The Rise of vSports
How Immersive Technology has set the stage for a new type of competitor
AJ “Desecration” Damiano
Within what seems like a minuscule amount of time, video games have not only fundamentally become a part of mainstream culture, but they have brought hundreds of thousands of fans together through online and real life gaming tournaments otherwise known as eSports. With the rapid rise of the eSports ecosystem, traditional sports conglomerates such as the MLB and NBA have been quick to react through the purchase of broadcasting rights and investments into teams. However, with the growth of virtual and augmented reality, an entirely new ecosystem has opened for game developers, production companies, and traditional sports firms. An ecosystem which combines physical prowess with virtual worlds, and has the potential to not only fundamentally transform the world of sports; but eSports as well. Welcome to vSports.
The Current Situation
A vSport can be defined as a video game title in either Virtual or Augmented Reality that combines both physical strength with virtual worlds. Imagine stepping into Hanamura in Overwatch, or Summoners Rift in League of Legends with a Virtual Reality headset on; and instead of playing as Soldier 76 or Ashe behind a keyboard, you are Soldier 76 or Ashe. You need to run throughout the map, take objectives, and shoot down enemy players.
You have unique abilities individual to that character, and need to strategize with your teammates in order to accomplish the goal at hand. vSports is the merger of both the Physical and the Mental, and with immersive technology on the rise, the groundwork has been laid for an entirely new type of competitor. However, before taking a look at the vSports industry and the potential it has to transform the world of both sports and eSports, it’s important to take a look at the current state of virtual reality, as well as other immersive technology.
The Current State
Currently, virtual and augmented reality headsets have either remained too expensive or too inaccessible to the average consumer, with price points ranging around $800 . These headsets are bulky, and require a high end PC to run most games.
While virtual reality in gaming has been around since 1995 with the release of the virtual boy, the first modern VR headsets were only released in July of 2015 . Notably, we are only now living in the first wave of advancements in consumer grounded virtual reality.
So what’s keeping things in place? One of the main factors preventing virtual reality from reaching its full potential is simply the fact that much of the technology surrounding it isn’t quite there yet. Most VR headsets require a direct connection to a computer, and carrying a VR ready computer around with you on your back isn’t exactly a pleasant option in a physical sport.
On top of this, many game developers are unwilling to jump into the VR ecosystem out of fear of losing money. Take game development studio Eerie Bear Games for example: after spending nearly $46,530 on their VR title Light Repair Team #4, they were only able to recover a measly $14,000 post launch . In total, game developers only recover about 60% of the games price after royalty payments to unreal engine, and valves cut, making an unprofitable market for game development even less profitable.
Not to mention, for vSports to truly flourish as an industry, high quality virtual reality headsets will need to be as accessible as a football or a smartphone. With a price point of $800 this is currently not possible. While many companies such as Samsung Gear VR have attempted to place virtual reality into a phone, the experience is clunky at best, and stands as a whisper to what a true virtual reality experience through a headset is like.
Other reasons often cited for holding Virtual Reality back include a lack of a centralized control system, too many varied experiences between each game, as well as lackluster visuals and a lack of space in a consumers home . While many of these things are expected to improve over time, currently games need to be built to function properly, versus look nice. With heavier and more detailed graphics comes more stress on a CPU. Without improvements to the overall technology behind virtual reality first, game developers are constrained in terms of how far their creativity can take them.
While graphics, controllers, and experiences can all improve over time, one thing which will likely not improve however, is the amount of space in a consumer’s home.
Free range and wireless VR could help to partially solve this problem; but more likely than not vSports titles will need a dedicated arena for users to play their game in, and game developers will need to create their games around that very arena. When it comes to traditional sports; Football, Hockey, and Basketball have all solved a similar problem of space by doing just that. However, establishing a nationwide infrastructure for live vSports events similar to traditional sports will likely be no easy task.
Regardless, even with most immersive technology being fairly inaccessible, AR has provided an interesting and cheaper avenue to merge both physical and virtual worlds. Pokemon Go is a great example of this with it’s rapid climb to popularity over the summer. While minimal, Pokemon Go is one of the first games to combine a physical environment with a virtual world. By shipping the game as a mobile app, it provided a high level of accessibility to a general audience while managing to keep costs little to none for the average consumer. While nobody is going to be creating sporting events around Pokemon Go anytime soon, it provides an interesting look into what could be something much more.
Overall, there’s no shortage of funding within the space. Many venture capital firms have already invested millions into the advancement of immersive technologies. With technological improvements only a few years out, these advancements could lay the groundwork for the vSports industry, and present a massive opportunity for media companies looking to get involved in both the consumer driven spectator element, as well as the content production element.
