Virtual Athletics League: The Flagship of Location-based VR eSports
Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Ryan Burningham from Virtual Athletics League (VAL) about the general topic of VR eSports and what VAL is doing to make VR a legitimate condendor in the world of eSports. With end-user adoption being slower than many had anticipated, many developers and eSports organisers are looking to arcades to drive the market forward. Ryan gives us his insight into what the future holds for VR eSports.
Hi Ryan and thank you for taking the time to talk VR shop! To start off, what is your role at VAL?
I am the CEO-founder of VAL, which means I do a bit of everything! It was originally just me – I was working in sales at a tech enterprise and started going to city festivals with a bunch of mobile headsets. People loved it! This inspired us to open a physical location called Virtualities, which is where the concept of the League emerged from. As the CEO of a startup I do recruiting, project management, fundraising, admin, team leadership, but my favorite role is to spread the cool news around VR eSports.
How many arcades is VAL currently working with?
Our largest ever tournament was Beat Saber – the August event had us working with 168 arcades. We have added a few more since then, so our network now includes about 180 arcades.
Are you yourselves avid VR/2D eSports athletes?
Space Pirate Trainer is one of my all time favorite games and I did pretty well at our recent worldwide tournament. I have a few top 1000 scores on Beat Saber on my Oculus! I know there is still a lot of people ahead of me, but I have been competitive for a long time. Overwatch is my favorite 2D eSports game.
What made you decide to try your hand in running VR eSports tournaments? Did it all start at Virtualities?
It was always part of the original vision – when the idea struck, my first thought was that there was going to be a VR arcade in every major city in the world. That is now a reality. My second thought was that VR eSports could one day be as big if not bigger than the NFL. We saw its potential to become a major worldwide movement from the onset. We first realized that VR athletes were a special demographic after looking at return rates following a local VR eSports tournament. Normal customer return rates hover at around 20%. For customers who attended our VR esports tournaments, that rate skyrocketed to over 50%. Combining this data with our love of competition made us certain that it was only a matter of time before the League took off.
You have a pretty big and active community on Discord. What has the community’s reaction been to the tournaments so far?
Overwhelming positive! We were lucky to start our tournament series with the highest rated VR game of all time, Beat Saber, that has an incredible and active community. Every new game we introduce adds a little bit of extra flavor to our Discord and we get players from diverse communities joining the platform – it’s Beat Saber, Space Pirate Trainer, Archangel and Skyfront fans all talking about VR eSports in one place.
The Beat Saber tournament you ran a while ago blew up pretty big. Did being in the media spotlight make you feel more confident regarding your future plans?
The original idea we pitched to the Beat Saber team intended for a tournament including 30 arcades. This would already have been one of the largest VR arcade tournaments ever. We went to press with a goal of 50 arcades and it just exploded to 168. Since then we have been in about 50 news articles total and a Google search for VR eSports brings us up on the first page.
What made you choose Skyfront as one of your titles?
It was an easy choice, overwhelming so. Skyfront is one of the top played arcade titles. Before selecting a game, we evaluate if it is VR eSports ready and has a community strong enough to support a tournament. Our data showed that arcades that licence Skyfront are heavy users – this means that both the staff and customers love it. Add in the game’s cool atmospheric elements and flying. A customers can pick Skyfront up in 30 seconds but can spend hours mastering it. The devs’ strong support and regular updates to the game were an added boon.
What characteristics do you look for in a VR game when planning future events? I.e. what makes a good VR eSports game?
Easy to pick up but hard to master is the first quality we look for. Then second is community. Finally we decide whether a game is better suited for a global high score competition or arcade vs. arcade action. The latter is our favourite! It’s similar to how the Overwatch League is forming geographic ties or how traditional sports have home teams. Games like Skyfront that can inspire positive rivalry between arcades in a PvP setting are perfect for our city-based League.
Do you plan on expanding to the home user market as well? Or are arcades the future?
Definitely expanding! We are looking at a number of exclusively home user based and also hybrid events next year. Hybrid events will mostly take place at home but will be tied to certain arcades. We are excited to see where this goes!
Are VR eSports athletes in any way a different breed from 2D athletes?
Totally! Especially when it comes to more physical games. A good Beat Saber player need to have cardiovascular endurance. 2D eSports does not have such demands. Even games like Skyfront that are somewhat more controller based, are still much more demanding than 2D games. When people see VR eSports online on Twitch, they just go crazy. It’s definitely the future!
Where do you see VR eSports heading? Do you think we’ll be seeing turnouts and prize funds rivaling DOTA and other major 2D eSports games in the near future?
I think it will take a while. One of the primary reasons that people watch eSports is to learn how to play the game. VR adoption is still low. However, that doesn’t mean that people won’t watch VR eSports online! The same is true for MMA or the UFC, both of which have a small number of participating athletes but large audiences. You could also argue that a relatively small number of people play full body tackle football like in the NFL but the audiences are huge. The key is in the production. The bigger the spectacle, the more people will watch it.
How do potential sponsors normally react when you contact them? Are sponsors eager to join the VR eSports bandwagon?
Sponsors that have some exposure in VR are easily the most interested. I think they have been looking for someone to bring that natural energy we see in VR together for a long time. It’s more of a learning process for sponsors that are just starting to look to VR.
Lastly, what would you say to those athletes and arcades who haven’t taken the plunge and joined a VAL tournament yet?
A lot of arcades rely on the staples that have been popular in VR for a long time, things like Job Simulator, etc. That definitely has a future, but the proportion of customers coming in for the novelty value will go down. As arcades start to compete more with home user friendly devices like the Oculus Quest they need to give the customer more reason to visit an arcade. Gamers and tournament players have higher return rates. Additionally, our business is pretty unique in that it ties the home user market and location-based market together – 37% of those that took part at our last tournament already owned a headset at home. I’d say that is the number one argument for arcades to join a VAL tournament. And a big percentage already have already! It’s just a matter of time till 2D players find a VR game they love. We will be there when that happens to show this next generation of eSports players and fans that VR is the future!
VAL will be organising a Skyfront tournament at VR arcades worldwide spanning from 1 November until the grand finals on 17 November. The thirty-two competing teams will take each other on for glory, bragging rights and more than $ 1,500 in prizes.