VR eSports: A Level Playing Field

Last week Valve gave a brief glimpse of what spectating a game of DoTA2 could look like in VR. They weren’t hyping it up beforehand, and it was barely ten seconds of video, but wrapped up in that little nugget of advertising is a taste of much grander things. If VR designers can create a more compelling way to watch sports than the household TV eSports may have taken a significant step closer to the public consciousness.

But let’s take a look at what Valve’s actually put on the table:

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There’s a lot happening here, so let’s break it down.

  1. The VR panel showing a standard desktop spectator view or stream of DoTA2, accompanied by shoutcaster audio.
  2. Each character’s player models, accompanied by current item build and a bit of snazzy animation.
  3. The “war table” mini map view which shows the placement of players across the map.
  4. The team stats display, brought up as an overlay on the war table.

The spectator panel will need some serious work, both in terms of design and hardware. Right now, as everyone is trying out their brand-spanking-new headsets and while the virtual desktops are getting a lot of love in concept people are very quickly realising the resolution simply isn’t high enough to provide a great viewing experience. Even if we had higher resolution screens the headsets are on the bleeding edge of consumer graphics hardware anyway – it’s going to be some time before the screendoor effect is a thing of the past. Hopefully we’ll have come up with a more interesting display method for the game by then and the rectangular desktop display can be thrown out, but this is a serviceable stopgap.

The character models are nice for fans, and give a bit of pizazz to the experience, but that’s not why we’re here. Anyone even mildly interested in the competitive game is looking for information, not particle effects. One of the key problems casual viewers already have with eSports is their tendency to track too many different pieces of information simultaneously. There’s definitely another article to be written about MOBAs needing some simplification, but for the sake of this post we’ll be thinking about the power users – the sports nuts, the guys you see in those outrageous ads for draft picking sites that skirt the law with their gambling-but-not-really-but-definitely-gambling shtick. Or the true die-hard fans, the ones who go to every game.

People attend live athletic events to get an experience they can’t get on TV. Much of that is about community, but some part of it is information access. VR provides both of these experiences to different degrees. The community experience of celebration is definitely boosted in VR over traditional TV viewing, because of the enveloping nature of the audiovisual display. You can feel the hype, for lack of a better word, as shoutcaster audio and crowd video from the live event is piped into your headset (there’s an argument to be made that this actually breaks down the collective viewing experience a TV and friends can bring, but that’s for another time). If that kind of participation takes off, all of a sudden the difference in the enthusiast’s sensory experience with athletic sports and eSports are almost nil. Is that enough to break down the video game stigma? Maybe, but it’s definitely a step in the direction of normalising eSports as legitimate competitive pursuits.

Information access is where our war table comes in. Watching a screen you can only see what the camera chooses you see – and very rarely does that display all players on a sporting field. Someone who attends a game is going to be able to see whatever they like, whenever they want, and might have a better experience for it. If we can take that freedom and port it into the digital space it could greatly improve the viewing experience of all sports enthusiasts. What if you were able to track your favourite player throughout the whole game? See where the back line of defence is on the field even if you can’t see them directly on the broadcast camera? You could see plays before they happen, watch new techniques emerge. The table could even help you understand these things, elevating the casual observer to enthusiast knowledge.

All of this is to say the table view, and the stats screen mark a serious turning point in the potential for eSports – because these are things that are enormously valuable to physical sports. But to display this kind of information you need to pioneer a new set of design techniques. With Valve already showing interest, I’d think it’s safe to say eSports parties will be on the cutting edge with those designs. If the VR information display techniques pioneered in eSports cross over to the SPNs of the world a huge new audience will learn to read those conventions, and just like that you’ve raised a generation that suddenly understands the language of eSports much more naturally than their forebears did.

As an endnote; much of this boils down to the proliferation of VR on the whole, and that’s definitely not an easy question to answer right now. While there are certainly evangelists who will tell you that VR is as significant as the switch from 2D sprites to 3D polygons the tech is extremely price prohibitive and there’s a real question as to how much money these companies are willing to throw after the idea while they wait for the consumer to bite. Unless the world burns up there’s not much doubt we’ll get there eventually, but will Oculus and HTC be around to reap the rewards? I’m not so sure.

 

 

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