The Virtual Arena: Rise of the Virtual Athlete

The application of VR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams, in his latest Virtual Arena column – looking at the growth in the LBE landscape for eSport, and competitive VR attractions.

Much has been made about the opportunities of eSport within a virtual ecosystem, though from a consumer perspective, there has been more speculative investment regarding the opportunity. As seen with the acquisition by Meta of emerging eSports company BigBox VR (developers of POPULATION: ONE). While hunger exists from the player-base for VR eSports competition, only the Out-of-Home entertainment landscape has seen a serious adoption of actual mainstream prize based, virtual, competitive play. And this trend can be seen to be gaining momentum.

One of the first VR attraction developers to embrace the opportunities of eSport empowerment of their platform was Virtuix. The company known for their ‘Omni Arena’ competitive VR enclosure system have successfully installed some 45 units across the USA. Virtuix reported that it has seen over 2-million plays on its hardware. The system gained popularity through its prize pay-out competition. The company revealed the launch of their ‘2022 Omni Arena esports series’ – that will be supported by a cash prize pool of $100,000 for FEC venues. This investment has placed the platform on the map as being one of the largest VR eSports competitions in the West.

The popularity of the competitive nature of the game can be seen in the revenue it generates for operators. Virtuix revealed that some of its eSports teams have already played over 200-times on the ‘Omni Arena’. This is also supported by the watching audience that gathers to support the team and the building of a community supported on social media. Virtuix already paid out some $250,000 in eSports cash prizes. It would be easy to liken this popularity to that once witnessed in the bowling scene, but the physicality of VR eSports takes the competitive spirit to new levels of engagement.

One of the few VR videogame titles to have a strong competitive life in the consumer scene is the smash hit Tower Tag by VR Nerds. The games have been played across popular consumer VR platforms in tournament competitions but have also had a strong showing in location-based entertainment (LBE). In a relationship with Japanese amusement giant SEGA, VR Nerds licensed the game to be turned into a VR attraction platform, supported by VAL (Virtual Athletics League). And recently announced that the game would be coming to the West in an agreement that will see it placed onto the SPREE Interactive arena system. This free-roaming platform, allowing up to 10-players at a time to compete, using the standalone Pico VR headset. And will adapt a wholly eSports version of Tower Tag that will be available on the ‘SPREE Arena’ system.

Another platform that applies eSports to their line-up is HOLOGATE. Famous for its successful ‘HOLOGATE Arena’ that has groups of up to four players, using tethered HTC Pro headsets, within a unique enclosure. The high levels of competition are supported by the inclusion of an extensive and customisable eSports tournament platform. The library of competition content on this platform also includes the Tower Tag property.

It is this level of competition, as well as an extensive library of titles that has cemented the popularity of the HOLOGATE platform with the operators and their virtual athletes. Many operators use the platforms tournament to construct their own team-based, venue competitions. This ability to create live events, offers a level of repeat visitation to the venue, along with the additional spend from the audience it generates to watch the compelling competition.   

Developer Phenomena has created its own ‘VR Esports Arena’ – the whole system being packaged as a turnkey eSports solution for entertainment venue operators. Taking much of the guesswork out of running a free-roaming VR experience, and the requirements of prize tournament competition. Recently demonstrated at the Orlando IAAPA trade event in November 2021, the new version of the system offers a fully contained arena, with up to eight players (within a 32 x 20 ft., enclosure). The players are wearing the latest HTC VIVE Focus 3, standalone VR headsets. With audience supported by score displays. The developer offering one of three highly competitive VR experiences to compete within and looking to build an international tournament in support of the platform.

France saw a massive VR eSports competition take place during the Paris Game Week in 2019. Developer, EVA (Esports Virtual Arenas), installed a temporary 1,000-m2 arena that saw players using backpack PC’s, HP headsets and tracked weaponry, to take part in a major prize tournament competition. Building on this the company announced their first ‘VR Esport league’, attracting some 52 teams, competing for a $19,000 (€17,000 Euro) cash-prize. Having generated some 400,000 unique spectators on Twitch during the playoffs.

EVA has installed some nine rooms in venues, offering between eight and 12-player VR eSports arenas in France. Having signed licenses to open some 40 additional arenas for the end of 2022 in the country. They have developed several games themselves that plunge groups into tournament competitions. During a recent franchise expo in Paris, the company revealed its intention to have opened 225 arenas by 2025, expanding to Germany and the USA. Having seen first-hand the popularity of their eSports competition platform with their play-base.

Looking beyond the Western market, and we have seen eSports-based VR competition blossom on the Chinese entertainment scene. While the Chinese “VR Park” (the name given to VR arcades in the territory) has seen a continuing upheaval in business, the popularity of VR gaming is still alive and well. Competition plays a major part in defining the deployment of VR into this market – a market where many players will travel to venues to compete, be that the ubiquitous eSport cafes, or the explosion of new VR venues. Such as that operated by STEPVR, with over 130 ‘Future Battle’ stores, across 80 cities within China. These venues have groups of up to ten players competing in a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) experience. STEPVR has recently raised $15m (100-million-yuan) in funding towards international growth.

The territory was one of the first to embrace virtual competition, with the first VR eSports event, the ‘World Virtual Reality Arena 2015’, organized then by Battletimes Co., but this is still an embryonic market. More recently China has seen several major VR eSport tournaments streamed across popular social networks – such as this year with the ‘VR Esports International Championship in Beijing’. A point where we now see major social content providers, such as NetEase, showing interest to invest heavily in this emerging new business.

Returning to the West, and not just free-roaming VR is being employed in an eSports combination. VRstudios is a well-known developer of VR entertainment platforms, and recently launched a major new development, which looks to shake up the way VR amusement is played. Called Hoops Madness, the game experience has been revealed on the new ‘FURY’ unattended two-player kiosk – a self-service VR entertainment platform that incorporates a unique tethered HTC Vive Pro headset configuration, eye-catching LCD display, all in a ‘V’ shape design. But it is the game that drives the whole platform, with Hoops Madness representing a fast-paced basketball hoop’s shooting experience, testing the players’ skill. The game is the first in a line of ‘VRstudios Real-Sport Esports’ titles. The company offers operators guides to marketing and utilizing the ‘FURY’ and Hoops Madness as a platform for VR eSports events, competitions, and tournaments.

In the final observation, it is obvious that the ability to offer a real cash prize incentive to competition has driven much of the interest from the player base. As seen with the explosion of eSports in its more conventional flat-screen incarnation. But one of the benefits that the Out-of-Home version of the competition shares with the considerable investment in eSports, is the large audience live events. Many entertainment venue operators benefit from the audience that is drawn to see the competition on their platforms. The next move is that of streaming these events. The big ‘DOTA’, ‘Counter-Strike’, and ‘League of Legends’ championships, not only draw large live event attendance but generate immense audiences through their streamed broadcasts. The ‘League of Legends World Championships’ in 2020 saw at its peak, some 46 million concurrent viewers, while Global audiences for eSport were calculated at some 475 million in 2021.

We can expect to witness new entrants throw their hat into the ring towards competing in the commercial entertainment application of VR eSports. We have already seen Las Vegas casino chains install massive eSports arenas within their premises and have also seen the inclusion of VR within their layout. We will also start to see the establishment of eSports betting, and with the greater prize opportunities, we can expect major licensing deals for the lucrative sponsorship and coverage. Global revenue in 2021 from competitive gaming is projected to hit over $1 billion.

VR eSports is an attractive medium, and seems to be growing in popularity, but is it ready now for primetime in the West?

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