The hit crossover fighting game is the latest to receive Labo VR support.
Despite enjoying playing sports myself, I’ll be the first one to admit that I was never fond of watching them on TV. Neither one of my parents regularly “put the game on,” and the only sporting events I ever attended were on camp field trips (where I would wear the colors of whatever team was expected to win). As a gamer, that lack of interest would eventually lead to watching various Twitch streams and MOBA esports events. But even those weren’t enough to satisfy my needs as an esports spectator—I wanted to play, not just watch. On May 30th, Nintendo released an update for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate that changed my mind.
Update Version 3.1.0, while providing a number of new features, adds VR support to the platform’s most beloved brawler. A little more than a month old, Nintendo’s launch of the Labo VR kit subverted expectations. Taking a page out of Google’s playbook, they combined their Labo line of cardboard-based interactive products with cutting edge immersive technology.
While the Labo VR games designed from the ground up with VR in mind work well and show off Nintendo’s unorthodox approach to play, existing titles that were updated to support VR have received mixed reviews. Though the company is clearly aware of its past history with VR, gaming outlets slammed the VR additions to the platform’s strongest titles: Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. While Super Mario Odyssey supported custom VR levels that appeared too far away from the player—due in large part to the platform’s 3DoF technology—VR support for the entire Breath Of The Wild campaign shined a light on the Switch’s rendering limitations.
That being said, the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate update got me thinking: would adding VR to esports change the viewing experience? Watching and rewatching Nintendo’s announcement video answered this question with a resounding yes. Despite using 3D models, Super Smash Bros. has always been viewed from a fixed camera angle utilizing a form of projection that provides a sense of depth. This latest update changes the game by allowing players to view the action from a variety of unique angles.
Whether it’s staring up at a looming skyscraper, watching combatants balance on the edge of a small monoplane as scenery whips by, or wincing as four heroes precariously trade blows on the top of a monumental tower, every fight in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is elevated by the sense of scale and immersion that VR provides. While it’s no question that Nintendo has a lot to work out with regard to its VR titles, they do function well as a sort of proof-of-concept for passive VR viewership of third-person games.
Since the early 2010’s, the popularity of esports has grown rapidly. Now, international teams and players are signed and traded like other professional athletes, receiving a salary with benefits and competing in major competitions for millions of dollars. Twitch streamers have become wealthy from providing viewers a window into their gaming exploits, and companies like Blizzard have begun opening dedicated esports arenas with wall-to-wall screens.
But where does this leave the average viewer who lacks the ability to attend an event in-person? Most are forced to watch these grand battles from their phones or computers, held back from being fully immersed in the emotional rollercoaster that comes with the rivalries, showdowns, and everything else that has driven the human species to play games of skill. Even I, someone who actively avoids situations where I would be forced to watch sports, find enjoyment in attending competitive gaming events in-person. Now, VR is stepping up to provide that same feeling to those viewing remotely.
Imagine pulling up a bowl of popcorn, donning your Oculus Quest headset, and being immediately transported into an overhead view of a MOBA arena for a match-up between your two favorite teams. Four avatars float nearby, each one a member of your friend group that is viewing remotely, enjoying an instanced copy of the game that allows you to talk and jeer in a private audio channel. This would be an incredibly immersive way to enjoy your favorite game remotely in a social environment, just like going to an actual stadium.
The same could eventually be done for streaming console or computer games—developers could include a 3D camera mechanism to follow key players and provide the viewers with an immersive recording of their individual gameplay. New practices would have to be established to guide spectator attention in the same way that current esports productions do, but once made, they could open up a whole new way for people to connect with the content and competitors they love.
The immersive nature of the medium may also increase the watchability of games that are normally hard to enjoy via 2D streaming, such as certain strategy or RTS titles. Valve attempted to address this issue back in 2016 with its Dota 2 VR Spectator Mode, but since then the concept has been largely ignored. Of course, the potential use-cases don’t just stop at esports.
3D character artist and VR enthusiast Liz Edwards found a way to use applications such as OVRdrop—a tool that mirrors desktop windows and webcams over SteamVR games—to layer her onto different immersive experiences.
Whether she’s pulling directly from the inspiration around her, or just enjoying the ambiance of being in-game while she’s working, Liz shows us how productivity doesn’t need to stop just because you’re in VR (even if things do get scary sometimes).
As pass-through functionality and new technologies like Varjo’s XR-1 dual VR/AR headset continue to advance, it will eventually be possible to bring entire rooms with you into virtual game spaces, allowing you to move around your environment uninterrupted while still enjoying your favorite content. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to seeing Ness spam PK Fire in VR. Time to make some s’mores.