The Application of XR into the attractions and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in the first part of his latest Virtual Arena column – we look at competitive play in the Immersive sector, and how VR is redefining eSports.
In this latest column for MIXED, the first part looks at the application of competitive entertainment into the location-based scene. Well known as eSports, the popular tournament and champion video game format is calculated to have 532-million fans internationally, with China-alone reporting some 487-million eSports participants. Such an influence, that this year’s 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, will see medal events based on eSports competition. While consumer VR has seen the shuttering of one of the first popular competitive VR experiences, with ‘Echo VR’s servers going dark; commercial VR competitive entertainment has continued to grow.
VR Embraces Competition
It was inevitable that other aspects of the LBE sector would adopt this approach, borrowing heavily from its amusement roots. VR first fully embraced eSport as far back as 2015, in China with the holding of the “World VR Arena” (WVA) Championships. 100 teams were invited to compete in the early multiplayer VR game ‘Virtual Warfare’, developed by King Kong Games – players competing on the then antiquated AntVR headset. A hard-fought competition was seen “Team Estonia” take home the first VR eSports championship.
China would continue to lead the investment into VR eSports, following its insatiable thirst for the technology – more as a competitive cultural event than as just a consumer entertainment offshoot. In 2018 Intel would partner with developer Sky Limit Entertainment to hold the “Virtual Reality Esport Season” (VRES), in Beijing – supported by the Esports Industry Association. Employing Sky Limit’s ‘SoReal’ VR platform for the competition – the VRES event would go on to be run for several years. 2019 saw China recognize eSports as an official profession within the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security – and as part of that, VR eSports is expected to grow.
Note – The VRES championship is not to be confused with the abortive “VReS” – an ambitious decentralized currency for eSports, that suffered an ignominious demise in the maelstrom of the Crypto-fire-of-the-vanities during 2021.
The Western adoption of VR eSports has been much more measured – the development of VR location-based entertainment (LBE) has been split into two parts. The first being the deployment of immersive entertainment in venues as a “standalone amusement” piece (hardware operated alongside other entertainment), or as a “dedicated entertainment” (installed in a venue as the sole VR offering) – which we will cover in the second part of the feature.
Regarding the application of ‘Standalone Amusement’ pieces in the sector and one of the forerunners of the VR eSports application came from Virtuix. Famous for their Kickstarter funded omni-directional VR treadmill. The company used the Out-of-home entertainment sector to propagate their unique virtual locomotive system, releasing their ‘OMNI Arena’. These enclosures comprising currently four OMNI 2.0 directional treadmill supporting the players walking and running within the networked virtual world. The arenas include the ability for players to register into the game, done the Virtuix shoes and receive a briefing before doing combat in a selection of games.
The arena described by the company as a “high-energy eSports attraction” and is one of the very few VR experiences in this sector that supports running, through its unique mobility system. The competitive credentials of this attraction have been seen in the success of their ‘Omniverse Esports’ local and global leaderboards. With more than 70 ‘OMNI Arena’s in the US market, the majority of which are running regular competitions that are part of the Virtuix eSports series – the company has been running a built-in weekly and monthly prize contests featuring a $50,000 annual pool.
The company understands the need to create a strong tournament support for the platform, with eSports championships based on top playing teams, teams that train and compete in the arenas at various locations. Generating that valuable repeat play and audience appeal all important to location-based entertainment (LBE) VR installations. Most recently, Virtuix were in the news regarding their home entertainment ‘Omni One’ release, after securing a successful $5-million funding round – the LBE VR promotion of their platform helping to boost their brand.
Other companies have built on a competitive LBE VR approach to this technology. The ‘VR Esports Arena’ from Phenomena is a self-contained game experience with a strong eSport focus. The company has released the system in an arena configuration, allowing players to compete in their own tournament competition, in games such as ‘Versus 2023’.
These highly competitive experiences have a strong spectator value and take VR gaming to new heights. In offering an eSports element to this platform, the company promotes their own championships and inter-facility rivalry. The arena supported by a League app for players to log into, creating player profiles, viewing local and international leaderboards, and taking part in marketing and promotion.
LBE based eSports has to offer a popular platform for competition to thrive. One of the first real multi-player competitive VR releases that found a strong home in LBE – ‘Tower Tag’ generated consumer and commercial success since its release as a software title in 2017, described at the time as the go-to VR lasertag solution for VR arcade owners. The game defined competitive VR play, with for the time a near eSports application, running tournaments.
Jump forward to 2022, and the game was totally redeveloped, given a brand-new release in partnership with HOLOGATE. Now called ‘Tower-Tag BattleZone’ – the experience was released as a complete turnkey standalone platform, using physical props representing the towers in the game and running on the ‘HTC Vive Focus 3’ headsets with haptic vests for added immersion. The platform being deployed as an eSports-arcade solution for operators.
Another VR lasertag style platform, offering a complete turnkey arena design and simple competitive application, is ‘LIMITLESS VR’ – developed by industry veterans Creative Works. The platform employs a full selection of physical obstructions to hide-behind in a fast-paced arena team blaster. The physical elements mapped into the virtual environment, offering a virtual re-creation of lasertag within a virtual environment with full physicality.
Also employing the ‘HTC Vive Focus 3’ headset, the game uses specially developed haptic weaponry adding to the action. The platform has been created to support a location wide leaderboard and full tournament competition. The need to draw repeat play and offer an appealing spectator experience key to the deployment of the title.
Creative Works represents several entertainment properties for the LBE and FEC sectors – and another of their VR offerings is ‘VAR BOX’. Developed by VAR Live from Hong Kong, the company has already established an Asian tournament infrastructure for the system, with 2 million players, with some 100k registered players in Asia alone. Employing a tethered ‘Pico Neo 3’ headset and realistic force feedback gun, the upright cabinet offers a small footprint VR arcade system that can be operated unattended. The games on offer part of a multi-player network with online competition and local as well as international championships.
The game offers a dedicated eSports system for operators in a small package and can be networked with other units to suit the locations needs. Supported by an eSport mobile game app, the machines including a QR code for registration – VAR Live recently holding their 2023 “VAR BOX Global Tour World Championship Death Battle” event.
Many VR entertainment developers are including a dedicated league component to gather scores and create leaderboards. One such example is Frontgrid, and their ‘ParadopVR: Pod’ platform. Players race their paraglider (with its unique motion system), around virtual landscapes, achieving scores and achievements which are tracked online within their own flying log profile. They can choose their own unique character, and are ranked within the “Parasphere League”, viewable by venue, country, and the world.
This ends the first part of our coverage of the eSports VR LBE scene, and we return soon with the second part looking at the dedicated arena market and new XR technology being applied to build our future virtual athletes.