Sarconi: Virtual reality could help esports become as popular as the NFL

Listening to football on the radio isn’t very fun.

The announcer is trying to describe the actions of 22 men all at once. Even at best, the experience is much less enjoyable than watching the game on television: there are no highlights, no hits, no instant replays. So it isn’t a coincidence that the rise of the National Football League came as televisions started infiltrating homes in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Football and television were made for each other and it’s a love story that has the NFL reportedly raking in about $13 billion a year in revenue. This formula for success is important because there is a new sport and a new medium that could imitate it. Don’t laugh when I say this, but that sport is esports and that medium is virtual reality.

Before I continue, I need to get something out of the way: The argument over whether or not esports is a sport is a silly one. At its core, sports are entertainment. Whether it’s people driving cars in a circle or — in esports’ case — teams of video gamers trying to beat one another, they provide an escape for the viewer.

Now that that’s settled, two recent developments indicate the rising popularity and a potential symbiotic relationship between esports and virtual reality (VR).

First, Yahoo announced the creation of Yahoo Esports earlier this month. And while the company isn’t that relevant anymore, its move follows ESPN’s decision to devote a section of its website to esports earlier this year. This type of media coverage is vital to esports’ future growth, because if people can’t watch it or follow it, they aren’t going to become fans of it.

Second, PlayStation released its VR unit for pre-orders Tuesday and the devices sold out on Amazon in minutes, proving enthusiasm for virtual reality gaming.

On the esports side of things, even without exposure from the outlets mentioned above, it’s been doing just fine globally. According to League of Legends (LoL) Championship Series, the 2015 LoL World Championship had 334 million unique viewers. Those are impressive numbers, but it’s even more noteworthy that the championship had a 16 percent increase in viewers from the previous year.

That’s not just growth — its dramatic growth. Considering this is only one league and one type of game, 334 million viewers is just a start.

Combine that with the fact that Oculus Rift kits are projected to ship in July with PlayStation’s VR set primed for release in October, it’s starting to look like VR is about to enter homes in a way similar to the historical success of television.

This won’t happen right away, but soon it will be possible to both watch and experience your favorite LoL team from the perspective of your favorite player. Or from the perspective of your opponent. Rather than just watch the competition, the viewer will actually be in the competition — that’s powerful stuff.

The advantage that esports holds over the traditional four sports — football, basketball, hockey and baseball — is that the camera angles aren’t a problem. The camera doesn’t have to be stationed on the sideline or suspended in the air above the field of play. The environment is created and therefore the possibility for camera placement is endless.

But that doesn’t mean the core four sports can’t embrace the new technology. Rick Burton, a David B. Falk endowed professor of sport management at Syracuse University, said he believes that if a league can capitalize on the game it already has — like “Madden” for the NFL or “NBA 2K” for the NBA — it may see its popularity skyrocket as a result.

“In the same way that the NFL took advantage of television, sports leagues or entities are going to probably take advantage of e-gaming, augmented reality or virtual reality,” said Burton, who is also the faculty athletics representative to the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA. “It could possibly be a thing that jumps that sport forward.”

It’s still early in the relationship between virtual reality and esports, but there is no denying the potential that lays in wait. If it fulfills that possibility, watching a game on a screen may very well become like listening to the radio: it will be much less enjoyable than experiencing it in virtual reality.

Paul Sarconi is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @paulsarconi.


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