The players move slowly and cautiously, each carrying a rifle, hunting out their enemies in steaming jungles, baking deserts or even the surface of Mars.
They can hear, see and shoot their foes, but the field of battle is actually a vast warehouse north of Paris and the players are moving in immersive worlds thanks to virtual reality (VR) headsets.
This is the latest attempt to bring an element of physical exercise to the world of competitive video games known as eSports. The “lack of real physical exertion” is “one of the reasons why eSports are not considered real sport”, Jean Mariotte, the founder of EVA (Esports Virtual Arenas), told reporters at the warehouse, the first of 14 arenas to be opened across France and Belgium.
Esports tournaments feature hundreds of players often gathered in massive halls sitting comfortably while they battle it out on their favourite games for prize money and kudos.
Mariotte hopes to upend that model by mixing physical activity with gaming in what is called free-roam virtual reality. The most successful game of this type is Hado, a dodgeball-style activity where players fling fireballs at each other in an attempt to prevail.
“You see the environment as it really is, but special effects are added on top,” said Ludovic Donati, whose company Volt Events promotes Hado and other games.
Hado is huge in Japan and its promoters are keen to push it elsewhere, but both Hado and EVA are still in experimental stages and have limitations.
You just run!
So far, EVA is limited to the kind of shoot ’em up game with niche appeal. It could well be popular with pre-wedding “stag” parties or other group get-togethers – even if players end up sweaty. On the upside, the instructions are simple.
Before playing, an instructor tells players: “To run, you just run! To squat, you just squat!” While EVA could find its niche in the leisure market, Hado is a proper workout.
Games are so intense that they only last for 80 seconds, said Donati. Nevertheless, both games seem to have solved the problem that has dogged VR from the outset – motion sickness.
“One out of two people couldn’t stand it,” said Donati of the experience of standing still in the real world while moving around in the virtual one. He said this was why so many older-style VR rooms had closed down.
Motivating the young
Promoters of EVA and Hado see a brighter future for their products, positioning them as burgeoning sports rather than glorified video games. “You have to adapt to motivate today’s young people to do sport, you have to stimulate them with something that interests them a little more,” Donati said.
Hado already has teams and competitions set up in France and EVA is planning to capitalise on the Paris Olympics in 2024, hoping to have 100 arenas in the country by then.
Mathieu Lacrouts of video game communications agency Hurrah is one convert to EVA, telling AFP he tried it at a corporate event and was surprised by the “unanimously positive” feedback.
“Everyone got caught up in the game,” he said, even those who do not normally play video games. He said EVA was well positioned because it was the kind of experience that could not be reproduced at home, unlike other VR-sports crossover products like fitness game FitXR or the dance game Beat Saber.
But EVA chief Mariotte accepts he will need to branch out to attract more players. He has already announced a five million euro investment to develop an experience “that is not a shooter”.