The Trend Torwards vSports
When it comes to observing the trend towards vSports, one can look through the lense of the six supertrends in Futuring: The exploration of the future by Edward Cornish. Three Supertrends in particular stand out as potential guides to where this innovation could be headed; Technological Progress, Increasing Mobility, and Deculturation.
Starting with perhaps the most obvious, Technological Progress is defined as improvements being made in “computers, medicine, transportation, and other technologies.” Through improvements in immersive technologies, we’ve gone from the virtual boy in 1995 to the Occulus Rift in 2016, an overall monumental improvement in a period of only 20 years. Just as Virtual reality has improved over this time, so have video games. Technological progress has allowed eSports to become a cultural phenomenon. It’s what enabled Twitch and other livestreaming services to handle broadcasting and distribution. Arguably, technological progress will continue to fuel more improvements in the gaming experience, and more innovation in competitive titles.
The second supertrend may be less obvious, but it was a crucial factor in the success of competitive titles and eSports as a whole; Increased mobility. Increased mobility can be defined not only as people moving around more through powerful methods of transportation, but in particular the rapid flow of information through mediums such as the internet. The internet is what connects gamers, and has enabled competitive players all around the globe to be matched up against opponents online. The beauty of the vSports experience is that it could bring thousands of players together from all around the world onto the same battlefield through the power of the internet.
The third and final supertrend pertinent to vSports would be the trend of Deculturation. Deculturation is defined as a loss of traditional culture. It’s no secret that the gaming community has its own culture. The words “Noob” and “Pwn” are some classic examples of gamer lingo, but they have evolved into more modern day examples such as “Kappa,” “LUL,” “Cx,” and “GG.” The gaming community has developed it’s own culture entirely, and eSports has been a major factor in helping to bring gamers, as well as their culture together around one centralized cause. With vSports and other competitive titles on the rise, gaming culture could evolve to encompass these new types of spectator events, and could play a pinnacle role in their mainstream acceptance.
With these three major supertrends acting to bring the eSports and VR industry closer to the possibility of vSports, the next 20 years could hold many possibilities for this industry. One company in particular called “The Void” is already taking the initiative on discovering ways to merge virtual worlds with physical environments.
Through creating VR titles based around real life physical environments, The Void has effectively created a hyper realistic experience where players navigate through virtual worlds in a physical space. These “4D” centers have the potential to serve as a launchpad for more complex innovations and true vSport titles down the line, and lay the groundwork for these games.
How does it happen?
With technological progress, increased mobility, and deculturation all bringing the world closer to the potential of vSports, it may be interesting to take a look at how the vSports industry could play out. Over the next 20 years, technological progress will enable VR headsets to be produced at a higher quality and at a cheaper cost. At the same time, augmented reality could present more accessible and cheaper opportunities to transform living rooms into battlefields, by incorporating objectives and various elements into the world around you. Lower costs will empower more widespread usage and accessibility, giving game developers access to a larger base of consumers willing to purchase their VR/AR titles.
With more consumers becoming VR/AR empowered, game developers will have a reasonable incentive to produce titles centered around VR/AR. With technological innovations providing more opportunities for creativity in the space, game developers will be able to focus on creating more hyper realistic experiences, as well as competitive titles, which could eventually lead to the rise of the first ever vSport titles.
So it begs the question, what would the world look like if vSports were here today?
A World With vSports
When examining how a world with vSports may look, one can observe how eSports titles rose to power, and eventually became a cultural phenomenon. At the beginning, it’s unlikely that players will be competing in stadiums against each other, or that there will even be any major competitions or events surrounding these titles. Competitive titles will likely be played exclusively online against other players from the comfort of one’s home, or backyard. As competition becomes more heated, community run tournaments may begin to pop up presenting early adopter media companies with the opportunity to work alongside the community in building these titles to what they could truly become. Just as PC Cafes popped up to support the eSports ecosystem in South Korea, many local businesses could begin to get involved by providing a space for local competitors to practice in.
As more and more tournaments begin to appear, media companies will have a distinct opportunity to get involved by creating and running low budget, online and in person tournaments. By entering the market early, these companies will have a chance to build their brand, similar to how MLG or ESL, two of the biggest companies in eSports today originally got started. With many of these tournaments, virtual reality will allow spectators to be a part of the viewing experience without actually being there in person. These new virtual spectators will present a new and potentially lucrative revenue stream for the companies producing the events.
Just as eSports and traditional sports evolved to have just a few core spectator games (League of Legends, CS:GO, DOTA II etc.) (Football, Baseball, Basketball etc.), it would be expected that vSports would develop down a similar route. Game developers who enter the space early and focus on developing their competitive titles into vSports (ex. Riot Games with League of Legends), will have an opportunity to control not only the broadcasting rights for their games, but will benefit from increased popularity by being a first mover. These benefits include higher revenue streams for the games themselves as well, with the nearly 75% of eSports revenue today coming from in-game transactions (Source: Twitch). Other game developers (ex. Valve and CS:GO) may outsource much of their competitive infrastructure to third party media companies, foregoing the broadcasting, advertising, and media opportunities — but instead choosing to benefit solely from the boost to in-game sales.
