What puts the ‘E’ in E-sports? VR may have something to say about the notion that ‘electronic’ sports can’t be physical, and could even further legitimize the growing field.
Anyone remember Sports Champions (2010)? Essentially Wii Sports (2006) for PS3 using PlayStation Move, it featured a table tennis mode that remains, to my eyes, the greatest motion-control game ever published. It was the closest anyone had come to the dream of a ‘1-to-1’ sports game. In reality of course, you were just seeing the paddle on your TV, and there was plenty of assistance with each hit, even on the hardest difficulty. VR motion control changes all that. With a VR headset and controllers like Oculus Touch, your hands aren’t abstracted on a TV in front of you, they’re in your vision, placed exactly where you expect them to be. Sports Champions seems archaic in comparison.
Project Arena, a work in progress title from CCP Games, is built for VR and motion controls from the ground up. The game pits two players opposing each other in a Tron-like environment. Each player has a disc in one hand and a shield in the other; the goal is to throw the disc and get it to strike the opponent without being blocked. I first went hands-on with Project Arena back in April.
As you bring your body into the game, input becomes more human. If you want to swing a bat, you don’t do it with the press of the button, you simply swing your arms in the same way that you would swing a bat in real life! This opens the door not only to factoring our real-world skills into the game, but also our physical ability.
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Speaking with Project Arena Architect Programmer Adam Kraver, I learned how CCP is incorporating elements of spectatorship and physicality into the game, and how physical ability can be a major factor in match outcomes, much like we see in the world of traditional sports.
This is only starting to become practical through improved consumer tracking technology. A prototype of Project Arena shown last year was a very different beast. At the time the prototype used a VR headset combined with a Microsoft Kinect for tracking.
“[Improved input] has changed the concept in some ways,” Kraver explained. “Specifically, with the tracked controllers, we have a lot more fidelity in motion for the hands. With the Kinect experience, you couldn’t turn your hand over, or accurately show that you were holding something; it was just this ghostly image. But with the controllers, you really get the sense of precision where you think ‘I can really get good at throwing this disc or hitting this specific spot’.”
Improving form and skill through practice is essential to any sport, and after a few rounds of Project Arena, I came away confident of its depth. It was clear how much more proficient I had become in a short space of time, and yet there was much more nuance in the technique left to master.
“We actually have a Pro mode for [Brawl mode] too,” Kraver revealed. “This takes the buckler [small shield] away entirely, so when you throw your disc, you have zero defense, and the game becomes a lot more strategic and you really have to concentrate on your timing and how your opponent is moving.”
Much like a traditional sport, high-level can be physically demanding.
“…it’s got the rules and the structure of a good sports game. And the way you get better at it is by getting better physically,” Kraver told me. “I had this amazing moment last year when I was playing with Callum [Underwood] from Oculus. He loved the original [Project Arena prototype] and played the hell out of it. He said ‘right I’m gonna kick your ass’ and as I built the original prototype I was like ‘whatever!’ So we get in there and we’re going at it, four or five discs at a time, and then I started getting exhausted. I ended up losing because he had more physical endurance than me, and that was a profound moment. I had actually lost because of my low energy reserves; I wasn’t thinking as fast and my game just crumbled! It makes you think ‘I’ve got to keep playing this’—I get up in the morning and wish this thing was out there because I would make this part of my morning routine. Get in, play 5 rounds of top-tier Brawl mode, come out with heavy breathing and a sweat, ready to get on with my day! So that’s why we view it as this true E-sport where physical proficiency makes a difference.”