Monday, March 30, 2020

Disrupting, Diversifying, and Expanding Gaming

New technologies are opening the doors to gamer paradise


By Nayantara Bhat


Most players in the FIFA World Cup don’t have the luxury of taking a short fishing break mid-game to decompress. But when one is competing in the virtual world, it’s possible to indulge in a couple of minutes on the riverbank to catch a few trout when the pressure gets too intense. 


The past few years have seen a global shift of epic proportions–a rapid rise of interest in both gaming and its professional equivalent: esports. Gaming was, until recently, enigmatic to those outside of the community. With the amount of inappropriate language, sexual content, and violence in popular games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto, the gaming community was reputed to consist solely of teenagers and young men. Now, thanks to new offerings like Fortnite, which can be enjoyed by all ages, gaming is becoming a favorite activity for all. 


On a parallel and equally explosive track is the esports industry, which allows gamers to compete in tournaments that usually involve a significant amount of prize money. Now that people can and do manage to earn money as gamers, there’s been an uptick in professional gaming interest, where international brands are eager to capitalize on new sponsorship opportunities.


It’s not necessary to be a gamer to get a glimpse into the massive esports industry. A 2019 Newzoo report predicted that industry revenues would hit US$1.1 billion this year, and $1.8 billion by 2022. Recently, a worldwide Fortnite competition saw the first place winner, 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf, rake in $3 million from the staggering $30 million prize pot. 


Leveling up


Esports tournaments are broadening to include not only multiplayer online battle arena games like Fortnite and Dota, but racing games including Forza and Gran Turismo. At the forefront of the move to popularize professional simulated racing is McLaren, best known for their Formula One racing team and sleek, powerful sports cars. 


McLaren’s foray into the world of esports began with a competition called World’s Fastest Gamer, which was run in collaboration with esports racing company Ideas+Cars before evolving into an in-house program called Shadow Project. 


“The name infers that we are trying to shadow the work we do on the real track,” says McLaren Esports Director Ben Payne. 


Shadow Project invites fans of racing games to compete in rounds until a winner is established. The winner is then offered a place on McLaren’s simulated racing team. Unlike tournaments like Fortnite’s, where all entrants are playing the same game, Shadow Project is hosted across multiple games and can be entered via a console, mobile phone, or PC. Also, unlike games that simulate team sports like FIFA and NBA 2K, the skills picked up in simulated racing are transferable to the real world.


“We put [sim racers] in cars, and they show no fear and seem not to be worried because they know the tracks. They’ve driven that track more than anybody else–more than real motorsport racing car drivers. It’s wonderful to watch,” says Payne.


Another technology being widely utilized to enhance the gaming experience is VR. While much of the hardware development is coming out of Silicon Valley, Europe is a hotbed of activity for VR software development. Resolution Games, a Sweden-based publisher working exclusively on VR projects, has teamed up with Angry Birds creator Rovio to produce a VR version of the hit game, and has several other immersive family-friendly games under its belt, including AR fishing game Bait!


Co-founders Tommy Palm and Martin Vilcans started working on Bait! as one of their very first games because they believed a relaxing activity like fishing would be able to showcase the great things about VR, while still providing some excitement. In Palm’s view, VR adds another dimension to games, as it allows players to use their hands to interact with objects. 


However, it’s just one of the technologies currently being tested in this space. Multiple stakeholders–Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud among them–are experimenting with cloud gaming, which would allow players to stream games from the Internet rather than downloading them onto their devices. 


When cloud gaming was first introduced, it promised to level the playing field, eliminating issues with lagging and graphics rendering faced by devices with less processing power. All the heavy lifting would be done by a remote server, leaving the PC or console to simply display the feed. The one glaring issue with feeding all the processing to a remote server is that its success is directly proportional to Internet speed, and until recently, the Internet had limits. The advent of 5G is changing this.


5G has been touted as the key to unlocking boundless depths of efficiency across industries and gaming is no exception. The theoretical maximum 5G speed of ten gigabits per second, which is a hundred times faster than 4G, would undoubtedly unlock the cloud gaming dream. 


“I wouldn’t tether 5G–pardon the pun–just to mobile,” says Payne. “5G will allow you to set up an esports event with PCs, just using a 5G dongle. It’s expensive to run LAN competitions, but 5G would allow those costs to be shrunk in certain scenarios.” 



But with regulatory boundaries and security concerns, 5G has been slow to roll out commercially on a global scale. On the VR front, despite a growing number of vendors driving prices down, we’re still a ways off from seeing a device in every household. Palm hopes that new products like the wireless, lower-priced Oculus Quest headset will make it easier to introduce people to VR, setting a course for higher adoption numbers. 


Changing culture


Higher adoption numbers for gaming have sparked a massive monetary inflow into esports. Newzoo’s report identified increased advertising revenues, sponsorship deals, and media rights to tournaments as the three factors driving growth in the industry–a finding echoed by Payne.


“If you can get that millennial age bracket–affluent, spending money, tech-savvy, loyal–that’s ticking every brand on the planet’s box, right?” he says. “So that’s why Coke, VISA, Mercedes, are all spending in the sponsorship space, and more will come.”


Allowing multiple games and formats have helped McLaren to bridge the gap between fans of different platforms. With so many different titles available for players to choose from–Forza, Gran Turismo, and Real Racing, to name just a few–opinion is divided on which is the best. 


When geographical borders come into the mix, even more titles are added to the list. As Payne explains, hundreds of millions of people play QQ Speed in China, but the game is not available outside Asia.


“In a way, virtual F1 racing is more exciting than real F1 racing because all 20 cars are the same. They’re just different colors on the track,” says Payne. 


McLaren’s efforts have made it possible to diversify and globalize the Shadow Project, although they are still pushing new initiatives to remedy the gender imbalance common to esports events. In addition, McLaren and other game publishers have a new strategy in mind: age diversification. 


Many of the most popular games are age-restricted for violence, nudity, and other characteristics that make them inappropriate for younger audiences. Due to this, there’s a growing market for cleaner games, suitable for children or for individuals who aren’t interested in ‘serious’ gaming. This market is precisely the one that Resolution Games is targeting. 


“We’ve always said that we wanted to build games that would fit the entire family,” says Palm. “We know that people who buy [VR] headsets are more hardcore gamers in general, but they typically have family who wants to try the device. Bait! works really well for that.” 


As futuristic as VR already seems, its applications go far beyond gaming and immersive entertainment. The technology allows the creator to build a highly-specific environment and experience, which can be applied to everything from interior design to tactical military missions. 


One application that Palm predicts will be increasingly useful in future cities is the ability to create a VR work environment to allow for more efficient remote working in teams. 


“As cities grow, it’s becoming increasingly more and more difficult to get to the center of the city at the same time as everybody else,” he says. “We’re already seeing trends of people being able to work from home and not having to do that commute everyday, which I think is very good for the environment.” 


Once the stomping ground for teenage boys and young men, ‘bro’ culture, and rampant sexism, esports is opening up gaming, allowing it to permeate into new industries and become more accessible for children, non-gamers, corporations, and more. There are now more ways than ever to get involved in gaming and, on the other side of the equation, more ways to tell a story to a customer. 


“No one knew what Fortnite meant two years ago, and now my kids are dressed head to toe in that stuff,” says Payne. “So you have to expect that these things are going to keep coming, and just embrace the changes.” 


Nayantara is Jumpstart’s Editorial Associate.

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