is another one of those "if I wanted to be really, really rich..." moments - but I'm busy! Also, some Googling turns up the first VR casino, which has already appeared.)
Tracked peripherals are just on the cusp of arriving too, and they're going to have a massive impact. I've had the developer versions of HTC's "tracker" pucks for a few months now, which allow you to add physical objects to your VR space and track them to milimeter accuracy, and they're enormously powerful.
Just being able to track your feet adds a whole new level of interaction and immersion. But more than that, you can use them to track objects for esports. Here's an article about tracking a golf putter, for example - it's immediately clear that the increase in quality of experience is huge.
Indeed, I can see golf alone pushing the popularity of VR some way. It's expensive, it has a large, fanatical fanbase, and VR's very well-suited to simulating it.
And then you've got the total-immersion stuff. The first VR MMO is just around the corner, promising a release into Early Access in December. It already has a small but extremely enthusiastic community, and I'd expect that to explode once it arrives.
An MMO in VR will be a totally different experience to one on a computer, with a great deal more physical presence. I'd expect people to make friends more easily, grief and flame less, and feel more like they're physically present with each other. This could be the thing that sparks an explosion in VR uptake as a whole - after all, MMOs like WoW have form for that sort of exponential growth. And as it develops, it'll start to evolve away from the conventional MMO, and more into something that combines the best parts of MMOs and "field LARP" experiences like the UK's Empire LARP.
Beyond that? The major esports companies must at least be keeping tabs on VR - it's a toss-up as to which game attracts a signficant prize money tournament, but it'll happen. I'd guess that event is 2-3 years away, perhaps less.
And then we'll have a new form of esport. It won't replace flat-screen gaming - instead, it'll be something entirely new. Probably something that doesn't even draw from the same pool of players as conventional esports. We may see one or more physical sports develop a thriving esport arm - my money's on golf or table tennis there.
It'll be an exciting - and sweaty - evolution.
What do you think? Will VR esports become a thing? If so, when, what and why?