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Is virtual reality the future of hockey video games?

Matt Larkin
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Screenshot of NHL 16. Author: The Hockey News

News

Is virtual reality the future of hockey video games?

Matt Larkin
By:

Hockey video games have almost achieved photorealism. Is virtual reality next? And will hockey gamers ever become celebrities?

The Jetsons and Back to the Future II sure missed the mark depicting our future. Sassy robots don’t serve us breakfast, skateboards still have wheels and, for the love of God, cars do not fly.

Standing on the ice at Toronto’s MasterCard Centre last summer, however, could almost trick the mind into believing we’d realized popular fiction’s utopian future. Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly and Montreal Canadiens sniper Max Pacioretty darted around the ice clad in black suits, covered in reflective balls. As the players deked, shot and play-fought, cameras surrounding the rink bounced light off the balls, triangulating the visual information. Instantaneously, on a TV screen just behind the boards, video game avatars mimicked each player’s movement in real time. Voila, motion-capture technology, the lifeblood of EA Sports’ insanely realistic hockey video game series.

“It looks a lot more restrictive than it actually was,” Pacioretty said after removing his high-tech gear. “I was expecting to go out there and feel like I wasn’t a hockey player, but we felt pretty comfortable. The technology was amazing.”

Other video game genres, such as action or horror, have actors perform all the movements and dialogue in similar MoCap suits, creating a smooth, cinematic experience. Sean Ramjagsingh, producer of EA Sports’ NHL series, told THN a few years back the company’s goal was photorealism. He envisioned a console presentation virtually impossible to distinguish from a real-life broadcast on TV, so that people would have to stop and stare to realize it was a video game.

We’ve more or less achieved that feat today. Graphics will inch forward a bit each year, especially given the power of eighth-generation consoles PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but it’s the law of diminishing returns now. These games look amazing already. What, then, will the future bring in hockey gaming – and all sports gaming for that matter – in 10, 20 or 50 years? How can we possibly advance any further?

One logical step that would constitute progress: virtual reality. That doesn’t mean the rudimentary, migraine-inducing headsets of 20 years ago like Virtual Boy. The next paradigm shift should be fully immersive sensory environments like the Holodeck in Star Trek. Big news for layman gamers out there – it’s already happening. Virtual reality gaming systems Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift debuted to rave reviews at 2015’s E3, a.k.a. Electronic Entertainment Expo, the world’s most famous video game trade fair. Chief among their offerings is EVE: Valkyrie, a first-person space shooter that immerses players in aerial dogfights from their very own panoramic cockpits. Colin Moriarty, former IGN senior editor, video game journalist and co-founder of the YouTube channel Kinda Funny, is one of the conference’s most famous and esteemed voices. He was so blown away by the virtual reality that he did something he’d never done before: ask to try a demo a second time. He called playing the game a religious experience.

“It is absurdly good,” Moriarty said. “You are flying and using a controller, but if you look left, you see the ship to your left. You look right, you see it to your right. You look down, you see your own body. You look up and you see the cockpit. It is amazing how you play this game.”

See for yourself:

You know the next question: can this technology work for sports games, more specifically hockey? The biggest obstacle is movement. As Moriarty notes, a sports game is far different from an experience that keeps you static in a virtual cockpit. Few sports involve as much fast, furious movement as hockey does. A virtual reality hockey setup would endanger every coffee table and vase in a one-meter radius. In-game fights would punch holes in plenty of drywall. And while there’s no actual space battle frontier tempting the average Joe from his couch, every pond and arena still threaten to top whatever virtual experience a hockey game might offer.

“The question you need to ask yourself is, do you really want to put on pads and helmets and sticks, and stand on the fake ice, or do you just want to go out with your buddies and play on the actual ice itself?” Ramjagsingh said.

