OPINION

Take the red pill, see how deep the robot hole gets

By KH디지털2
  • Published : Dec 22, 2015 - 17:19
  • Updated : Dec 22, 2015 - 17:19

Over the past few years the world has witnessed the advancing march of technology’s influence on virtually every aspect of our existence -- be it business, social, or cultural. The ongoing emergence and confluence of evolving technologies is altering our very notions of reality. One example of this is the explosive growth of the entertainment phenomenon known as “eSports.”

Korea pioneered the modern version of eSports, and to this day, remains a leader in what has become a mainstream pastime that is now the viewing content of choice for a growing number of millennials worldwide.

The “first wave” of eSports was originally called competitive gaming. It was dominated by American and Japanese hardware and software companies and players. Tracing its roots back to the 1980s, eSports were first played on standalone machines with hit arcade games such as “Donkey Kong,” “Asteroids,” and “Pac Man.”

While the first wave of eSports died, in part, due to the North American Video Game Crash of 1983, like a Phoenix, it emerged from the ashes, reborn in a South Korea reeling from the throes of another economic crash -- the Asian financial crisis of 1997. This time, it was reborn in the body of a PC game called “StarCraft,” which, coupled with the period’s economic malaise, drove many seekers of entertainment on the cheap to PC bangs (net cafes). These players would use networked PCs to compete with friends and makeshift teams, and the most skilled of them would eventually go on to become professionals, enjoying massive fan bases along with lucrative salaries and corporate sponsorships.

Today’s eSports, however, could not have flourished in the era of the first wave of competitive gaming, as neither the technology nor the public, beyond a handful of aficionados, were ready to make it an economically viable form of mainstream entertainment. And this is how it remained until the technological and social pieces came into place in the 1990s.

When I first visited a Korean PC bang, the thought that initially crossed my mind was that it was like a modern version of the arcades of yore. The PC bangs were, and remain to this day, entertainment spaces where people congregate and use technology to be entertained with their friends.

Recently, though, there was an attempt to create mobile device-based competitive gaming -- eSports on mobile phones and tablets. However, for the following reasons, this has yet to prove commercially viable. First, there are fewer parties who benefit from the value chain compared with PC-based eSports. Second, the platform does not lend itself to audience participation, and by extension, excitement. With PC-based eSports there are live and recorded streams of the games and arenas in which the audience “participates.” Trying to replicate the success of PC-based eSports business models with platforms such as mobile devices, which neither lengthens the value chain nor boosts the entertainment value, is unlikely to succeed. Robotics-enhanced sports (reSports), however, overcomes all of these challenges.

ReSports will be the next growth area for technology-based competitive gaming. It is the third wave of eSports and the natural progression from the purely cyber realm of the screen to the cyberphysical realm that extends to the physical world. It is now evolving into something that is not far removed from the games seen in movies such as “Real Steel,” “Big Hero 6,” or “Robot Jox.”

Both eSports and reSports share similar technological, business, and cultural histories. In the 1980s, the TV show “Starcade” failed to stimulate interest in broadcast eSports, while in the late 1990s to the early 21st century, the TV show “Robot Wars” was an attempt to popularize broadcast reSports. “Starcade” and “Robot Wars” both had a common an underlying cause for generating little in the way of economic returns: the technology had not reached the tipping point. Of course, eSports has since passed its tipping point, and now, with the start of the CyberPhysical Era, reSports is ready, and so are we.

With the rise of robotics and accelerating exodus of intelligent technologies from the confines of cyberspace, the first green shoots of reSports are emerging in the form of popular robot-videogame hybrid products such as Anki, Sphero, and others. At the spectator level, there is the highly publicized upcoming battle between America’s Megabot and Japan’s Kuratas, two giant “mecha” robots.

There are now professional drone entertainment organizations such as the Drone Racing League and the FPV League, formed with the backing of several high-profile investors. Earlier this year, the Drone Racing League announced that RSE Ventures, the venture-capital firm affiliated with the Miami Dolphins, contributed $1 million to the league. The founders of the league envision it evolving into a spectator sport similar to other racing leagues such as NASCAR, but utilizing technologies such as the Oculus Rift and streaming the birds-eye view in VR. Indeed, organization like the Drone Racing League and FPV League are likely to be the catalyzers for the rapid growth of reSports.

In Motorsports, Formula 1 is where the most advanced technology is aggressively developed and tested. Although Formula 1 cars boast the latest and greatest automotive technologies, there remains one archaic component in the car: the driver.

Roborace, a global motorsports series for autonomous vehicles is slated to begin in 2016. Roborace promises to be more than a demonstration of the power of technology when humans are taken out of the circuit. Self-driving cars that compete at 300 kph will provide lessons about how these autonomous technologies deal with intense driving conditions, and that will accelerate the development of consumer autonomous driving systems.

Korea’s first-mover advantage in eSports boosted the sales and global visibility of many of its companies. To this day, Korean players and teams are consistently among the top players in the global rankings. reSports would do the same for companies seeking to demonstrate their capabilities in Robotics Internet of Things (RIoT) hardware and software. Indeed, the development of reSports-related businesses is already creating new business opportunities not unlike those in eSports, with companies creating and broadcasting content, making premium hardware (e.g. high-end/high-margin game PCs, components, etc.).

At present, U.S. companies lead in the development of reSports, with European, Japanese, and Chinese players close behind. Korea has the potential to become a big player in this growth area and has demonstrated its technological capability in other top-tier robotics competitions such as the 2015 DARPA Challenge in the U.S. Korea has all the components to secure a position in this growing cultural and business phenomenon. Taking the leading position in reSports would not only generate national pride, but more importantly, it would also bring with it new channels for economic growth in current and emerging business areas. It would literally give form to another dimension of new opportunities beyond the current iteration of eSports.

The Cyberphysical Era is here and with it we will see the rise and proliferation of reSports. Those companies and individuals with the vision to see just over the horizon can take the necessary steps to secure strategic positions in this emerging phenomenon and reap the benefits.

By Robert Cheek

Robert Cheek (Robb the Robot Guy) is an analyst at HMC Investment Securities, the investment banking arm of the Hyundai Motor Group. He has worked in the gaming, mobile device, eSports, and robotics industries. He can be reached at r.cheek@hmcib.com. –Ed.