Credit: VR-Nerds

VR esports combine the best of technology, athleticism, and competition. The players are eager for competitive video games that require movement in addition to strategy, skill, and in most cases, teamwork. VR esports attracts players from all backgrounds and ages, then offers a level playing field. There has been steady growth over the past three years and 2020 is a fantastic time to become involved in this industry that continues to gain traction. Let’s take a look at some key areas of VR esports and what we might expect for this field in the coming year.

Community

Competitive esports wouldn’t be sustainable without players. The number of people participating in competitive VR games has risen steadily over the past three years and there is a continued push toward community growth.

Players who hang out together on social media or chat platforms such as Discord, in addition to playing together in game, tend to be more active in the communities and the retention rate for involved community members is higher than for those who are unengaged. For this reason, many developers have begun to focus more on social media outreach or chat platforms for those who want to stay connected when they can’t necessarily put on their headsets.

In addition to growing communities through social media, hopefully in the coming year we’ll also see more community-building events sponsored by headset manufacturers. Since the best way to introduce VR is to let people actually try it, ambassador type programs work well, but these are more effective with a large scale focus. In November 2019, for example, Oculus supported efforts to help veteran VR community members introduce virtual reality to traditional gamers at DreamHack Atlanta.

Members of the Phantoms and Loyal Dogs teams pause for a photo during NiceOne Barcelona. They introduced over 1,000 people to VR esports at the event.

Headsets

The foundation for VR esports began with the esports culture that started in the 1970s and 80s. The billion dollar gaming industry that exists now paved the way for the first competitive VR esports leagues that began forming soon after the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets were released in the first half of 2016. While these are exceptional headsets for competitive gaming and many people still use their original VR rigs, there have been several key improvements with headsets even in the period of a few short years that will enable more people to participate in competitive VR gaming.

Inside-out tracking with headsets such as the Oculus Rift S make set-up at tournaments much easier since event organizers don’t have to worry about sensor towers like they do with the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. Although there are a few challenges, such as potential dead spots when objects are being pulled behind the head, overall the Rift S offers the opportunity for high quality competitive VR games to be featured at events without the hassle of sensors.

The HTC Vive is featured prominently in VR competitions as well, frequently used at VR arcade tournaments in cooperation with the Virtual Athletics League, an arcade-specific league that we’ll talk more about in a moment. The Vive wands don’t feel as natural as the Oculus touch controllers, but that’s mostly irrelevant to competitors who will usually adapt to whatever tools are available as long as the headset provides a good quality experience.

The Valve Index isn’t likely to make as much of an impact on VR esports simply because it’s cost prohibitive for most players. While the reviews from esports players have been positive, most players simply can’t afford to spend $1,000 on a VR headset, in addition to a high-powered gaming PC.

The biggest impact on VR esports in 2020 is likely to come from the Oculus Quest, an all-in-one standalone headset that was dominating sales on Black Friday. The Quest is portable and it’s easy to use in event settings. While the graphics for most games won’t be as sharp as the Rift S or a Vive, once we have more competitive titles on the Quest, I’m sure we’ll begin to see tournaments with the Quest simply because this amazing headset has finally begun to entice the masses into the VR ecosystem and it’s as convenient to use as a smart phone.

Games

Currently the biggest challenge for VR esports on the Quest will simply be to have competitive options available. Numerous developers are creating Quest-compatible builds of games that were already popular in the VR esports scene, such as Ready At Dawn’s Echo Arena and Downpour Interactive’s Onward.

Meanwhile, whether on the Quest or other headsets, Beat Saber will remain a good option for competitive gaming, particularly since Beat Games was acquired by Facebook in November and joined Oculus Studios. Oculus has been one of the main industry supporters of VR esports so it’s possible that there will be even more opportunities to see Beat Saber featured at competitive events in the future.

There will be new additions in 2020 as well, such as Big Box VR’s Population One. Although this is described as a Battle Royale game, the team mode is particularly well-suited to competitive play. The game itself is fantastic and we’re eager to see who will be first to organize tournaments for Population One.

Another title that will be great for competitive gaming in 2020 is Cloudhead Games’ Pistol Whip. However, be sure to have plenty of water available to hydrate exhausted players. Pistol Whip will wear you out.

