Despite how rapidly technology progresses nowadays, sometimes it feels like we’re never really catching up to the lofty sci-fi ambitions of old Hollywood films. The 1982 film Tron, for instance, presented us with a neon-tinted vision of the future where players could compete in full-on digital sports. Despite all our advancements in virtual reality (VR) tech over recent years, something like The Grid still feels foreign.
But that might be about to change. Arcadia.tv is a first-of-its-kind idea that promises to be the future of sports. It combines sports and esports to create digital experiences that still require athleticism. Participants gather in a physical arena, strap on an Oculus Quest, and compete in games that combine the basics of sports and classic arcade hits. Games will be broadcast on Arcadia’s social media channels for anyone to watch. After operating in secret for three years, Arcadia.tv is ready to unleash its modern take on sports to the world.
I sat down with Arcadia.tv CEO Chris Olimpo to learn more about how it all works. According to Olimpo, Arcadia is the “missing link between esports and traditional sports” that aims to fix a huge problem with the impending metaverse.
Arcadia.tv has quietly been in development for three years. The spark for the idea came when Olimpo was working in the VR industry, creating VR experiences for big clients like Universal (Olimpo previously produced and directed a Tom Cruise VR film). While he was enamored by the tech, Olimpo became worried about the direction he saw it taking us in.
“We did this super cool thing at South by Southwest where we had people sitting in these big red chairs,” Olimpo tells Digital Trends. “I immediately thought of Wall-E and thought, ‘Oh no, this is not the future we’re supposed to build.’ And then I looked at Tron and said, ‘That’s the future we’re supposed to build. How do we build that?’”
To counteract his fears of a dystopian future, Olimpo founded Arcadia.tv. The unique blend of video games and sports puts physicality at the forefront of VR. Players compete in a digital space, but it’s more active than your standard video game. Competitors use their body as a controller, dashing around an actual arena in real time alongside their opponents.
It looks a lot like something you’d see in Ready Player One, which calls the concept of the metaverse to mind. Companies like Epic and Facebook have spent the past few years pushing to bring the metaverse concept to life by deepening our digital experiences. Arcadia very much fits into that grand future, with Olimpo calling it “the sport of the metaverse.” But as companies like Epic make content for players to sit at a computer and play, Arcadia wants to make sure we’re staying healthy in an increasingly digital future.
“To be honest, it’s our push to keep humanity in the metaverse,” says Olimpo. “I think technology does its best service when it accelerates the human experience … Arcadia is something that’s trying to remind the world that this body we have is very important. Your brain doesn’t work well without a healthy body. If you’re going to experience something in the metaverse, you might want to run around and play rather than lie down and jack in.”
Arcadia.tv features a number of custom-designed games that players can compete in. They tend to combine the basics of a real sport with ideas from classic games. For instance, one game has players running in-between moving digital barriers. It’s essentially Frogger meets real-life track and field.
The arcade influence isn’t an accident. Olimpo recalls an anecdote that guides the philosophy for how Arcadia’s games are built with an audience in mind.
“We were at a trade show a few years ago, and nobody was waiting in line for virtual reality,” says Olimpo. “There was this small Galaga machine, and I started playing. I was breaking 50,000, and a small little crowd started forming around me. My coworker asked, ‘What happened there?’ and I said, ‘I broke 100,000 on Galaga.’ There’s an audience experience built into this; VR doesn’t have that.”
While Arcadia.tv has yet to broadcast to viewers, the team itself is its current audience. They’ve been watching as competitors playtest the program and have found themselves surprised at the results. Olimpo is especially puzzled that gamers tend to fare better than athletes in tests, despite the latter having some physical advantage.
“With someone who’s very athletic versus someone who’s a super gamer, you really don’t know who’s going to win,” says Olimpo. “Some very athletic people just go and aren’t necessarily familiar with patterns in video games, while gamers really do get that. Gamers learn really fast, and they learn through iteration. In the first five levels, you’re pretty sure an athlete is going to win, and then there’s a tipping point where the gamer just overtakes them.”
That highlights the unique skills required for both sports and esports. The latter may not require physical strength, but quick reaction time and the ability to adapt are crucial skills for pro gamers to have. Arcadia creates a level playing field between those two disparate worlds.
The idea is already paying off for Arcadia. The company recently partnered with Warner Bros. to create an official Space Jam experience. The basketball game has players running around a court, picking up digital balls, and shooting them into hoops. Olimpo compares it to Pac-Man, with players chasing down pellets but mashed up with the core idea of basketball.
That’s a high-profile partnership for a start-up that’s yet to really begin. Arcadia is holding tryouts across the country to find competitors. It’ll eventually follow that up with live game broadcasts on its social media channels. For the team, the sky’s the limit. What Arcadia is doing has never really been attempted in this capacity, and Olimpo has high hopes for where it could go.
“We’re looking to level the playing field and bring respect to esports. In the same way the Olympics used to have chess and used to really respect the cognitive ability of chess, I think esports have a place at the Olympics. But with something like Arcadia, I think it makes it more palatable to the masses. There’s something about combining that cognitive and physical competition in a new way, and the truth is, we’re going to do it with or without the Olympics.”
The only potential hurdle for Arcadia is that it’s entirely reliant on external technology. The team is at the mercy of hardware manufacturers, using Oculus Rift headsets to run games. Just an hour before our chat, Oculus recalled the foam padding in the Quest 2 due to reports of skin irritation. Any little issue with the tech presents a logistical challenge for Arcadia. Though, funny enough, the company had already created custom sweat-resistant padding to use in the Oculus, putting them one step ahead of the actual manufacturers. Olimpo doesn’t rule out a future where Arcadia simply creates its own VR headset and cuts out the middleman altogether.
Everything about Arcadia.tv is forward-thinking. It’s not a quick cash grab that’s trying to capitalize on esports or VR. It’s a carefully considered project that doesn’t just want to be a part of the move toward the metaverse; it wants to redefine it. Olimpo is already envisioning a future where the way we think about video games is entirely different than the way we see them today.
“I see a future where parents are going to tell their kids, ‘Why don’t you go outside and play video games already?’” he says.
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