He also added that small gaming space with limited range of movement would make it difficult to trick gamers’ brains into feeling the speed of hockey. That said, the sport has one element falling somewhere between the full sport experience and that space pilot stationed in his cockpit: the blue ice. Moriarty and Ramjagsingh each mention goaltending as a strong possibility for virtual reality. Unless he’s Ben Bishop, an NHL goalie doesn’t stray too much throughout a game. A VR system might work, with the goalie’s cage standing in for the spaceship’s windows and opposing slapshots subbing for enemy missile attacks.

“Because you only need the crease, you could come all the way out to the slot or go behind the net,” Moriarty said. “In other words, you would only need five feet in every direction around you, maybe.”

The VR experience isn’t part of EA’s short-term plans. It’s a long way off. Ramjagsingh predicts we’re more likely to see virtual reality transporting fans to live sporting events before the technology permeates the sports gaming world. And Moriarty mentions a “projected” version of virtual reality as a possibility. That would involve seeing a game in front of you and manipulating the image with your hands. Think Tom Cruise shuffling through case files in Minority Report.

Virtual reality, though, isn’t the only way to envision hockey gaming in the future. The next phase may not be about how we’re playing, but who we’re watching. Fantasy games like League of Legends or fighting games like Street Fighter draw tens of thousands to watch professional players compete. People fill not just arenas but stadiums to watch in countries like South Korea, Moriarty says. Search “League of Legends competition” on YouTube and you’ll see presentations highly similar to sports broadcasts, complete with pre-game analyst panels and play-by-play announcers. The top pros make six figures a year and are now flirting with seven figures. They even have performance-enhancing drug scandals, with “athletes” being busted for focus-boosters like Adderall.

So will sports gamers eventually permeate the bustling professional scene? On one hand, other genres have the same key advantage they do in virtual reality. A gamer who slays dragons and casts spells better than anyone else on the planet has no real-life competition. Wizards and dragons don’t actually exist unless you count Game of Thrones. Will fans still turn out in droves to watch hockey video gamers compete for money when NHLers still play the real thing? There’s a reason why the celebrity gamer culture hasn’t blown up in sports yet.

Ramjagsingh still sees signs of it happening someday, however. He notes the popularity of the EA Sports Hockey League feature in his NHL series, in which users create their own characters and compete in leagues with all-human, 6-on-6 action. Gamers had already been asking EA for ways to tune in as spectators and watch their friends play. Ramjagsingh believes it’s only a matter of time before gamers’ profiles really start to blow up, especially because they use social media to self-promote.

“Games and sports games in general are ways for people to push that vehicle and build their brand to become the best in the world at it and then show off that they are the best in the world at it,” Ramjagsingh said. “It is not that far away, especially in relation to social media. Did you ever imagine YouTubers would become celebrities with their great following? I don’t think anyone would have imagined that.”

One key obstacle remains in the way of sports gamers and professional status, and it’s one only an expert like Moriarty can explain. A defining characteristic of the games that yield pro competition, such as StarCraft: they don’t change. They operate under the same engine year after year, with only patches and upgrades tweaking the gameplay, and wait many years before redesigns. StarCraft came out in 1998. StarCraft II? 2010. This system keeps games in circulation for years – and that creates true experts. Sports games are different. NHL 16 releases Sept. 15, and EA has already started building NHL 17 for next September. Constantly redesigning a game prevents players from becoming “pro-level” talented, as every new release renders the old one obsolete, with players forced to learn the new version’s physics.

The near future of hockey gaming looks similar to the existing landscape but with more power in users’ hands to shape the content. Ramjagsingh explained that EA used more fan input than ever to design NHL 16. The company commissioned a group of high-profile gamers and had them on site making recommendations during the design process. He believes the next wave will let the public leverage its own experience more, perhaps via special upgrade websites or even apps.

The more grandiose visions, from virtual reality to professional hockey gaming, will have to wait a few more years, maybe even decades. Just like those damn flying cars.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin

This feature appears in the Sept. 14 Future of Hockey Issue of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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Is virtual reality the future of hockey video games?