What is the future of virtual reality with esports on campus?

Solutions provider and former Jamestown coach Josh Knutson discusses the potential for VR to take off in competitive gaming programs and barriers holding it back.
By: | July 14, 2020
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How valuable might virtual reality become in education over the next five years?

The non-profit Financial Policy Council noted in an October 2019 report that VR in education is expected to grow by $500 million to become a $700 million industry by 2025.

Some 97% of students say they would like to study a VR course, but only 7% of teachers regularly use VR technology despite 80% having some access to it.

VR’s application in classrooms are limitless as students find meaningful 3D learning experiences in everything from neuroscience to architecture, as well as career and technical education fields.

Though scores of institutions have embraced the technology in classrooms, VR has struggled to find a home within esports programs on campuses. There are many barriers preventing it from really taking off but there is strong interest in it, says Josh Knutson, the Esports and VR Solutions Director at ByteSpeed, which helps deliver VR solutions to colleges and schools across North America.

Knutson knows a thing or two about VR and about the esports space at the collegiate level, having previously led the powerful competitive gaming program at the University of Jamestown in North Dakota. While he sees a bright future for it, he says it may take time for those programs to embrace it.

University Business had a candid conversation with Knutson to discuss the potential of virtual reality in esports, as well as its application across campuses and its future:

For those who don’t know much about VR, explain how virtual reality and esports intertwine. What are the differences between playing on a console or PC and the virtual experience?

I think the biggest distinction is just the level of immersiveness that you get from putting a headset on vs. looking at on a monitor on a flat surface. With VR, you are able to hold a controller in your hand and interact with things in the environment that you can move around in and experience 360 degrees. The biggest thing that sets it apart is you’re really in it. You get that next-level feeling that you’re part of the game and that you’re actually doing something inside of that environment.

How much student interest is there in VR?

Adoption is low because it’s this new thing, but things have gotten so much better. We’re still relatively early on in VR’s life cycle, but I think there’s a lot of interest in getting that next-level experience of game play. It is definitely growing from a single-person consumer standpoint. The headsets that Vive and Oculus have been pushing out really have only existed for a few years, but they are getting better all the time. More people are taking a serious look at developing software for it.

If colleges or esports directors are looking for VR options, where should they begin?

With anything esports related, if you want to implement it, you need a plan for sure. It’s not something you can on a whim, say ‘hey we’re going to buy five Oculus Rifts, and we’re going to have a VR setup.’ VR takes physical space. You need to section off players to play in a safe environment. You need to make sure that the computers that are going to run these headsets have the right specs because it is a little bit more than just your entry-level esports machine. You do need a little bit beefier of a machine to run the current Gen of VR headsets. There’s a hardware ask on the graphics card level, processor and things like that.

What are some other considerations colleges need to plan for?

What titles are out there? Who are we actually going to play against? If I was going to start up a college esports program again and go back to coaching, I would look at, what are the existing leagues out there? Riot runs a collegiate League of Legends; Tespa has Overwatch and Hearthstone. What is there for VR? There’s a Collegiate VR Esports League that has Echo Arena (zero-gravity game) and Beat Saber, with like eight or nine schools in the country. There are a growing number of schools that are playing this game at a national scope. That’s an environment I might want to jump into as I recruit kids and devote money and resources to building out a team.

When looking at the bottom line for any school or college, administration is not just going to spend money and implement it and not expect a return on investment, right?

For sure. ROI can look very different depending on what your goals are. If you’re creating a varsity level team with the intent of winning national championships, then a national championship where I only have to beat eight schools is kind of attractive! Is this a tool we can use for student engagement and retention? Is this something we can use beyond the competitive side? Can we use it for curriculum? Adding VR stations to a team or adding that to a facility gives you a little bit more flexibility. It gives you a few more options, especially in today’s age when retention is that huge word in higher ed. It’s also a good recruiting tool.

Can a college or high school that has a VR lab or is looking to add one have it double as an esports experience?

Absolutely. That’s a big discussion. Multi-use is a huge selling point. The great thing about VR and esports is that it’s really easy to download another software title on your machine. At 3 o’clock when school is done, you can just boot that up instead of running Photoshop. 90% of the conversations that I have with schools are how do you get this technology into your school because budget is such a big sticking point. If you’re a high school looking for funding for esports, write a VR grant and get a VR lab with it. There are a ton of grants out there that people can write to get funding for virtual reality or high-end software labs for their schools. The STEM movement has really opened up a lot of channels for funding to be available for districts.

