VR’s Sports Invasion is Coming: Part 1

Courtside of the NBA finals sits Phil from Cleveland, draped in a stained bath robe with more holes than Pebble Beach. Football practice for New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith, despite his broken face. A Cincinnati Reds fan dug in against Aroldis Chapman and his impending 102 mile-per-hour heater while wearing shorts, sandals and a faded Senor Frogs tank top from spring break ’98. A college recruiting trip inside the coach’s home, arena and practice facility of a top SEC football program – cheerleaders included. With virtual reality, each of these can be an actuality. Some are already possibilities. And others could happen before the next President is sworn in to office.

If there was one take away from the Consumer Electronics Show in January – other than the realization that the wearable market is almost as saturated as homemade craft shops on Etsy – it’s that virtual reality (VR) is coming. That winter in Game of Thrones is like a snowflake compared to the hyped fallout from the Las Vegas trade show. VR is coming hard, it’s coming fast and it will own our souls. That is, if the reality matches the hype.

Oculus, the most recognizable VR hardware, had a booth for the first time at CES. Articles, blogs and videos of the VR experiences flooded the Internet with tales of the unimaginable, the unfathomable and the just plain cool. Scott Stein of CNET.com called VR the eye-catching showstopper and noted Oculus headsets everywhere. Last month the company announced that the Rift will ship to consumers in the first quarter of 2016. As it builds on the Crescent Bay prototype, which many raved about, and is backed by Facebook following the $2 billion acquisition last year, it will be the Rift pressured with bringing VR in to the homes of the masses.

Today, the post-CES buzz has muffled though the anticipation of consumer VR hasn’t ceased. Now, it’s just a matter of when, not if, early adopters will have consistent, quality content to utilize current and future VR rigs. Sports, along with entertainment and pornography, is a leader in technological innovation. Broadcast companies, video game creators, sports leagues and teams all have chips in the proverbial VR pot as they fight for fan engagement, sales and television ratings. While some are calculating their bets, others are all in.

TechGraphs takes a look at what is out, what is coming and potential challenges that face VR’s invasion of sports. Will it be another 3D television? Or will we all wonder how we lived without it in ten years?

Gaming

While VR initially evokes an image of a video game experience for most, its origins are much different. In Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a science fiction short story published in 1935, author Stanley G. Weinbaum detailed a VR system that used goggles with holographic recording of fictional experiences that included smell and touch. In 1957, Morton Heilig, the “father of virtual reality,” invented the Sensorama, which received a patent in 1962. It used 3D motion picture with smell, stereo sound, seat vibrations and wind to create the VR experience. Heilig, a cinematographer, also created a 3D camera for the project. The evolution of the computer harvested an organic relationship between VR and gaming. A relationship that blossomed in to the gaming indstusry as the leader of VR implemenation. A relationship that, according to mobile internet/VR/games and digital client consultant Digi-Capital, could generate $30 billion by 2020.

Except when it comes to sports games.

In January, video game developer Ghost Machine launched the first VR sports game from Steam, the popular online game distributor. Motorsport Revolution is a physics-based PC racing game compatible with the Oculus Rift DK2 headset. The single-player racing game featured multiple 3D tracks tracks, including famed California Speedway, and an action feel filled with an aggressive AI and fantastic crash scenarios. VR Sports Challenge was announced at E3 to launch with the consumer version of the Oculus Rift. Think of it as a Wii Sports-type title. Google search virtual reality sports games and you’ll find little else.

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Ghost Machine’s CEO Neal Nellans told me earlier this year that big video game developers will sit on the sidelines with a wait-and-see attitude. Today, it seems the big boys moved from the sidelines to the luxury box to munch on appetizers, sip aged scotch and watch a different game on a massive flat screen, all the while checking in on the VR game on the field below to see if it gets interesting.

Peter Moore, chief operating officer at Electronic Arts, told Gamespot that his company will jump in to the VR marketplace “if and when virtual reality becomes a ‘high-demand’ activity.” Moore wants the gear on the heads of consumers first.

Three months ago Owen Good highlighted challenges that face VR in sports games for Polygon. Ignore the writer’s argument that VR can’t give us the superhuman experience we want in games, and Good starts to make some sense.

