When you look at the games industry today, the two buzzwords that seem to be bandied around are eSports and VR. While some believe that VR is one of the biggest breakthroughs that has been seen in gaming for years and is slowly revolutionising the industry providing gamers with a depth of gameplay and atmosphere that hasn’t been experienced before, there are others that still see the technology as being a gimmick that will fade over time. We still don’t know what the long-term health risks are associated with prolonged use of VR headsets so it’s still an unknown for many.
eSports on the other hand has become something else altogether. Ever since the dawn of the industry gamers have been known to be competitive. Whether it was the simplicity of the one-on-one competition of Pong back in the arcades in the 1970s, challenging your friends or complete strangers to get higher positions on high score tables on Space Invaders and other classic 80s arcade games moving right into the home. As soon as people were able to connect a second joystick or controller to their computer or console and invite a friend over, there was no turning back and friends soon became fierce rivals to see just who was the best and whatever game was chosen.
It was no surprise that games like Street Fighter II became an instant hit in the arcades, along with its home conversion to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and when that was bundled with the game and a second controller, that pack became one of the console’s most popular bundles amongst consumers.
As technology progressed, consoles were able to cope with an increasing number of players locally through multiplayer adaptors or an increased number of controller ports so it wasn’t unusual to see games supporting four players simultaneously. As gaming was slowly edging towards the 32-bit era and PC gaming was starting to come into its own, we started to see the early days of network and online multiplayer gaming which was set to pave the way for what was to become the behemoth that has become the eSports phenomenon that we know today.
In parallel to this, something else started to happen which – to an outsider – can only be described as bizarre. We were starting to see the birth of “Let’s Play” videos – predominantly through YouTube, recordings of gamers just playing games. Just seeing it described above makes the concept sound incredibly dull but as a gamer it can be incredibly absorbing to watch. For those of you being able to see a game played from start to finish that you own but have never completed could give you playing tips and advice or simply allow you to admire and enjoy the sights and sounds that you wouldn’t normally be able to allow yourself to during gameplay.
It was clearly only a matter of time before the two came together… competitions amongst gamers became increasingly common at events (and who can forget the televised challenges on shows like Gamesmaster in the 1990s), companies and even publishers themselves started taking note and began to promote and sponsor the events putting prizes up for winners and it wasn’t long before the TV audiences of old gave way to crowds forming at events, and giving way to even bigger audiences through dedicated eSports events drawing crowds in their thousands.
It certainly wasn’t just the typical game of Street Fighter or a few online PC games that was paving the way any more that was doing this and making eSports into what it had become. While there were still the individual one-on-one challenges of games like Street Fighter and Tekken, things had moved on. First person shooters began to dominate and team play, just as it was common online, became the norm. It’s serious stuff as well with the better teams able to make a serious living from eSports vying for sponsorship, tournament prize money and accolades. It seems to be a winner all round – sponsors are happy thanks to the incredible viewing figures seen online for competitions, event attendance figures bring in substantial sums of money for organisers and even fans can get in on the action betting on their favourite teams. It’s all a bit overwhelming!
So where does the Vita fit into all of this? The potential for it to be a serious part of eSports has been there since its launch. The Vita has had a plethora of great multiplayer games released and while it doesn’t naturally offer multiplayer titles using a single system it’s more than capable of great one-on-one competition using it’s integrated wi-fi for ad-hoc multiplayer. We’ve been treated to a superb Street Fighter game in the shape of Street Fighter X Tekken or looking to another Capcom release we have Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 – either of which could work wonderfully for eSports play. Over in the FPS genre we’ve been treated to what is arguably one of the Vita’s finest moments, Killzone Mercenary, and that’s a game that can hold its head up high alongside it’s peers over on the PS3.
Unfortunately, right from day one the Vita has been lacking when it has come to connectivity. We’ve had reasonably good wi-fi capabilities which has allowed for great multiplayer functionality for games like Killzone, but that just hasn’t been good enough for serious tournament play. The first model of the Vita as you know offered mobile internet connectivity but in Sony’s wisdom they only offered 3G which wasn’t really suitable for anything other than trophy support, uploading save game data, checking the PlayStation Network for license eligibility and downloading relatively small games from the PlayStation Store. Online gaming? Forget it. I had more success doing that using my 4G phone as a wi-fi hotspot and linking the Vita to it.
Connectivity aside, beyond the early wave of release the Vita hasn’t seen enough big budget games that could lend itself to the eSports format. While we have been blessed (and continue to be) with some fantastic games none are really competitive in a multiplayer sense. We’re certainly not alone in that capacity and it’s something that Nintendo DS and 3DS owners had to deal with as well (although the family image of both handhelds no doubt limited the potential further despite multiplayer gems like Mario Kart). Where the Vita is concerned though, perhaps it was just never meant to be…