E-Sports have been on the rise for several years now. The most popular titles have been MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) such as League of Legends and DOTA2 (Defense of the Ancients). But those are just the beginning, as other game types and publishers are hoping to get in on the action. It will be intriguing to see how e-sports compete with traditional sports in terms of numbers of viewers. But I am more interested in how the recent renaissance of VR (virtual reality) has the potential to change the very nature of “watching a match” be it e-sports or physical sports.
The biggest unknown at this point is how pervasive VR technology will be as a consumer product category. Niche experiences are a dime-a-dozen (3D broadcasts, anyone?), but to truly define a new category of experience will require a large percentage of viewers to be onboard. Valve (publisher of the aforementioned DOTA2) is already working on a solution towards this end that will leverage their new Vive headset. But will others follow and create their own new ways of spectating?
Perhaps the biggest potential for VR in terms of changing the nature of the experience is how it can transform pixels on a screen into palpable reality to our senses. When the e-sports game you are watching is not just a 2D screen with little characters running around but an immersive environment that replaces our own reality for a short period of time, the stakes of the ‘game’ become much higher. While not specifically about e-sports, an early preview of the HTC Vive game “Hover Junkers” left one journalist shaken by the experience that on a 2D monitor wouldn’t have had the same effect:
That ‘soul’ was palpable enough to get me to lower my gun and cry out in shock when I saw Knoll’s avatar shoot herself. In most games, an avatar is just an empty husk going through the motions of predefined animations. But in Hover Junkers, they mimic a real player’s movements. When Knoll pointed a gun at his head and motioned for me to stop, I saw through the game to the person behind it. It still looked like a video game, but it felt real. More real than any multiplayer game I’d ever played. – Engadget
Some people find the idea difficult to accept that they could become as invested in a computer game as they are in a ‘real’ sports game. And if one hasn’t spent much time playing a particular computer game, it will be difficult to form the kind of connection with what is being displayed on-screen that causes a fan to root for one’s team. But perhaps VR will build that ’empathy bridge’ between the world of experiences all humans instinctively connect with in ‘real’ sports matches and the virtual worlds that are just beginning to form with e-sports.
We’re still a long way off from either VR or E-Sports becoming the dominant form of entertainment. But the two combined could have a particularly strong impact on what we consider ‘spectator sports’ in the future…