By Yang Jie 

In June, armed young men with the latest high-tech gear are expected to descend on Beijing to shoot at their rivals.

Fortunately, the event is just a game with play guns. But it's also a thriving business that stands to grow and change with the addition of fifth-generation mobile connections.

Esports are videogame competitions played before live and online audiences -- sometimes totaling in the tens of millions -- in which experienced contestants vie for cash prizes. Companies ranging from Intel Corp. to Ericsson AB say they see esports as a natural application for ultrafast 5G networks. With much faster speeds than fourth-generation technology, 5G can make a critical difference in the realism of game scenes and the action. Fast networks are needed to transfer the huge amounts of data that allow players to respond to one another's actions and keep simulated environments realistic-looking.

With faster connections, there also will be potential to involve more players from different venues in a single esports competition. The higher speeds made available in mobile devices, meanwhile, will give a big boost to competitions in virtual-reality games -- both in how such games are played and how audiences experience such events.

In virtual-reality games, headsets made by companies such as Facebook Inc.'s Oculus unit allow players to immerse themselves in simulated environments. In shooting games, for example, players see themselves moving through the virtual environment, and when they pull the triggers on their faux guns to shoot at virtual enemies, bursts of gunfire appear.

Previously in virtual-reality esports, contestants at the venue could move around some, but they had to wear bulky backpacks stuffed with computers to manage data transfers and ensure uninterrupted play. 5G frees competitors to move around more, without wires or the burden of a heavy backpack containing computer power.

The technology "is revolutionizing the industry as mobile and cloud-based gaming is set to take precedence, powered by 5G connections and higher bandwidth," Kevin Murphy, an Ericsson vice president, wrote in a blog post in March.

Chinese entrepreneur Qi Xiao, who focuses on applications of virtual-reality technology for entertainment, is one of those working on the next generation of esports. Mr. Qi says he was inspired to take his business in this direction by the dystopian science-fiction novel "Ready Player One," in which players of a virtual-reality game in the 2040s hunt for treasure. The 2011 novel, by Ernest Cline, was adapted by Steven Spielberg into a 2018 movie.

The 40-year-old Mr. Qi started developing his own story lines for virtual-reality videogames a few years back. In 2018, his startup, Sky Limit Entertainment, received a multimillion-dollar investment from Intel -- the exact amount wasn't disclosed -- and the two companies started to work on applying new technologies such as 5G to virtual reality.

One of the problems in virtual-reality esports up to now has been that contestants often experienced a sense of vertigo due to blurred images in their headsets caused by slow bandwidths. Mr. Qi's 5G connections are designed to fix the vertigo problem. He and Intel are also working on faster processing using cloud computing, in which central servers do the heavy-duty data crunching rather than computers or devices held by the players themselves.

"The trend is to bring everything onto the cloud so even if people are far away from each other, they can still be in the same space via 5G networks for real-time battles," says Mr. Qi.

When virtual reality is used in esports, the action is more like a traditional sporting match, in that players are physically active, roaming around a stage in a real arena, ducking down and emerging to shoot enemies. Mobile sensors in the play guns, gloves and headsets track the players' actions -- their movements and shooting -- and that data is transmitted and processed into the virtual environment. The contestants see that world in their headsets. So does the audience. Spectators at the actual event can both watch the contestants as they move about the stage and follow the battle occurring in the virtual environment shown on giant screens. Online viewers can also watch the virtual action.

In earlier esports, such as the "League of Legends" world championship, spectators mainly were shown the in-game action. Occasionally fans would see the players sitting in front of their PCs. The new ability to see the players actually moving around and testing their physical abilities provides an extra thrill, says J.C. Kuang, managing director at the U.S. research firm Greenlight Insights.

Intel has had a hand in esports for years. It sponsors a long-running professional videogame-competition tour called Intel Extreme Masters and started to experiment with virtual-reality games in 2017.

Sky Limit, Mr. Qi's company, and Intel are co-hosting a series of VR competitions using 5G. Their plan calls for tournaments in China, Thailand, South Korea and Singapore, although a recent flare-up of Covid-19 cases may cause disruptions in the events outside China.

The market for dedicated cloud-gaming services is estimated to be a $6.3 billion opportunity by 2024, growing from $640 million in 2020, according to New York-based research firm ABI Research. ABI estimates the Asia-Pacific region would account for 45% of the market, followed by North America with 26%.

Within Asia, China is at the forefront both of esports and 5G. The leading esports platform is operated by Wuhan-based DouYu International Holdings Ltd., a publicly listed company backed by Chinese internet heavyweight Tencent Holdings Ltd. VR videogame tournaments are scheduled this summer in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Arenas for esports are even part of the economic development plan in Beijing's Haidian district, the country's closest equivalent to Silicon Valley and home to several of China's leading universities. The district government's plan calls for roughly $1.55 million in subsidies for companies hosting local esports events using 5G, virtual reality or other technologies.

Tencent Vice President Cheng Wu said in a public speech last August that the company was "hoping to bring a new, more future-oriented experience in all aspects of esports." Next up, he said, could be virtual characters serving as tournament commentators and artificial-intelligence trainers for esports athletes.

Ms. Yang is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Tokyo. She can be reached at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 26, 2021 10:14 ET (14:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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