Esports Athletes Get Ready to Rumble in VR Challenger League

VR Challenger League
by Jason Johnson
Freelance writer and editor

New virtual reality competition is the next esports obsession.

Last month, Counter Logic Gaming and the Immortals, two of esports’ fiercest rivals, clashed in virtual reality (VR). This was a first for both teams, but if a new VR esport league takes off, it won’t be the last.

Dubbed the VR Challenger League, the upcoming tournament is the product of a partnership between Oculus, Intel and the esports event organizer ESL. The first qualifying bracket began on July 12, and online competitions run through the summer. All of this leads to the final event at an Intel Extreme Masters event in 2018.

“VR esports are still a baby, but we’re raising them into teenagers and preparing them for a professional career,” said Lisa Watts, VR marketing strategist at Intel.

While VR esports will likely experience some growing pains along the way, the show organizers are doubling down to bring this exciting new form of competition to life.

A fresh crop of highly polished VR games, along with a handsome prize pot, are putting VR on the fast track to becoming a premier esports event.

“We hope that by the time Intel Extreme Masters arrives next year, we’re seeing a level of play that’s exciting and worthy of the professional level,” said Watts.

This is a high bar, but one worth reaching for, she said.

To reach the first VR Challenger League finals at IEM next year, players and teams across North America and Europe will compete in The Unspoken from Insomniac Games and Echo Arena from Ready At Dawn Studios.

More than $200,000 in cash and prizes are up for grabs. Winners from online qualifying matches feed into regional finals at Oculus Connect on Oct. 11-12, ESL One Hamburg on Oct. 28-29, IEM Oakland on Nov. 18-19 and DreamHack Winter on Nov. 30-Dec. 3.

Should VR manage to impress on the big stage, the momentum could be huge for the newest addition to the pro gaming family.

This kind of tournament bump has been seen before. After League of Legends players ignited audiences at IEM and the Season One Championship in 2011, for instance, the amount of interest in the game surged, with the number of daily players soaring to over 1.4 million.

2017 Intel Extreme Masters
Esports fans cheer at a 2017 Intel Extreme Masters match.

To ensure that VR esports are ready for primetime, game developers are tuning up their games. Insomniac Games has already made five substantial revisions to The Unspoken since the first of the year. The last update to the wizard-dueling game even added a new character, a female magician who zaps her foes with electricity a la a supervillain.

“There’s a lot of discussion about what’s working and what isn’t,” said Chad Dezern, the game’s creative director at Insomniac Games. “Players are helping us shape the game for high level play.”

In esports, a game’s success depends on a tight-knit community of players. The Unspoken has attracted a small but passionate coterie of VR enthusiasts, with more than 1,000 players showing up at Microsoft stores to compete in The Unspoken VR Tournament last May.

“I expect we’ll have even more interest with the VR Challenger League,” said Dezern. “We have a very steady group of active players who are going to jump in, and we expect newer players to jump in as well.”

Of course, the ceiling for new esport contenders is limited by VR’s nascent install base. At present, only around 1.5 million people own dedicated VR hardware, restricting the number of players who can compete in the tournaments.

At least in the first year, the VR Challenger League will serve as an appetizer to esports mainstays like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), which have been played in a professional environment for years. But the $200,000 purse will likely pull players into this and future VR competitions. Another thing that will pull esports competitors into VR is Echo Arena, which is one of the games in VR Challenger League tournament and comes free to all Oculus Rift owners when the title is released in late July.

Eventually Watts believes that VR esports will grow to a size where they cannot be denied or ignored. She hopes to see traditional esports developers like Blizzard and Valve create esports for the VR space. For now though, VR esports are in the early stage, and far from attaining that level of legitimacy.

“We wouldn’t be so bold as to say that it’s a professional league, but I think it is an important signal to the entire industry that it’s time to move in this direction,” she said.

Ready or not, VR esports will be center stage.


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