esports

​A Sliver of the Future: How Virtual Reality Pushes Esports' Boundaries

Is the newest wave of spectator sports already facing a huge evolution in how it's consumed?

by B. David Zarley
Feb 13 2017, 7:25pm

Wikimedia Commons

The fate of the Cedar Creek Nuclear Power Plant, the self-styled "safest plant in the world," looks fairly secure, all things considered.

There's a terrorist placing C4 while another provides covering fire, but they are only two men and the Counter-Terrorist Unit, with their superior numbers, are swarming the bomb site. And you are adjacent to the terrorist in overwatch position, with the entire conflict laid out below—a deific perspective usually impossible, or at least highly unusual, to achieve in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But virtual reality is changing how we can watch esports, and as the desperate fight to set off or defuse the bomb reaches a fever pitch right, you could simply tilt your head up to where a giant screen floating in the sky displays the down-the-barrel view so familiar to video gamers and figure out where things stand in the semi-final round of the Intel Extreme Masters CS:GO competition at Oakland's Oracle Arena.

Read More: Hearthstone's Struggle for Competitive Balance

Entering its tenth year, the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) series is among the longest-running and best-regarded tournaments in esports, famed for its large venues, international scope, healthy prize pool, and selective invitations. Such longevity breeds expectations. "We always try to push the boundaries of innovation by adding new elements to the event, to make it more exciting for our fans," says George Woo, Intel's esports marketing manager.

Esports arenas like these could soon feature audience members clad in VR headsets. Photo by Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Their latest twist comes courtesy of Sliver.tv, a virtual reality app that broadcasts esports competitions for properties like CS:GO and League of Legends. Sliver streams spherical mp4 videos directly to viewers' VR headsets, putting fans directly onto the battlefields at various "camera" points in a game map. The resulting viewer experience is not only more immersive than the traditional Twitch-style stream; it also allows for better spatial understanding of the match and identification of strategies.

Sliver was founded in November 2015 by Mitch Liu, the company's CEO, and Jieyi Long, its chief architect. A Counter Strike player since the early 2000s, Liu witnessed the rise of Twitch as the preferred means of broadcasting esports. He aspired to find a better way.

"My co-founder and I have always believed that the best esports spectator perspective is not necessarily the players' point of view," Liu told VICE Sports via email. "We started SLIVER.tv with the hypothesis that not only could we put the viewer inside the game but possibly build a whole interactive and participatory spectating experience."

They built the platform with esports specifically in mind, starting "with in-game worlds, focusing on how to go about rendering and creating a 360-degree immersive virtual reality stream." Sliver.tv launched in the summer of 2016 and it didn't take long for ESL—the world's largest video game event company, which runs IEM—to approach them about broadcasting the ESL ONE NY event in September, the first-ever virtual reality live stream of a CS:GO competition.


The broadcast begins with Sliver.tv's bank of servers and a cluster of GPUs, which at Oracle Arena were physically connected to the IEM game server.

"We get the raw feed—the game data, if you will—from the tournament server, and then we start applying all of our software and algorithms to place the virtual cameras to render the game world in a full 360 experience," Liu said. The feed is turned into a spherical mp4 format, which is then streamed via Sliver.tv's platform to VR headsets across the world.

According to Michael Blicharz, ESL's Vice President of Professional Gaming, Sliver has almost unfettered control from there. "We provide Sliver with essentially exclusive access, without delay, to the CS:GO TV client so they can place virtual cameras all around the playing map," Blicharz says.

The primary complication is making sure there aren't too many cooks in the kitchen. ESL has its own cameramen in the game feed, as well as its data-service partner Sportradar, Blicharz says, so they must "juggle a little bit the server setting for who we allow in to watch and observe digitally, and when and what kind of delay, in order to enable Sliver to provide the best experience." (Other than that, however, he characterizes Sliver.tv as "turnkey solution" for ESL, and not particularly technically difficult.)

From there, the presentation is dictated by the game. For instance, IEM's League of Legends broadcast utilized a different camera placement from CS:GO's, eschewing the spidercam in favor of shots right down the lanes and much closer to the battle, for a more intimate view of the action. Streamers could listen to commentators talk about both the Flash Wolves' Karsa and Longzhu's Crash and, while gazing out over the evergreens and creeks, see both combatants at once—a brand-new experience for esports viewers.

Floating above both was the screen containing the usual stream, as well as stats and other relevant graphics. Ascertaining a different, or better, idea of what was going on, or checking on who was dead or alive, was as simple as glancing up.

Everything hovers in a comfortable 80-120° cone of vision, an essential and deceptively complicated trick. "It's a lot of work ahead of time," Liu said. "What we realized is that with these top esports games, these maps are always static, right? So that really plays to our advantage in that these maps never change, and so we have the ability to fine-tune and optimize these camera placements and angles ahead of time." Sliver.tv's software and algorithms take over the rest in-game, panning cameras and jumping placements to provide the best possible view of the action.

The only challenge left is the actual streaming. Sliver.tv must take the game data, render the world in VR, and send it along to the VR audience with only milliseconds of delay. "A real-time pipeline," Liu calls it. Algorithms again do much of the heavy lifting. When everything is going well, Liu says, "during the live event, frankly, it's not a whole lot of work."

At the same time, the main drawback to the IEM VR stream comes down to algorithms, too—the sense of powerlessness and flash of frustration when the camera suddenly takes you away from the action. According to Liu, Sliver.tv is already working on technology to allow spectators to "teleport" from camera to camera of their own accord, and it is not much of a leap to imagine one wandering the grounds of the Cedar Creek Nuclear Power Plant, completely independent and immersed, sometime soon. Liu hopes to debut an instant replay feature this month, too.

There are still kinks to smooth over. Those moments of spatial glory like the scene at the reactor are sometimes outweighed by inopportune angle shifts, or the simple drudgery of play. Too often, the effect was akin to having the screen just positioned on your face.

But the potential of virtual reality for esports broadcasts is virtually limitless. In the digital realm, cameras can be mapped into the heart of the action in ways that would be impossible in traditional, physical sports. There is no feasible way, for instance, to perch a camera atop a middle linebacker's shoulder and weave through traffic to smash a ball carrier. Yet skulking about Cedar Creek, edging hesitantly around corners or sprinting for cover, while pros fight and die all around you? All of that, and so much more, is possible.

For now, the reality is more subdued. "We are talking about day one of, hopefully, a long and amazing journey of virtual reality and esports together," Blicharz says. The final destination could be anywhere, and anything.

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