Is VR the future of esports, or is it going to be a combination of what we see now?

It’s kind of off in its own little world right now. I don’t think every single game is going to go VR. There are some barriers to entry there. You are limited to high-end tech. I can get five devices and play League of Legends, no problem, but then you want me to add five VR headsets to that and have them all in a room at the same calibration point so they’re not interfering with signals? It adds some layers of complexity that aren’t super great for ease of access and good adoption right away. I think it’s going to evolve and grow. I don’t think it’s going to be the end all be all of what esports will be in 10 years. But I do think games like Echo Arena, headsets and software are going to get smoothed out. More schools and professional teams are going to start looking at that equipment and how they can implement competition.

There are challenges with VR, among them a lack of popular titles. What do you see are biggest barriers to entry?

The big one is cost for sure. A VR headset if you want to get one at the professional level, you need a $1300 Vive Pro Eye, or something along those lines. [Knutson jokes: ‘I have a $1,300 computer and now you want me to double that price to get a VR headset along with it?’] The way multiple VR headsets work in the same physical space is tough. The way that the hardware functions together with more people involved is the other big barrier. The technology has come a long way. We see high schools that put up VR labs and they have 10 headsets in a room and they are able to run curriculum, but that’s all self-contained. It’s not you and me doing something together. That’s kind of the next development hurdle that needs to get figured out.What can we do on a competitive level in that type of an environment? How detailed can we make these experiences? How interactable are these environments? I think we’re getting there, but it’s a slow, slow process.

Will prices eventually come down?

I sure hope cost comes down. Even Oculus Rift, that’s like $350-$400 a headset per consumer-level device. That’s tough for some schools to swallow. The enterprise-level headsets that are out there, like the Vive Pro Eye, that’s a $1,300 solution without a computer to run it. As the newer generations of headsets come out, you’re gonna see last-Gen tech come significantly down. As things get easier to manufacture and easier to produce, we will see a drop in price.

What kind of technological developments need to happen for the VR experience to improve?

Having inside-out tracking, not needing those little base stations that you set up in the corner of your room to help track your machine. We’re already seeing that now; it’s totally done through cameras and sensors that are in headsets. Also better tracking with the hand controllers – I’m playing Beat Saber and all of a sudden the red saber is two feet to the left with the controller still in my hand – things like that. Vision correction, so it’s not uncomfortable with glasses on or maybe I don’t need glasses at all. A better refresh rate in headsets, so there’s no wobbliness and you don’t feel seasick when you turn your head. Lastly, better interaction between multiple headsets, so we can start to do multi-user experiences that aren’t as clunky. When we get to that point, esports can evolve and instead of a three-on-three game, we can have five on five. Maybe in five years, we’re playing hockey in virtual reality. What is getting cross checked in a VR headset going to feel like? How does your body react to that?

Can a VR experience beat that 2d experience for hardcore gamers?

In 2-5 years, I think we’re going see a larger cross-section of the hardcore people  transitioning to playing things in VR. If game play gets smoothed out, we will reach a cross point where gamers will say, ‘I’ve played Overwatch for three years now, now I’m going check out this game on VR that’s similar to Overwatch.’ Performance is more important than aesthetics. If you look at Echo Arena, it’s like stick figure people, not highly detailed, but it plays relatively well. It’s simple, but it works.

On the curriculum side, what are some of the unique things happening with VR?

Name a subject, there’s a VR app that can go along with a lesson plan. Schools are using 3D Organon VR Anatomy, where you can load in the whole human body in a VR doctor’s office basically, and with two controllers, pull apart the muscles, view the 206 bones, or rotate things. Tilt Brush, you can have your college students do animation and art drawing in 3D. It’s not going to totally replace existing lesson plans, but it’s another thing you can add on to your curriculum. There is a company out of Toronto that developed CareerLabsVR and it’s career exploration through VR. What does it look like to be a welder for a day? What does it look like to do machine operating, plumbing or electrical? They build out 20-minute experiences in VR and they’ll teach you the basics. You can give students 20 minutes of 10 different careers and say, well, which one did you like?


Chris Burt is an editor and reporter for University Business and District Administration and the Program Chair for the Academic Esports Conference & Expo. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


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