Some other games that will continue to be popular competitive options in 2020 are:

  • Phaser Lock Interactive’s Final Assault
  • VR-Nerds’ Tower Tag
  • Caveman Studio’s Contractors
  • Davevillz’ Pavlov
  • I-Illusions’ Space Pirate Trainer
  • Levity Play’s Skyfront
  • BigBox VR’s Smashbox Arena

There will surely be others, hopefully including some racing titles, but if you’re interested in becoming involved in VR esports this year, these games are a great place to start. Pick one that appeals to you, start playing, and establish yourself as one of the top players. You never know what opportunities might arise!

Final Assault players chat after tournament finals at the World Cyber Games in Xi’an, China.

Leagues

The first VR esports leagues were officially formed in early 2017 and they continue to expand as increasing numbers of players want to play VR games competitively. Below are the main leagues that we’ll see active in 2020.

VR Master League

The VR Master League (VRML) is a community-driven platform that was formed by DaKinMan. His goal was to give players a place where they could find competitive games, organize tournaments, and form teams.

Initially the league featured only Downpour Interactive’s Onward, but it has grown to include some of the best competitive VR esports on the market. In addition to Onward, the VR Master League currently organizes competitions for the following games:

  • Ready At Dawn’s Echo Arena
  • Caveman Studio’s Contractors
  • Davevillz’ Pavlov VR
  • Phaser Lock Interactive’s Final Assault
  • Ubisoft’s Space Junkies

The VR Master League has been growing at a steady pace and with the recent push to bring in new community members, there has been more rapid growth lately. I expect this will continue throughout 2020.

More information:

Collegiate VR Esports League

Universities have witnessed the popularity of traditional esports and students are interested in new technology so it makes sense that many universities are allowing or even encouraging students to form VR clubs and esports teams. Also, many schools have begun to add courses pertaining to virtual reality such as game and app development, which should encourage further opportunities for competitive VR as university trustees, etc. learn more about the technology.

The Collegiate VR Esports League (CVRE) began in January 2018 after several college-age enthusiasts decided to create a group that would cater to the needs of collegiate level players. This is a rapidly growing league that recently added a European branch for the benefit of colleges and universities across Europe.

More information:

Students at the University of CA Berkeley work on a project in the VR lab.

Omni Esports Arena Series

Virtuix announced their 2020 Omni Arena esports series in October 2019. Virtuix has continued to attract VR enthusiasts and competitors to VR arcades and family-based entertainment locations such as Dave and Buster’s. Players can visit their local Omni Arena esports location and compete for an opportunity to win cash and other prizes as they attempt to climb local and global leaderboards in this league.

More information:

Virtual Athletics League

The groundwork for the Virtual Athletics League (VAL) was laid in 2016 out of Virtualities, an arcade in Salt Lake City, but the league didn’t really pick up pace until they sponsored an International Beat Saber Tournament that took place in locations around the globe in August 2018. VAL has continued to thrive as a resource for arcade owners who want to provide players a place to fellowship, join teams, and participate in competitions and other events.

The Virtual Athletics League recently brought on Brad “SL33PY” Atkins as Director of League and Operations. Atkins is an experienced caster and league administrator who has worked extensively with the VR Master League and community-building activities. His experience in the field of VR esports will benefit the Virtual Athletics League in 2020.

More information:

League of International VR Esports (LIVE)

The League of International VR Esports (LIVE) was formed in the fall of 2019 out of VRality, a VR arcade in Israel. Although this was a new league, it’s active and the members are eager to see their community expand in 2020. Since players can participate at home or in VR arcades, LIVE offers something slightly different from the other more restrictive leagues. We definitely want to keep an eye on this group during the coming year.

More information:

High School League

In addition to the above leagues, it’s also possible that this will be the year we finally see a high school league established. With the arrival of the Oculus Quest, virtual reality will be more accessible to high school students since it’s much easier to purchase a $400 headset that doesn’t require an expensive gaming PC and additional desk space.

The education community in virtual reality is expanding rapidly. If anyone is interested in coordinating a high school league, please contact me and I can put you in touch with others who would like to see this happen. The goal would be to introduce competitive VR gaming to high school level students so they can then be prepared for opportunities to participate in collegiate level VR esports.

Summary

During the past few years, we’ve discovered some things that work well and some things that didn’t work quite so well. The VR esports industry is ready for continued growth throughout the next year as we combine the best of technology and physicality for competitive gaming in virtual reality. We anticipate that 2020 is going to be a great year for VR esports!


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