Why VR Arcades are Fit for VR eSports


March 15, 2019 | 6 min read

This article was written by Ryan Burningham in honor of the ongoing Space Junkies Arcade tournament. Playoffs are taking place this week! So far it has been the largest PvP VR eSports event by teams with over 90 registered teams and 15 countries represented.

One day in early 2016 I was browsing reddit. In between pictures of funny cats and gaming gifs I saw an early prototype of a VR arena. The trailer did what the best trailers hope to do in that they pull you in with tantalizing promise. Although I hadn’t even tried VR for myself yet, I had two immediate thoughts.

  1. There will be a VR center in every major city in the world in the next few years.
  2. One day VR eSports has the potential to be as large as the NFL, FIFA and the NBA.

Naturally, the next question was "how?"

The Rise of VR Arcades

What's pretty amazing is that so far the first predication is now true. There are well over a 1,000 dedicated VR Arcades, cinemas, and centers around the world. If you add PC cafes in Asia with VR that pushes the number dramatically higher. A large number of family entertainment centers have also added VR. Across the world, the majority of people have access to virtual reality either through a home setup or a trip to a VR Arcade.

When I first started our VR Arcade in Salt Lake City, Utah, it had a bit of a murky long-term value proposition. It was, of course, that people could try VR for themselves before they would rush out and buy one themselves. The thinking back then for the majority of casual and dedicated fans of VR was that VR Arcades were a short term cash grab before the imminent arrival of the metaverse.

We did get a ton of novelty purchasers back then. In the first few months 90% of our revenue came from foot traffic. Over time a certain number of dedicated gamers (to the tune of four million plus) bought a VR headset and took the time to dedicate space in their homes. It was a bit of a wild west environment, but platforms like SpringboardVR and others have helped smooth out some bumps. While certainly a niche space compared to the gaming industry, the data has consistently shown that every month the number of active users has organically risen. VR Arcades have grown in parallel.

Now, just about 3 years after charging our first customer, our value proposition is much more clear. Only 17% of our revenue on the Arcade side comes from walk-in novelty purchasers. The rest comes entirely from events, VR eSports, and memberships. A VR Arcade is not a place where a singular gamer consistently comes in by themselves. What we have had instead is tons of parties, corporate events, and date nights.

Instead of escaping reality, VR Arcades have turned into a place where people go to create a shared reality.

One of the best analogies I can think of is that it's pretty easy to install a basketball hoop over your driveway at home. If you really want to have a full basketball experience though, you head to a gym where you can play 5 v 5. That same logic extends to dance clubs, movie theaters, escape rooms, trampoline parks, and bowling alleys. The scale of VR Arcades is now making sense too. According to SpringboardVR, VR Arcades are recording millions of minutes per month across their platform worldwide.

Why VR eSports Make Sense as a VR Arcade Owner

VR Arcade owners who are reading this are now probably nodding to themselves. As a group, I think we have all seen this change in our value proposition. You also know too that the majority of your purchasers are actually not hardcore gamers themselves. So why do VR eSports?

VR eSports helps you retain and engage your most dedicated members.

It doesn't take long after someone tries out Space Junkies that they are hooked on jet-fueled, zero-g space battles with swords. Early on, we noticed that we had a special demographic. They were typically on the younger side, but they would consistently bring in their friends and had a competitive drive. We had some early players rank worldwide for games like Space Pirate Trainer.

We added up the numbers one time, and adding VR eSports to the mix for our 2nd location propelled revenue up by 10%.

We still see some of those early members even a couple of years later. What is also equally surprising is that the demographics change for tournaments. During our recent worldwide Beat Saber tournament around 37% of participants actually owned a headset at home. Instead of just charging people to make money, people like this consistently come back because VR Arcades can provide a real competitive, social, shared experience that is hard to beat elsewhere.

To further understand how the VR eSports benefited VR Arcades, we sent out some surveys after Season 1. The number one and number two most common reasons are actually surprising:

  1. The majority of Arcades listed "connecting to other VR Arcades and building community."
  2. The second most common response was "to engage my employees."

That makes sense - there are relatively few name brand VR Arcade chains so far, and its invaluable to meet other Arcade owners, swap best practices, and engage in healthy competition with your rivals.

For VR employees, long shifts of cleaning headsets and giving tutorials gives you little time to actually do VR. We found that some of the best and most tight-knit teams actually came from employees who had become friends and VR athletes.

How the VAL League Works

The name of our Arcade league is the Virtual Athletics League. For us, it was important that the word "athletic" be in the title, as many VR eSports emphasized physicality and athletics in order to win.

The best Beat Saber players look like cross country runners.

When an Arcade or player wants to sign up, they can simply check out our calendar of events or join our Discord channel. Many Arcades also hold independent local tournaments. Currently, our league is made up entirely of VR Arcade locations where regular customers can sign up to participate in our league. Individual Arcades may hold tryouts to select the best team, but right now the league is open to everyone.

To win a competition, though, is another matter entirely. The best teams in VR eSports practice for dozens and even hundreds of hours. Even though the league is still largely community driven and amateur friendly, the competition is serious. For VR Arcades that do show up, we have strict forfeit and reschedule policies that can result in bans and strikes against the Arcades and players as Arcade owners also invest their valuable time in growing the scene.

For game developers, the value of holding a tournament is crystal clear–your title is getting hundreds of hours of gametime across the world during a tournament.

For Season 1 we saw a healthy mix of high score tournaments like Beat Saber and Arizona Sunshine mixed in with PvP games like Archangel, Skyfront, and After-H. For Space Junkies, this is actually our first regular season of 4 games followed by a playoff series. I anticipate we will see more seasons like this in the future.

We have now had over 200 locations representing 40 countries participate in our tournaments with the number of VR eSports athletes into the thousands.

Now the league is still in its early days, and its still got a long way to go before anyone has an NFL arena full. But I believe there are several important technological and viewership hurdles that need to be resolved before full mainstream adoption.

SpringboardVR helps to connect game developers with the Arcade scene, which is invaluable when dealing with so many independent locations. Before we get to massive arenas, I believe that VR needs to partially merge with AR, and the home player base needs to continue to increase. Games like Space Junkies, which have a dedicated spectator mode into the frantic space-based jet action, is an enormous step in the right direction here.

It has been encouraging too to see the rise of other leagues. Oculus and ESL have an enormous 250,000 prize pool for their Season 3 with a few of their exclusive titles and a dedicated player base for Echo Arena, Onward, and Echo Combat. A collegiate league is in the early stages of forming, with about 10 universities signing on.

With the rise in technology and the quality of VR games only increasing, it's only a matter of time before we do get to those mega arenas.

Stay Up-to-Date with Tournaments

Want to stay up to date on the latest worldwide tournaments? Check out the Virtual Athletics League website and Discord channel.

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