Virtual reality and esports: two industries with a reputation for being at the cutting edge. Both are growing rapidly, and both are creating new challenges for players and game developers alike.
But could there be potential for a crossover?
Patrick O’Luanaigh is the CEO of nDreams, the UK’s biggest VR game developer. He’s also a big proponent of VR esports. We got the chance to quiz Patrick on how he sees VR shaking up the esports landscape in the years to come.
nDreams is the biggest UK developer solely focused on creating VR experiences. How far would you say the technology has come in the last few years?
We’re seeing amazing advances in the technology behind consumer VR headsets, although many of the really big advances are still a little way off launch. Headsets will soon include eye-tracking, will be wireless, have inside-out tracking and proper hand or controller tracking. In addition, we’re already seeing all-in-one headsets that don’t require expensive PCs or phones, which will help to bring costs down. We’re also seeing rapid advances in location-based VR entertainment; for me, The Void’s “Secrets of the Empire” is a great example of the very best high-end VR experience you can have, and this kind of technology is improving all the time.
And do you have any predictions for the years to come? A lot of people say affordability is a big reason why they don’t take the plunge on VR, so it would be interesting to hear if we’ll see any improvement in that department.
We’ll start to see headsets like the Oculus Santa Cruz, which will offer high-end, high-quality VR experiences in an easy-to-use form which doesn’t require external cameras, wires or a powerful computer. And I suspect we’ll see headsets like the Rift, Vive and PlayStation VR continue to drop in price, which will really help build the install base. There are lots of exciting things happening in VR, and the market is growing, but to be honest, it has been ‘slow and steady’ so far. In my view, the new range of headsets will start to accelerate this growth as the market heads towards the mass market in 3-5 years. The launch of the Ready Player One movie will also be an interesting moment, and hopefully generate an upsurge in awareness for VR and where we’re heading.
What are the major considerations when developing a game for VR? (as opposed to conventional platforms)
There are lots of very specific skills, mechanics and techniques that you need to be aware of in order to create great VR games. Many things are similar to traditional game development – such as creating beautiful 3D environments, characters and objects. However, one of the biggest challenges is that you have to render the game at least 60 times each second from two different camera positions (one for each eye). This has a big effect on the complexity of scenes and how you design your artwork. Audio has to be much more detailed as players can move their heads around scenes, lean behind that computer and notice subtle 3D sounds. Game design is probably the biggest area that has changed – movement, control systems, cut-scenes and user interface design are all hugely different in VR, for example.
And now to esports! You’ve been a big advocate for VR’s potential to make a big splash in esports. But what advantage does VR offer to make esports more exciting to watch?
I love the idea of spectating ‘inside the game’, with the freedom to move around wherever you want, and watching (and hearing!) incredible teams battling it out around you in 3D. For me, that’s so much better than seeing a first-person player’s view in 2D, or a bird’s eye view of the map. I also think that spectator interactivity is something that is going to play a big part in future esport design – allowing spectators to influence games, whether that’s as simple as voting for a random event, supporting your favourite player (Hunger Games style) or even queuing up to take control of one of thousands of zombies being slaughtered by the teams. Inside VR, this kind of interactivity is even better and there are more creative solutions available. And I think the primary VR control system (body, head and hand tracking) is perfect for games involving throwing, shooting, sneaking, hiding, ducking and using cover. VR players are great to watch!
Which VR titles do you think could have an esports future?
I don’t think the perfect VR esports game has been made yet. We’re seeing early examples, like Echo Arena, Unspoken or Sparc, but these are just scratching the surface of what is possible. The big VR esports of the future are only just starting to be developed.
Have there been any VR esports tournaments yet?
Yes – ESL, Oculus and Intel ran the VR Challenger League last year, and that was a great first step for VR esports. ESL’s IEM World Championship was broadcast in VR, and they announced 350,000 peak concurrent VR viewers – an incredible number given how early VR is.
Another technology that is developing in parallel to VR is augmented reality (AR). Could this have exciting applications in esports, too?
Yes. I believe that AR and VR will ultimately end up being combined in a single device, and that there are lots of great possibilities with AR for esports. These range from simple things, like attaching a virtual big-screen TV streaming a championship final onto the wall of your living room, to having a Dota 2 diorama on your living room table (and watching the players move around in it), right through to taking a physical arcade space (like The Void) and combining real players and VR environments to create a live esport which is totally revolutionary.
Are there any ways we can utilise VR to enjoy esports right now?
Yes. Valve launched a Dota 2 VR viewer, which you can get if you own Dota 2 on Steam. This is a great way to watch Dota 2 matches inside VR. And check out the VR Challenger League, which should be bigger and better this year. But it’s still a *very* early area, and I think you’ll see it grow massively over the next couple of years.
The technology in VR obviously has a long way to go. How long do you think it will take before we see VR impacting upon esports in a big way?
It will be 3-5 years before VR esports become truly mass-market, and this adoption is likely to closely track the growth in the VR headset install base. But I think you’ll see the seeds from which the biggest VR esports games and tournaments grow start to appear this year. We’re incredibly excited about the potential, and are already working on some very ambitious ideas of our own!