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Esports Get Physical in VR Challenger League

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

A new breed of cyber-athlete is breaking ground in VR esports, proving not all video games are played sitting down.

Advancing in the Virtual Reality Challenger League (VRCL) takes more than excelling at video games. At the North American regional qualifier last month in San Jose, winning required something unique: a high tolerance for pain.

Will Romero, who plays for the team Dyskovr, injured his shoulder while hurling a virtual disc in the game Echo Arena, a three-on-three multiplayer game that’s played like hockey in zero gravity. Romero’s teammate Kevin Douglas once stubbed his finger so hard that he felt lightheaded and missed practice. Another teammate, Dave Fox, suffered a soft tissue injury under his rib cage from swinging his arms too hard.

“The physicality on the stage was exciting,” said Lisa Watts, who leads Intel’s involvement in the VRCL. “Players were putting their whole body into it.”

For VR esports, player injuries like these are just growing pains in the VRCL’s sprint to bring esports to new players and audiences. While traditional esports are played with a keyboard, joystick and/or mouse, virtual reality (VR) uses motion-tracking technology that involves the full body.

Games like Echo Arena require a new kind of cyber-athlete that could change esports forever.

“The technology is early, but we’re laying the foundation,” said Stuart Ewen, the senior innovation manager at the ESL Gaming Network, which, together with Intel and Oculus, is producing VRCL in five cities around the world.

“This tournament is just the beginning.”

VR Esports Take Shape

VR esports are already making waves. Eight of the best Echo Arena teams squared off during the annual Oculus Connect event this year in pursuit of bragging rights and a $20,000 purse.

[Read: Esports Athletes Get Ready to Rumble in VR Challenge]

VR esports player jumps high into the air
VR esports players get physical in this new breed of active games.

Elsewhere at the event, demos of new VR games were available for the audience to play — many of them tailored for esports. Ubisoft’s Space Junkies, for example, crosses laser tag with jetpacks.

Echo Arena may be the perfect game to usher in this new era. In a three-versus-three match, teams compete for possession of the virtual disc, attempting to toss it into the opposing goal. It closely resembles sports like soccer, another great spectator sport. Players jump, crouch and extend their bodies, performing acrobatic shots and behind-the-back passes while their avatars respond accordingly inside the game.

For a long time, pairing VR and esports didn’t seem likely. Standalone VR headsets are still growing the install base necessary to support a larger community. Moreover, multiplayer VR games are still new, lacking the years of refinement of an esport juggernaut like League of Legends.

That’s why professional leagues like VRCL are so important for taking these exciting performances onto a larger global stage. After magnetizing San Jose, the VRCL traveled to Hamburg for the European Qualifier in Echo Arena, drawing more than 37,000 online fans. Next year, the winning teams from both tournaments will clash at the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) World Championship in Katowice, Poland.

“There’s a lot of interest in the VR esports space among players, technology creators and game developers,” said Watts. “As we look to potentially expand the league into next season, our goal is to compete on the big stage alongside larger esports.”

VR esports player sits on chair to play vigorously
VR esports players competed in Echo Arena at Oculus Connect in San Jose.

As VR esports go forward, Watts said that the tournament will strive to strike the right balance between physicality and finesse. The goal is to attract players interested in VR esports and players who come from a more traditional gaming background.

Watts said that VR esports could welcome a broad audience, pointing out that “Echo Mom” Sonya “Hasko” Haskins, a mother of five children, competed in the San Jose event.

Each event generates massive amounts of data that Watts and organizers can use to both better understand how people navigate virtual environments, and to develop new VR experiences and technology.

VR Challenger League Competition

The San Jose competition came to life on a giant screen that displayed nine different views of the matches, as a crowd of approximately 1,000 people snacked on nachos during stops in the action. The event was also streamed on Twitch and Facebook Live.

“We practiced our butts off to get here,” said the formerly injured Fox, who was squeezing a pair of hand strengtheners while waiting for his match to begin. “This is our chance to be part of something big.”

During the final round of the tournament, the top-seeded team Eclipse put on a devastating offensive performance.

“We run up the score, we play as hard as we can and we don’t take it easy on anybody,” said Kerestell Smith, the team’s captain, before the match.

Eclipse regained control in the second game, but with less than a minute to go, Phangasms rallied with a fast break for the tying score. The whole crowd tensed. When they missed the shot, the room let out a collective sigh.

The three teammates for Eclipse dropped their VR equipment and draped their arms around each other’s shoulders in a victory stance. Before hoisting the trophy, they staggered centerstage for a post-game handshake, their bright blue jerseys dark with perspiration.

“You can’t be afraid to sweat,” said Smith, who trains at the gym three times a week with power lifting and cycling. “Just playing the game is not enough.”

Editor’s note: Read more stories on this topic at the iQ Esports Series.

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