My hands are shaking. But I know that these kinds of events are driven by sugar and adrenaline, so I ignore my nervous muscle twitches and stuff a couple more Oreos into my mouth, one package of many on a table laden with pizza, sugary drinks, and various packaged sweets. Familiar foods to fuel the gods of esports.
But in this case, there’s a major difference. The gaming arena isn’t a flat screen connected to a console and a traditional controller. No, today we will do battle in virtual reality.
On May 13, I tested my VR gaming mettle against all comers in the first national VR esports tournament in the U.S., presided over by the ESL Gaming Network, Insomniac Games, Microsoft, Intel, and Asus. In 80 Microsoft stores across the country (and parts of Canada), VR gamers around the country strapped on the Oculus Rift and competed against each other in the VR game The Unspoken.
As I’ve mentioned before, an easy way of describing the game is to call it Doctor Strange in VR, but it’s really much than that. Because of the way the game is designed, not only can you get a workout from all the arm and hand motions, but it’s also quite social. The game allows you to have a friendly post-battle audio chat with your opponent (something that happens frequently) in your VR avatar bodies as you’re both still catching your breath in real life while debating teleportation and spell casting strategies in the game’s incredibly well rendered environment.
But on the day of the single elimination tournament, there was none of that. People new to the game as well as veteran VR assassins were all there for the same thing — to win.
„VR is something that you just can’t explain, you’ve got try it for yourself to fully understand how capable it really is,“ says Vec Oculus (aka Victor Torres), the Bronx-based VR gamer who defeated my virtual alter ego, Wrifter, in the final match at the Fifth Avenue Microsoft Store (see bracket above). „Even being in a certain situation of a game, it affects you so much more emotionally since you are actually standing there experiencing the game play first hand at the actual location.“
It’s true. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve (happily) sweat through shirts while playing The Unspoken. It’s that intense and engaging. And that engagement translated to the packed VR esports event that Saturday, aided by a unique set-up at the Microsoft Store.
Instead of just seeing a massive screen displaying the game play, with the occasional cut to a gamer’s face, the event’s screens were set up to show the entire upper half of the competitors‘ bodies, allowing you to see every gesture, head turn (yes, you even have to look behind you), and ducking movements in concert with the onscreen VR actions of the avatars.
As I took breaks in between matches, thinking of the explosion of traditional esportsfranchises that are now mirroring physical sports franchises in a number of ways, I began to wonder: Could the more physical nature of VR esports be the key to the emerging platform’s success in the gaming arena?
„[This is] the real deal for true gaming, where not only do our minds play a huge part, but also our actual body movements, what we choose to do, and how,“ says Torres, who, like me, had never competed in an esports tournament before. „[Gaming in VR] doesn’t compare to a regular gaming controller. This puts you in the game.“
However, part of the challenge of VR, for now, remains the expense. Picking up a PlayStation 4 console for $399 is the easy option when compared to the roughly $1,200 or more needed to set yourself up with a proper Oculus Rift gaming system.
Along with the price issue (which is likely to come down over time), there’s the fact that this recent tournament is really one of biggest promotions VR gaming has had, a full year after the debut of the consumer version of the Oculus Rift. To truly spark a VR esports movement, more game studios will need to emulate the community-supporting efforts of Insomniac Games (whose tournament championship will be held on June 3).
Those challenges aside, the prospect of VR gaming becoming the next phase of esports, making it more of a true „sport“ by introducing a more physical component, is encouraging for the small but growing VR esports community.
„Since release of The Unspoken I was looking forward to an actual esport for VR. Sadly not many people know VR, or they’re stuck on the mobile version of Oculus for phones,“ says Torres. „I’m hoping VR become more popular and continues to progress with great backers for much bigger ideas.“