We have seen the future of watching esports, and it is good

If you own an HTC Vive, you can jump into the game and watch pro Dota 2—like The International 2016, going on right now—in an incredibly unique way. But Stunlock Studios, creators of Bloodline Champions and its upcoming spiritual successor Battlerite, has figured out a way to bring the benefits of VR spectating to those who don’t have a headset, and I think it may be the future of esports broadcasting.

Battlerite, a PvP arena combat game that is launching in Early Access next month, will have a VR spectator and observer mode built-in. But unlike Dota 2’s VR mode, Stunlock Studios has also added a handheld camera for the VR observer to physically move around like a real camera. This isn't about watching esports from within VR, which I still question the practicality of. This is about how VR can make watching esports regularly better for everyone. The observer stands over the map in VR as a giant, and the camera has smoothing and stabilization, allowing for cinematic craning shots we don’t usually see during live esport events. 

Stunlock hasn’t reinvented the wheel here, but it is the first time I’ve seen the perspectives of VR camera operators being used for non-VR viewers—without the jerkiness that comes from a VR headset view. The idea of putting a camera back into the (virtual) hands of a person trained to operate it is incredibly exciting to me. Top-level esports observers do amazing, under-appreciated work with a mouse and keyboard, but there’s a whole lot of film technique that simply can’t be replicated well with those controls. 

VR camera operators definitely shouldn’t replace regular observing entirely—you still want an esports broadcast to look relatable to those who play the game—but it could be a valuable tool even in games with larger maps than Battlerite. Having an observer stand over a miniaturized version of League of Legend’s Summoner’s Rift or CS:GO’s de_dust to provide the occasional wide, craning shot would be incredible. Even top CS:GO observer Heather “sapphiRe” Garrozo is excited by the idea:

Of course, this is still sort of a proof of concept, as Battlerite isn’t even out for the public to try yet.  But if it ends up working as smoothly as it looks in the video above (or the example below) then I would love to see this capture method spread to the current major esports. VR headsets are still a niche product, and it’s much easier for a tournament organizer to get one Vive to film with than it is for thousands of viewers to watch from their own, so it’s at least more practical than Dota 2’s VR mode.