The Application of XR into the attractions and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in the second part of his latest Virtual Arena column – we look at competitive play in the Immersive sector, and how VR is redefining eSports.
In this second part of our latest column for MIXED, we continue to look at competitive play in the location-based scene. eSports popularity now seeing dedicated entertainment venues built for the competition and spectatorship of this growing activity. But there are elements in the growth of this kind of competition that can trace its roots back to other forms of Out-of-Home entertainment.
Roots of Digital Competition
The amusement scene has been the crucible of competitive gaming, from the early ‘Street Fighter II’ arcade tournaments to the Evolution Championship Series (EVO), the fighting game tournament started in 1996. All this has evolved into an eSports event, competing with the ‘DOTA’ and ‘Counter Strike’ championships that drove this compelling new sport – that evolved into eSports with commercial application still at its heart.
In Japan, eSports amusement competition has mushroomed, with amusement factories such as TAITO and KONAMI fielding their own teams. While eSports internationally is supported by Twitter (now X), Instagram, Twitch, and YouTube channels, along with live championship events. This underpins its allure, the “Community” generating support for favourite teams and players. This fuels “Sponsorship” and promotion of the live events, teams, and competitions. For the physical events their popularity in amusement has seen “Repeat” attendance to watch heats (spectatorship) – all linked to “Social” Media and streaming of competitions and results. Some sources suggest over 1.27-billion total hours of eSport are watched globally.
All this has led to the creations of “Virtual Athletes” – individuals dedicated to competitive videogaming either in teams or as solo players. Much of the competitive gaming coverage has been surrounding the home player, but eSports is much more about the special, and the physical element of competing live. Many eSports events start with heats between consumer games, but the championships and tournament finals will be held as events, at venues, driving the interest in location-based entertainment.
The amusement scene has embraced competitive entertainment and tournament gaming since the days of bowling and mini-golf, and can trace the popularity of championship digital entertainment to continuing successes such as that of Incredible Technologies’ ‘Golden Tee Golf’ – a legacy game series avidly played in bars across America, with their annual “Golden tee World Championship” in Las Vegas – this year seeing over $150,000 in cash prizes. Also, there is Play Mechanix with their equally successful ‘Big Buck Hunter’ – and supporting “Big Buck World Championship XVI” and $100,000 prize pot. The embryonic beginning of what would mature into eSports – seeing big sponsorship, streamed events and big prizes for top players.
Where in our previous coverage we looked at “Standalone” VR system placed in existing entertainment venues, as an additional draw, we now look at the dedicated environments specially created to offer eSports VR.
The creation of unique spaces to compete in the larger unique free roam VR experience, part of the “Dedicated Entertainment” – a new generation of entertainment venues opening with a dedicated VR competitive space at their heart. These new venues have mushroomed internationally. Previous claims that social entertainment, especially VR, would not thrive after the Global Health crisis proven wholly incorrect.
An example of the dedicated venue scene is EVA (Esports Virtual Arenas), with over 25 venues in Europe, and one in America, offering 500m2 arenas that can support up to 10 players. These venues using VR hardware such as ‘HTC Focus 3’ headsets, supported via a Wifi6E setup, (removing the need for backpack PCs), all in large arena competitions between teams of players. With games such as the EVA original ‘After-H Battle Arena’ (developed by the company) proving competitive battlegrounds for strong competition and spectator sport. The EVA system used also as a pop-up tournament platform at exhibitions and local events. The “EVA League 1” offering a €10k cash-prize amongst its VR athletes and is covered on Twitch TV.
Another example of a unique playscape configured for free roaming competition is seen in Amsterdam with ‘H20 VR Gaming Campus’. The eSport campus offers a permanent arena space. Along with their SimRacing, AR arena and VR escape gaming, the space includes a 22x20m., VR eSport arena that has been developed in partnership with VR Nederlands and accommodates up to 30 players at a time.
Offering the latest games such as ‘RE:COIL’, using the ‘HTC Focus 3’ headsets. A venue that offers the widest selection of active immersive entertainment alongside their eSports live tournaments.
Veteran developers of Free Roaming VR location-based chains have added a competitive game to their library of titles to attract a broadening market.
One of the first VR arena developers, Zero Latency has launched their ‘Sol Raiders’ – a team-based competitive experience with up to eight players. The game available across over 70-venues running their platform.
While Sandbox VR with over 40-venues has launched their ‘Unbound Fighting League’ (UFL) game experience. Based on their VR free-roaming arena platform, this Player Vs. Player (PVP) game experience offers a chance for leaderboard competition with a competitive element that defines this unique entertainment medium.
The addition of a competitive play experience driving greater audience retention.
A brand new game experience that combines a new competitive games experience is from Lightning VR – the free-roam arena-based experience developer and operator has been working on then new title ‘Center Mass’ (working title). A combat player-vs-player game experience for up to eight players (two teams of four) that comprises along with the fast-pace “killing room” competition the inclusion of a competitive eSports element that will include venue-based tournaments and audience in-game viewing from the location or live online. An example of the level of tournament engagement that VR free-roam arenas have come to offer its audience.
The marketing and promotion benefits of eSports association are not lost on the big brands. Red Bull has developed a chain of ‘Red Bull Gaming Sphere’ eSports competition and streaming venues, including a London location. And as part of this, have partnered with VR headset developer PICO – creating a unique Mixed Reality booth, where players can compete in VR games and through chroma key compositing, be placed directly in the virtual experience. Competition from these sites able to be streamed to audiences around the World.
In the out-of-home XR entertainment scene, VR is not the only environment embracing competitive play. We see Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality platforms being deployed.
As we reported in our previous coverage of the AR entertainment scene, the success of the “techno-sports” experience from meleap with their ‘HADO’ platform. Using head-mounted AR pass-through headsets and armband sensor interfaces. Offering a fast-paced 80-second game, pitting teams of players against each other. We also reported on over 200-arenas or courts globally, supporting competition between AR athletes. This sport has gained such momentum, with the “HADO World Cup 2023” to be held in October in Tokyo, Japan, returning to a live event since the 2019 event.
The company has established the platform internationally, and recently, it was revealed that a UK HADO court would be opening in partnership with Newcastle United, at their sports foundation facility (‘NUCastle’) in the city. While a flagship location ‘HADO Arena’ is in Coventry. HADO England currently the holders of the European championship and will be taking part in the October World Cup in Tokyo. Tournaments for this techno-sport are supported by large audiences and sees streamed viewership exceeding 5-million. This game experience embodies all the key aspects that define eSports, from major team competition, prize purses, and international sponsorship along with streamed events.
The competitive digital sports scene has been in flux – where the Global Health crisis focused minds on remote competition and the growth of eSports tournaments. eSports even included in school curriculum. With a return to physical activity and eSports has been looking to redefine itself. Headlines have revealed the troubling conditions as several eSports teams and leading events closed due to dependence on crypto sponsors, or management difficulties. But the sector is still incredibly strong.
Only recently, an amazing prize pool up to $45-million was up for grabs during ‘Gamers8’ (a new record for eSports). Held in Saudi Arabia, the World’s largest eSports tournaments and gaming festivals, held from July to September, attracting the leading players and eSports teams from around the Globe to compete. From LAN based PC gaming, to VR racing simulators, and everything in between. This event illustrates not just the continued popularity of eSports competitive action for gamers, sponsors and promoters. But also, the essential “Physical” element, and how VR eSports hopes to play it part in the growth of this unique Immersive-Sport. A scene we will return to again soon.