Are VR and e-sports really a match made in nerd heaven?

And just what is it that people want from them, anyway?
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Continuum and eRa Eternity are tied. It's the Rainbow Six Siege PC grand final, at the Rainbow Six Invitational held by Ubisoft. If Continuum wins this next round, they're the world champions of Rainbow Six Siege. Everything has led to this moment. eRa has three minutes to assault the objective and take it, while Continuum just needs to survive while the clock ticks down.

With 60 seconds left, the tension in the room is palpable. When you die in this game, you're dead for the rest of the round. Right now, in this deciding fight, everyone is still standing.

The atmosphere isn't just electric; it's several steps past that.

For many casual fans of e-sports, it's just not feasible to drop several thousand of your chosen currency on flying to Montreal for a chance to be in the room. But that's where VR headsets can come in. It offers something much closer to the real thing – closer to the frantic energy of being there – than spectating via YouTube can ever provide.

E-sports is a booming business, with a 2016 SuperData report suggesting that 2017 will be the year competitive gaming becomes a $1bn business. And, with all due respect to the Six Million Dollar Man, with VR we have the technology to make it feel like you're really there.

But what's in the future for VR and e-sports, and is it a future that anyone is actually clamouring for?

Virtually there: Spectating in VR

One of the companies making the most headway at the intersection of VR and e-sports is ESL. The e-sports network announced a partnership in 2016 with the 360 video app (available on iPhone, Android, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR and coming soon to PSVR) and then live-streamed the ESL One New York tournament.

At the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice in March 2017, Intel and ESL worked together – again in partnership with – to deliver a virtual e-sports stadium experience for fans worldwide. It was designed to give them a taste of what the 113,000 attendees were getting. The live interactive stadium produced by the trio featured dynamic lighting that was synchronised between different users and changed as games were played. The VR experience also added several additional features that weren't available to those there in person: making the most of the internet connection to let fans pull up stats, scores and replays in real time. Because it's 2017, viewers were also able to interact with other viewers using emojis, which makes me :(.

Are VR and e-sports really a match made in nerd heaven?

At the time, Mitch Liu,'s CEO, said in a release: "We're excited to take this first step towards making e-sports spectating into a highly social, live, and engaging experience to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends fans worldwide. This is an integral part of our mission to transform the interactive e-sports entertainment industry."

ESL seems committed to making virtual reality e-sports a reality, and so we spoke to Stuart Ewen, a product manager at ESL who's working on doing just that. "It's difficult to explain the kind of energy, that feeling you get from sitting in a massive crowd cheering for your favourite Counter-Strike player," said Ewen. "Virtual reality is just a way to somewhat bridge that gap."

Ewens also outlined his dream ESL VR spectating experience. "My kind of perfect vision would be to have a front row centre experience. So you'd log into whichever VR client you're using, you find yourself front and centre in the big stage in Katowice, you can see the players in there, it's setting up. You look up, you have control of the screen that displays what everyone else sees on the Twitch stream but also a bunch of ancillary and visuals there for you to access as well, so you could select individual player cameras to see their face reactions.

"You could select a mini map to see a bird's eye view of what's going on; you could jump in games and get a god's eye view of the map, or view specific stats, or even participate in things like fantasy sports and social media interaction."

It's an exciting vision, but the biggest problem is that long term VR usage just isn't a particularly great experience. E-sports events can run for an eight-hour day, but encouraging someone to strap themselves into virtual reality for that length of time is, at the very best, unappealing.

Are VR and e-sports really a match made in nerd heaven?

Ewen says the most exciting thing about spectating in VR is that they really can push the boundaries of what you expect. 360-degree camera technology really can put you front and centre, and it's hard to shake the feeling that spectating in VR would be better than watching it in a browser tab.

But there's another problem – cost. If it feels like everyone is still banging the drum on VR being expensive, it's because VR is still expensive. As an unfortunate result of Brexit, in the UK many of the virtual reality headsets that launched in 2016 are the same price as they were at launch, if not a tiny bit more. While people are unlikely to pick up a VR headset just to watch their favourite e-sports in virtual reality, it's going to be quite an experience for those that are in the gap in the Venn diagram between e-sports fans and VR HMD owners.

Virtually famous: Competing in VR

Ewen is also involved with ESL's early work with VR e-sports, the kind you have to actually play while wearing the helmet. By Ewen's own admission, "It's still very early in the VR lifecycle", and the company has mostly been working with individual publishers, including influencer tournaments and small invitational events with publisher Insomniac's wizard fighting game The Unspoken. This uses an Oculus Rift and Oculus Touch controllers to let players take on the roles of sorcerers determined to kick seven shades of the proverbial out of each other with the power of magic.

"I think it's a good compromise between a physical activity and video games," said Ewens. "When you're in this VR environment, your inputs are your body zones and depending on how much effort you put into these things; you get varying results.

"So you could have a gymnast on stage wearing the VR headset, and he's contorting himself into all different shapes, and dodging his opponents' shots, or you can have someone who's just extremely good at identifying in-game states and reacting to things. So you can get high level competitors from people who are used to participating in traditional sports due to the physicality, and from those used to playing video games, just because of the nature of video games and the hand-eye coordination that's necessary to perform well."

Are VR and e-sports really a match made in nerd heaven?

This is the most exciting possibility for e-sports in VR: the creation of a new sport that doesn't favour APM or hours of learning the game in a darkened room, but could let competitors with natural talent or a different set of skills enter the highest levels of competition. Many e-sports athletes are already in shape – contrary to the stereotype, eating right and getting in the exercise helps with reflexes and keeping a clear head – and the thought of seeing more physicality between those competing at e-sports events is an exciting evolution, something different to watch as you're screaming your heart out hoping for your favourite team to win.

The problem, again, is that the barrier to acquiring a VR set-up and one of these multiplayer games is high. The weight of the blame here, though, rests on how nascent the virtual reality industry is. "A lot of the experiences that are available now are guided, or single player, or very short-term engagements," said Ewen. "To get the type of people who want to compete at video games into a VR environment is difficult. I don't know if there are many parents out there who would drop $800 or $900 on a VR headset and the hardware to run it for their kid to play video games on.

"But as the cost comes down, it will become accessible," he continued. " I think it's just a matter of getting on the boat early, providing people with an arena to compete in and a way to watch, learn, and improve based on other people's performances."

It's exciting to see e-sports with the potential to become more than people sat behind desks on a stage, with VR used either to enhance the spectating experience and embrace the electronic part of e-sports, or to give people a new avenue for competition. It's unlikely that this is a future that everyone will embrace, but as VR technology becomes more ubiquitous, we're going to see a whole lot of the two buzzwords smashing together.

The Rainbow Six Siege PC grand final was one of the most exciting events of my life. Honestly. Everyone was there to see a champion crowned, and as things fell apart for eRa in the final 60 seconds, every kill translated into direct noise. The whoops and cheers of the crowd were fed, swelling as each player was eliminated. This is my sport, and when Continuum won, leaping from their desks to embrace each other in victory, my voice rose with the rest of the crowd to celebrate.

Whether or not that could ever be translated from something real and in-the-room, into a must-have VR experience, remains to be seen. There are definitely still barriers, but e-sports and VR are two of the big players in the digital entertainment arena, and it's unlikely that they're going to be going away any time soon.


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Award winning (& losing) journalist. Sporadic game designer, unreliable narrator.

Jake is a commissioning editor at NME and has worked for Trusted Reviews and MCV.

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