What keeps sports out of the virtual reality conversation is the size – or lack thereof – of the market. There is no current sports simulation title available on Wii U. I realize people attribute that to some dark deal Electronic Arts demanded and Nintendo refused, but the fact remains there’s still no NBA 2K no WWE 2K — no Pro Evolution Soccer, for God’s sake — on Wii U either.

These are iterative titles with codebases literally stretching back to the Dreamcast days. If they can’t readily adapt that work to make the Wii U controller’s second screen necessary, or even meaningful, it is going to take an even greater overhaul — if not a complete work from scratch — to create virtual reality edition.

And that’s after all of the league licensing costs — which are a huge brake on innovation, — are figured into the discussion.

For Moore, he sees the hardware, rather than software, as an issue. A year ago Gamespot reported that Moore insinuated that the VR headset is dorky.

“It’s an incredibly immersive experience, but it’s you,” Moore said. “You’re inside this world and you’re oblivious and of course, you can’t see. You hope it doesn’t get what I’ll call the Segway effect: incredible technology that kinda looks dorky. Or the Google Glass effect, which is the dork factor that goes with that.”

But that’s not to say that there aren’t big boys moving forward. Last month, Gaming Respawn reported that Ubisoft, the publisher behind uber popular titles Just Dance, Assassin’s Creed and Rainbow Six, is working on multiple games to launch once Oculus and Playstation’s Project Morpheus reach consumers.

“We are working on the different brands we have to see how we can take advantage of those new possibilities,” CEO Yves Guillemot said during an earning’s call last month, “but making sure also we don’t suffer from what comes with it, which is the difficulty to play a long time with those games. We are very bullish about the potential. We think it is going to bring more players to the universe of video games, and we are going to come with our brands.

But again, where are the VR sports games?

Ryan Batcheller is a 3D environment artist for JumpStart, a game designer, and creator of Virtual Screams, which hosts virtual haunt experiences using the Oculus Rift and aims to develop the content to run on the Samsung Gear VR. I first heard about Oculus from Batcheller at a party for a friend two years ago. His stories seized my imagination, flipped it inside out and tied a cherry stem around it. I felt woozy with excitement. It was too good to be true, I thought, as the cost of this tech would be too much for mass distribution. Batcheller’s exposure to VR began when he played a How to Train Your Dragon demo developed by Dreamworks. He tested the Oculus at work and bought both developer kits. He sees different challenges facing developers of VR sports titles.

“Sports games using VR will require a lot of testing with how the game play would work,” Batcheller said. “With the Wii you had people acting out motions in their home and hitting people, knocking over things and hurting themselves. That was with them being able to see and just being absorbed in the game. With VR they can’t see their surroundings. So with sports games I think the real trick is going to be designing game play that is fun and safe for the user who is immersed in the experience.”

In addition to the Oculus Rift launch in early 2016, Sony’s Project Morpheus will be a key to mass VR introduction. The PlayStation product is expected to be available by June of next year. Morpheus simply plugs in to the PS4, which has sold 22.3 million units to date. The marketplace already exists. With a Full HD 1920 x 1080 and 5.7-inch display with 100-degree field of vision and a refresh rate claimed to be higher than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (120Hz compared to 60Hz and 90Hz, respectively), Morpheus will contend for the top VR headset.

One rumor prices the Morpheus at $450, which will certainly hinder early adoption, even if it does include a full kit. Among the 21 announced titles, however, only one fits the sports genre. Project CARS, a motorsports game already available for the next gen consoles, is the lone sports title.

And what about Xbox? According to TechRadar, Microsoft’s VR headset development kits are in the hands of some game developers. But this was before the June 11 revelation that Microsoft has partnered with Oculus. Via Windows 10, Xbox One games will stream to the Rift headset as part of the virtual cinema Oculus has created.

The gear is coming.

“The new Oculus is completely mind-blowing, but while I’m bullish on the potential of VR to transform multiple industries, not least entertainment, it won’t be until 2016 that it truly starts becoming a viable consumer success,” said Mind Candy’s creative director Michael Action Smith to Vice.

Consumers just need the content when it comes to sports gaming in VR.

Part Two will discuss the upcoming gear, and how they can infiltrate the broadcast and athletic training spaces.

(Header image via Sergey Golyonkin)

We hoped you liked reading VR’s Sports Invasion is Coming: Part 1 by Seth Keichline!

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Seth loves baseball and anything with Sriracha in it. Follow him on Twitter @sethkeichline.

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