An evolved spectator experience also encompasses an evolved advertising experience. Media companies who provide a VR spectator experience to their audience will also be able to benefit from specially developed VR advertisements as well as branded opportunities. Spectators may be able to pay for VIP access for a seat closer to the action. This “VIP” booth could be branded by companies looking to get involved in the space (I.E. the Coors Light VIP Experience). Many of the best VR ads will focus on being experiential and making the viewer a part of them.
After a formal infrastructure has been established for some of these games, distribution and broadcasting rights will become a major priority. While one platform may initially dominate the market by providing the community with a place to gather and share these experiences; as viewership numbers grow, game developers may look to bring their titles and broadcasting rights elsewhere onto more lucrative platforms. These individual platforms dedicated to this vSports viewing experience may develop their own communities and culture over time, similar to how platforms like Twitch have evolved. These new communities will provide advertisers with an entirely new demographic to understand and appeal to.
As vSports develop, so will its fanbase. Fan made highlights, and top tens will encourage content curation within various platforms. Fans will begin to become attached to various players and teams, helping merchandising to become a catalyst for a heavier source of revenue within the ecosystem. Training regimens from the top vSports athletes may even encourage specially branded gyms to pop up to help aspiring vSports pros to achieve their dreams. Opportunities for media companies, merchandisers, entrepreneurs, sports lawyers and even psychologists will all present themselves for the taking, just as they did with eSports and traditional sports.
One of the last key parts of the vSports ecosystem will be what happens after the infrastructure and the fan-base has likely been established. Arenas, and vSports centers will become an incredibly important piece of developing a worldwide fabric to hold the developing ecosystem together. Just as Basketball courts have emerged at your local gym, eSports arenas are now just starting to emerge near your street corner in 2016. With hundreds of thousands of fans looking to become involved, these centers will become an important piece in uniting regional teams and inspiring the second generation of vSports athletes.
The success of the vSports ecosystem would not come without its problems. Legal issues revolving around things such as gambling rings, betting, and in-game items would present legal challenges on how to properly legislate the new environment. Clashes over broadcasting rights may challenge game developers who want to make their game a broadcasted vSport. Many of these issues will require arbitration, presenting a unique opportunity for vSports lawyers to get involved. Mainstream cultural acceptance may also present a barrier to athletes looking to go pro, with many people questioning, as they did with eSports, whether or not vSports could really even be considered a sport — or perhaps if it is even a good use of one’s time. Only time will enable these myths to be dispelled as more and more people will eventually come to accept it.
Other ethical issues may emerge surrounding the space. How long to practice, and how hard to push players may become talking point for team owners to consider. Violent content within vSports may also present an ethical challenge for companies attempting to broadcast them, due to the hyper realistic nature of virtual reality. Various sites may enable users under the age of 18 to gamble on various vSports events, spelling legal trouble. Player salaries may also become a hot button issue for team owners to determine what is considered a fair amount to pay out. Many of these same ethical issues have appeared in the development of eSports, and it can be anticipated that it would be likely for many of them to appear in vSports as well .
So what would make the vSports trend not occur? Perhaps the number one reason would revolve around immersive technology simply being a fad. It’s happened before in the past with Nintendo’s virtual boy in 1995. Much of the technology, while regarded as cool, is largely inaccessible to the average consumer. If potential buyers don’t have the opportunity to experience immersive technology for themselves, the hype built up around the ecosystem may be quick to die.
Virtual Reality does not come without its own issues currently either. Many of the headsets cause motion sickness and discomfort. For myself personally, it’s difficult to wear a headset for more than 20 minutes at the time without beginning to feel disoriented. Not to mention, there is currently a lack of titles present; and many game developers as mentioned before are afraid to enter the space. Without a fix to many of these issues fast, VR may see a gradual 3 year decline as predicted by Phil Iwaniuk .
While VR may not be the main path to vSport’s success, other scenarios could include immersive technologies such as AR coming to dominate the market instead due to its greater accessibility, as seen through apps such as Pokemon Go. These other immersive technologies have the same capabilities as VR to provide an ecosystem for vSports athletes to grow and succeed.
Overall, only time will tell if the vSports industry will come to be, but with the advent of Virtual and Augmented reality, the stage has been set for a new type of competitor. The question remains, will they rise?
AJ “Desecration” Damiano is a Shoutcaster, Tournament Organizer, YouTuber, and Community Member in the growing eSports arena. AJ has Shoutcasted & Organized the World of Warcraft RBG World Championship and has casted the EU qualifiers for the World of Warcraft World Championship. He is currently the CEO of PowerSpike.