Virtual reality seems to have finally hit its stride in recent years, after a long period in which VR applications were still scarce or in need of fine-tuning before being released to the mainstream market. Along with augmented reality, VR has been widely celebrated as a game-changer in the gaming industry, affording players a more fully immersive experience. With eSports on the rise, could VR also transform how fans connect with online gaming competitions?
BBC Launches VR Viewer for World Cup 2018
With the advent of specialized yet affordable gear like the pioneering Oculus Rift, VR gaming has steadily taken off. It is estimated that VR device shipments will reach 8.1 million in 2018 and rise at a 48% CAGR to a staggering 39.2 million by 2022 – by comparison, augmented reality is also set to climb at an even more impressive 140% CAGR over the same period, from 800,000 shipments in 2018 to roughly 26.7 million in 2022. As the underlying technology keeps evolving and VR becomes more and more familiar (Steven Spielberg’s 2018 Ready Player One movie has also helped popularize VR among the younger generation), its appeal goes up and extends beyond the gaming world.
Yet the next step in what VR could become may result from applications beyond the gaming industry. During the 2018 World Cup, the BBC decided to harness the technology in order to allow fans to see all 33 soccer matches live in VR with its BBC Sport VR – FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 app. The app was compatible across numerous platforms, ranging from Apple and Android to PlayStation VR, Oculus GO and Gear VR. The coverage was transmitted at 50 frames per second and fans opting for the full 3840-pixel Ultra HD needed an internet connection with a minimum speed of 40 Mbps or 20 Mbps for the ‘standard’ 2560-pixel UHD experience.
The initial response from customers that chose to participate in the VR service was warm, but there is still some way to go – and some fine-tuning to do – to make it more appealing to a wider audience. The app was downloaded a whopping 325,000 times, which still lags a bit behind the over 40 million requests that conventional BBC platforms like BBC Sport got for the Russia matches. Yet what has stood out during the app’s run was the feature that allowed players to change their perspective to either overlook the field or even get behind each goal post. Options like these could have a tremendous impact on the rising industry of eSports.
Could VR Broadcasting Transform the eSports Viewing Experience?
Just like with traditional sports competitions, eSports are followed by millions of fans, offer huge prize pools and have their own teams of professional players, broadcasters, sponsors like Audi and Red Bull – even betting. Betway, which traditionally offers sports betting across competitions like Formula 1, NBA, and the Premier League, has recently affirmed the growing popularity of the eSports genre by allowing betting on major eSports events like the Dota 2 and League of Legends tournaments – and in early November 2018, the Overwatch World Cup. National eSports teams vied for the coveted title of Overwatch World Cup Champion, with the honor ultimately going to South Korea. But what really got fans’ attention was the launch of the Overwatch World Cup Viewer in beta.
The new feature enabled fans to assume controls that were so far only reserved for official broadcasters – including the ability to pause and slow down or speed up games, as well as go back and replay finished matches. Perhaps most importantly, the innovative tool also gave viewers the option to change angle while watching the match, even on replays – they could shift from first-person to third-person, as well as watch from above the pitch and have info like player health and status displayed. Blizzard, the studio behind Overwatch, is looking to soon release the Viewer as an in-game element after the beta testing period. It is not hard to imagine that combining those option with VR applications like the ones we saw at the Russia World Cup could truly revolutionize eSports viewing. Fans could be able to completely immerse in a match by assuming total control of their angle and move freely within the VR gaming environment.
Even if no such plans have been announced yet, it is hard to imagine that eSports giants are not already looking into VR expansion – the only question is, how soon can they satisfy the appetite of gamers worldwide?