Esports Opens Door To New Virtual Reality Sports League

A fully immersive virtual reality experience is transforming traditional computer gaming into an active, multiplayer esports competition that may soon rival traditional sports.

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

Inside an Illinois mall that once housed the department store Lord & Taylor, two teams of four players each adjust their virtual reality (VR) headsets and slip into an action-packed, multiplayer game called “VR Champions.” They fly jetpacks to jump on top of buildings, ride zip lines to glide across rooftops, and use telepads to instantly transport themselves into their digital enemies’ base and destroy their power core.

Thirty minutes later, players remove their headsets and return to the department store-turned-esports arena. All along, they were walking freely, running, ducking, and dodging in an 8,000-square foot space, while their actions prompted their virtual character to move at the same time in a much larger, digital playing field.

This kind of free-roaming, fully immersive experience is transforming the traditional computer gaming experience into an active, multiplayer competitive game, says Chris Lai, founder and CEO of MassVR, the startup that developed the proprietary gaming platform and the esports arena in the Skokie, Illinois building.

According to Lai, this untethered movement turns video gamers into athletes. “There is a lot of physical movement. Players no longer need to sit on a couch and look at a screen. They move around and interact with the world around them, just like athletes,” he explains.

“The experience is far more physical and feels amazingly real when you are walking around instead of just standing still.”

—Chris Lai, founder and CEO, MassVR

Such freedom is what makes competitive VR esports possible. “Players experience the feeling of jet-packing, zip-lining, and even teleporting without the effects of motion sickness. The experience is far more physical and feels amazingly real when you are walking around instead of just standing still.”

VR esports doesn’t only have to entertain the player, however. Lai plans to make the technology into a spectator sport, where audience members can cheer on the players from the sidelines while watching them and their digital avatars in real time on screens. “Look at it from a spectators’ point of view,” he says, “It’s much more fun to watch a little bit of physical performance—action in real life. They want to see how fast players move their bodies and [learn] what their gaming strategy.”

Joining the Big Leagues

Meanwhile, esports is already a lucrative, live event spectator sport at Allied Esports, creator of esports venues for video games and poker.

At the company’s HyperX Arena, a 30,000-square-foot former nightclub inside the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, thunderous crowds watch the professional players battling for supremacy and prize money in games such as “CS:GO” and “Overwatch.” Several cameras project the action onto a 50-foot LED wall and tournaments are often streamed live.

While casual visitors can purchase game time and play arcade games at the video game bar with friends and family, Allied Esports hosts high-stakes tournaments where professional esports teams compete. They have hosted several popular esports tournaments, including League of Legends All-Stars, Capcom Cup North America Regional Finals, Simon Cup Grand Final, SoulCalibur World Invitational, and the Big Buck Hunter World Championship at their network of arenas in North America, Europe, China, and Australia.

“As an industry, video gaming is already bigger than music and movies combined. And esports is at the heart of video gaming.”

—Frank Ng, CEO, Allied Esports

“We are in the early stage of the evolution of a gigantic industry and we are creating infrastructure to facilitate it,” says Frank Ng, CEO of Allied Esports. He expects esports to become the biggest form of entertainment. “As an industry, video gaming is already bigger than music and movies combined. And esports is at the heart of video gaming.”

This is in line with reports from analytics firms tracking the entertainment industries. According to esports analytics firm Newzoo, the global games market was worth $152.1 billion last year. By comparison, Comscore pegs global box office industry revenue at $42 billion and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry estimates the global music industry generated $20.2 billion in 2019.

Ng compares esports League of Legends viewership with the Super Bowl.”The League of Legends World Championship in 2019 was a record-breaking esports event with about 100 million viewers. In comparison, the NFL’s Super Bowl that same year had 100.7 million viewers across the league’s digital properties and CBS,” he explains.

Thanks to their rising popularity, esports tournaments, as well as teams, are attracting new sponsors and brand partnerships, according to Ng. “This is the most effective way to reach the younger generation. Most of them don’t watch television anymore,” he says. He believes that big brands, such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Mercedes Benz are looking for “brand exposure and want to see their logos on jerseys of teams that they believe in.”

But Ng anticipates esports brand partnerships will begin to go beyond what is possible in traditional sports. Take their program with Simon Property, for instance. Thousands of “Fortnite” players competed in online qualifiers and in-person regional events, and 63 finalists played in front of a live audience and tens of thousands of viewers around the world in November of last year. In addition to the $50,000 shopping spree at a Simon mall, they had the opportunity to compete face-to-face with the biggest names. “That is a big draw. There’s no possible way for fans to compete with the best players in traditional sports,” Ng says.

The Future Is Mixed

Now, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, when professional players have no opportunity to immerse themselves in live games, action has moved online. “We are running Twitch-streamed online tournaments throughout quarantine and we have seen a dramatic increase in viewership,” says Ng. According to IDC, fans have doubled their time on Twitch, the largest game-streaming platform, in May 2020 compared to December last year.

Online events, however, have restrictions. “For example, if we want to run an online tournament for a first-person shooter video game like “CS:GO,” response time will be too slow between European and North American participants,” he says. According to Ng, that will be possible only when next-generation satellite technology, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, is available.

“I don’t believe there will be a future when there will be no live events,” Ng says, “but it will be an exciting day for esports when satellite technology will enable connections fast enough to support live transatlantic or transpacific online tournaments.”

While real-time, long-distance tournaments may take a while, Ng predicts “it won’t be long before esports will join the big league very soon, rivaling traditional sports industry in fandom, events, and sponsorships.”