Opinion: Esports leads the way for virtual reality in sports

At The International 6, a Dota 2 championship tournament, attendees could try out competitive games in virtual reality. Fans who weren't able to be there in person could watch in VR as well -- a first for the event. Michael Hansom for ESPN

The International 6 (TI6), the most prestigious Dota 2 tournament and undoubtedly one of the biggest events on the annual esports calendar, is nearing its conclusion this week before a sold-out KeyArena in Seattle. Though it boasts a prize pool in excess of $20 million, double that of golf's Masters, the ramifications of TI6 will go far beyond making millionaires out of the five teenagers and twenty-somethings who win the grand finals. This event is also a watershed moment for virtual reality (VR) in sports.

As a new feature for TI6, Valve added the Dota VR Hub, which allows fans to watch every game in three unique VR modes: in a theater surrounded by other fans; above the map as if flying around on the Goodyear Blimp; and in the thick of the action at true scale. I tried out the various modes for myself, and while the technology isn't quite there yet -- it is still a little clunky and can be harder to follow the action on than by simply watching the stream -- there can be little doubt that this is a major step toward something big for fans of esports -- and sports all over the world.

VR is going to revolutionize how we watch sports, and esports is going to be at the forefront of that movement.

It's often taken for granted how much augmented reality (AR) technology has changed sports viewership as we know it. Try watching football without the projected first-down line, hockey without puck tracking or Olympic swimming without the moving world-record meter. In nearly every sport, AR enhances our ability to follow the game in real time and better understand what we saw on replay.

VR is the next frontier for improving sports viewership. It can virtually deposit the viewer right into the stadium or even in the game itself. And it's already being applied to traditional sports. Certain programming at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games can be viewed in VR. This year's Home Run Derby also dabbled in VR viewing opportunities. NextVR, the market leader in live virtual reality broadcast technology with a wide array of sports applications, just closed an $80 million series B. But the current traditional sports VR experiences pale in comparison to what is happening at TI6 this week, and for good reason.

Live action sports are limited by the nature of VR technology. To give a viewer the experience of being in a seat at Madison Square Garden, there need to be special VR cameras placed throughout the stadium in order to capture the action. But for esports, those barriers are considerably smaller. An esports match necessarily exists in a more digitally translatable format (either on PC or console). This means that VR efforts will focus less on how to capture the game and more on how to create uniquely immersive viewer experiences from the comfort of your living room couch.

The marriage of VR and esports is also crucial given the more global nature of the esports industry. Unlike traditional sports, esports teams aren't defined by a geographic nexus. I grew up a fan of the Seahawks, SuperSonics (may they rest in peace) and University of Washington, because that's where I'm from. It also came with the added bonus of being able to drive only 10 minutes to watch these teams play throughout the year.

In stark contrast, the fans of any given esports team are spread out throughout their home country and even all over the world. This means that the fan of a team can literally go their entire life without ever having an easy opportunity to watch that team play in person.

Enter VR.

While it might never be exactly the same as going to the event in person, the evolution of VR technology will create the opportunity for a fan to have a truly immersive experience when they are either unwilling or unable to travel to the venue. Someday, a sports fan will be able to put on a pair of goggles and be transported into a stadium to watch their favorite team play alongside thousands of fans, all without the hassle of traffic, lines and overpriced beer.

No one knows exactly when that day will come, but it is undoubtedly a question of when, not if. We've already started down that path, and TI6 was a giant leap forward.

So whether you tuned into TI6 or not, this was a big week for you as a sports fan. VR is going to continue to evolve, and it will ultimately revolutionize the way sports are consumed all over the globe. Esports will be a driving force behind that transformation. To the rest of the world, you're welcome.