Image credit: ESL VR League

Fourteen-year-old Jason, owner of the Echo Arena team “Milk,” has no idea what he’d like to do when he grows up. Right now he’s more concerned with making it through his freshman year of high school and preparing Milk for the first season of Echo Arena VR Master League.

Jason is one of approximately 90% of teens who play video games on a computer, gaming console, or cell phone, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report. He has no delusions of making a living as a professional esports player, saying it “isn’t really a viable option,” even though he spends hours each week in virtual reality playing games like Ready At Dawn’s Echo Arena.

While some people might consider this a waste of time or even worse, detrimental to the development of a young teen, Jason is actually gaining valuable skills and experience that will benefit him in any career field.

Jason’s entry into virtual reality began about two years ago, around the time he built a gaming PC. Consumer VR headsets had come onto the market in 2016 and an increasing number of gamers were interested in exploring this new technology.

“I saw a bunch of content on YouTube mainly and knew I had to get my hands on it to see what it’s all about,” Jason states.

His first experience was at a VR escape room in South Carolina.

“My father and I were both speechless by the end of it,” he says. “I still don’t know how to explain it, but it felt like that was the real world and nothing else existed.”

Soon after his trip to the escape room, Jason purchased an Oculus Rift headset and fell in love with the technology.

“Always being an avid gamer,” he says, “the thought of being IN the game amazed me, as it still does.”

Many VR enthusiasts love the immersive feeling of virtual reality. It really is like you’re entering another realm for a while. In fact, one of the benefits of VR gaming is that ability to be totally invested in the immersive environment.

In a world where people are addicted to their hand-held electronic devices, when you’re in virtual reality, you’re committed to your surroundings. The immersive nature of VR creates presence in a unique way that encourages interaction with others without the distractions of, ironically, technology.

Emerging Skills

Jason began playing Echo Arena in January 2019 and it quickly became his favorite VR game. Widely considered the first VR esport, players in Echo Arena compete for dominance by flying and boosting through a zero-gravity arena to score points in the opponents’ goal with a glowing disc. The game comes from Ready At Dawn, the development studio that created Lone Echo, the award-winning single player game in the Echo universe.

During the past year, Jason has developed an increasing array of leadership qualities and in November 2019 he was selected as a mentor for Echo VR. Mentors are expected to be a positive example in the game and on the Discord server where new players frequently show up to ask questions and seek advice. Mentor also teach game strategy and techniques to rookies in private lessons or regularly scheduled events such as Boot Camps.

In addition to his volunteer time as a mentor, Jason is also learning valuable management skills as owner of his new VR esports team.

“Competitive esports has taught me how to manage people’s schedules to fit in practices,” states Jason, “and how to truly be an effective leader of something.”

In his role as team captain, the high school student turned VR esports pro must arrange practice times with his teammates, set up scrimmages with other teams, build relationships with other competitors, and maintain a positive image in the community.

Jason is gaining valuable leadership skills through his experience with VR gaming. He could develop similar skills through high school athletics, band, martial arts, or any number of other activities that interest our young people today, but Jason is interested in technology and gaming. VR esports provide an opportunity to explore his talents for organization, management, etc.

During NiceOne Barcelona 2019, hundreds of teens, including this young lady, came through the VR demo area to try virtual reality and learn about VR esports.

Milk and VRML

In the Echo Arena VR Master League Pre-Season, Jason played on team Ironic with Echo Arena veterans DullerRanger, Callan, SingleShot, and SoMuch4Subtlety. When the pre-season ended in December, the group amicably agreed to split up and go their own ways. Jason and Callan decided to branch off and form a new team.

“I swear his [Callan’s] life revolved around milk,” explains Jason. “I kid you not. In the minute between rounds he would always get a glass of milk. Always.”

Thus a team name was born. An homage to Callan’s addiction to milk.

The two young men teamed up with Jlgraham and Captainwill and have been preparing for Echo Arena VRML Season 1.

Jason and his teammates want to be a top Echo Arena team. They develop strategies, study playstyles of other teams, and practice as much as possible.

“My ultimate goal is a very common one,” admits Jason, “ but it is a feat many don’t get the opportunity to achieve. I want to make it to a LAN event.”

Typically VR esports competitions take place online over the period of a few weeks that make up a season. Tournaments are organized in different ways, but in the VR Master League, a community-driven platform designed to engage the community, competition is based on a ladder system. This means new teams play against each other and more experienced teams play each other. It also avoids frustration and toxicity that comes from new teams being stomped by veteran teams.

Echo Arena was featured in the Oculus-sponsored VR League for three seasons and finals included a spectacular LAN event. While the VRML is currently managing the Echo Arena tournament, there are many players like Jason who are hopeful that at some point there might be collaboration that would include VR League LAN events. Since ESL runs the VR League, they have the resources to make such an event possible.

Even though he’s only 14, Jason’s dream of attending a LAN event aren’t unattainable. While the average VR gamer is 35, professional VR esports players can join most of the main leagues at 13 and there is no upper limit. During VR League Season 3, one of the top Onward players was a 53-year-old Marine Corps veteran, and three 15-year-olds took out the previous Echo Arena world championship team to qualify for an expense-paid trip to England to participate in the grand finals event.

Although there are currently no upcoming LAN events scheduled, players like Jason still practice regularly and hope their hard work will reap benefits in the future, whether that’s rising in the ranks of online tournaments like those through the VR Master League or having the opportunity to attend a LAN competition.

Click on the image to see this fantastic shot Jason made during the Echo Arena VRML Pre-Season.

Risks and Payoff

“I believe that getting involved in the competitive side of Echo Arena has definitely improved my social and leadership skills,” states Jason.

He has also learned lessons that only come through failure. He asked to be a mentor a couple of times before his application was accepted. His first competitive team, Ironic, lost half their games. But that also meant they won half of them. And players turned him down when he was looking for teammates.

Jason says the experiences he has had in VR esports has taught him to take risks because the payoff is worth it. He’s now a mentor, has a team of his own, and he’s in charge of an upcoming Echo Arena VRML Boot Camp that will help players prepare for the competitive season that begins on February 3.

But what about school?

“Definitely school work comes first,” says Jason, “that’s a given.”

When scheduling scrimmages (planned practice games with other teams), Jason plans these so that he has enough time to complete his schoolwork before or after the scrimmage. He also plays VR when he needs a break.

“I usually take a break or two of 20-30 minutes just to clear my mind of math for a while,” he explains, adding, “it seems to keep me motivated.”

Click on the image to watch Jason make some impressive saves from behind the goal.

Although traditional flat games developed a reputation for contributing to unhealthy “couch potato” gamers, virtual reality games require physical interaction. Motions in game are directly reflected by a player’s actions in real life so in a game such as Echo Arena, players need to crouch, jump, and dodge opponents as they play.

In addition to the leadership skills he’s developing in Echo Arena, VR games in general might also improve his ability to concentrate and do better on his assignments. Studies have proven that people who exercise tend to feel better, have more energy, and have sharper memories. These are all things that would greatly benefit the average high school student.

Right now Jason is enjoying his time in virtual reality and he’s reaping benefits of exercise and social interaction. He’s developing a variety of useful skills that will serve him well later in life, whatever career path he might choose.

While he still isn’t quite ready to settle on one thing quite yet, he did admit that he might be interested in becoming an electrical engineer or some sort of stock broker. Meanwhile, he’s simply focused on being the best player he can possibly be.