USAF Veteran Develops A Passion For VR Esports

USAF Veteran Develops A Passion For VR Esports
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United States Air Force Veteran Brad ‘SL33PY’ Atkins was scrolling through YouTube one evening when he saw a video that would change his life and make a tremendous impact on thousands of people in the ecosystem of VR esports.

“I saw this military game being played by The Lonely Viper,” says Atkins. “The combination of his sense of humor and the gameplay I was watching immediately told me, ‘I must play this!’”

Although he had played first person shooters in the past, they were traditional console games. Once the former Armament Systems Tech, more commonly referred to as a weapons troop or “load toad,” saw The Lonely Viper playing the immersive tactical VR multiplayer mil-sim called Onward, Atkins wasted no time investing in a setup. He went to his local Best Buy that Friday and purchased a gaming PC and an Oculus Rift.

It’s relatively easy for anyone to transition into VR gaming since actions in game directly mimic actions with the touch controllers. In games like Downpour Interactive’s Onward, players don’t simply point a controller and press buttons to fire. They must actually operate an arsenal of guns properly, carefully choosing their weapons and then understanding how each one is loaded, etc. Since players use lightweight touch controllers, many players use a gun stock like the ones from ProTube VR to give added weight and stability. The extra stability also makes it easier to use the guns’ optical sights.

Once in game, you find yourself in maps that recreate settings such as a suburban neighborhood, a desert landscape, cargo trailers on a tanker, etc. Virtual reality is immersive so the sensation of reality can be exhilarating as you make your way through a map toward an objective, trying to avoid snipers or feeling the rush of adrenaline when you sneak up behind an opponent for a quick knife kill.  

In addition to the fact that VR headsets have become more accessible and affordable over the past few years, VR esports have begun to gain popularity as players like Atkins have worked to encourage the growth and development of  VR games and communities.

After he began playing Onward, the talkative, friendly ginger became a moderator, joined a team, and began shoutcasting for the VR Master League, a competitive platform where players can find teams and participate in tournaments for some of the most popular VR games such as Onward, Ready At Dawn’s Echo Arena, Phaser Lock Interactive’s Final Assault, and davevillz’ Pavlov.

Brad Atkins (left) poses at Oculus Connect 6 with other VR Master League leaders DaKinMan, Nightfiree, and Nohm4n.

Casting VR Esports

“I became interested in casting after watching my good buddy Nightfiree doing the Onward VRML streams,” explains Atkins. “As a player I always loved being cast because it was a great way to review my actions and see what did and didn’t work.”

Since he found it helpful, he wanted to use his analytical mindset to help other teams and players.

“I think casting, especially with my work for the VRML and other companies,” he states, “is very important, especially when it comes to the VR esports arena.”

In addition to casting for the VR Master League, Atkins has done professional casting for the VR League. There are several benefits to having professional, knowledgeable casters in VR esports.

For one thing, casting is a way to give back to the community and the developers for their support. This is especially important for community-driven platforms such as the VR Master League. Casting is also an almost constant content generator for the league, the community, and development studios. Content on sites such as Twitch and YouTube then draw additional players, such as Atkins himself when he saw The Lonely Viper, to the games and the overall VR ecosystem.

On a personal level, Atkins admits that casting allows him to talk – a lot. This isn’t really a negative, however, because he points out that he “can provide teams with assistance in improving their game.”

Finally, commentators can show off a bit and talk about how VR esports is much more engaging than its “flat” predecessor.

In addition to his work with the VR Master League, Atkins recently took a position as the Director of League and Operations with Virtualities, a VR arcade in Salt Lake City, Utah that also serves as the headquarters for the Virtual Athletics League, a league dedicated to the support and encouragement of coordinated tournaments for arcades worldwide.

 

Atkins poses with a group of VR community members from VR Master League and Collegiate VR Esports League at DreamHack Atlanta 2019.

PTSD

It’s obvious that virtual reality has changed Atkins’ life, as it has many others working in the industry. While he loves the technology and the potential for positive impact on our society, one area where he’s especially passionate is the potential for virtual reality to help combat and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“PTSD is such a tough topic for a lot of people around the world, especially those who may have served their respective countries in an active war zone,” says the retired veteran.

Although his job never placed him in harm’s way and he has been fortunate not to have suffered from PTSD, he has had many friends who weren’t so lucky. Many of those men and women thought everything was fine after they exited service and transitioned back to “normal” civilian life, but in fact many had difficulty adjusting and some never have.

“They are left feeling un-needed and that leads to bigger issues like depression,” states Atkins, who had his own run-in with depression after one of his closest friends and wingman committed suicide a few years ago.

“It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for not calling back faster,” he says, “or never going through the neighborhood and scooping him up to hang out.”

Atkins had to sort through the emotions and grief of his friend’s death, but the tragedy places him in a unique position to recognize the importance of diagnosis and treatment of PTSD. His journey has brought him to a place where he can now be an advocate for virtual reality and sister realities that can help combat the disorder.

There is a lot of research going on about how VR can help diagnose and treat PTSD. Professionals such as those as the team at the Bravemind Lab, led by Albert “Skip” Rizzo, PhD, director of Medical Virtual Reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, are doing amazing work in the field of exposure therapy. A type of behavioral treatment, exposure therapy places someone in situations that trigger fear or anxiety and then gradually helps them deal with the situations rather than simply trying to avoid them.

As part of their research and commitment to helping vets recover from Post-Traumatic Stress with the use of virtual reality therapy, Bravemind Lab coordinates Strong Mind, a component of SoldierStrong, a non-profit that provides revolutionary technology, education, and resources to veterans.

“While I can’t speak to the reasoning why it [virtual reality] may be a better option than standard therapy,” states Atkins, “I can say that a few community members within the VR Master League have come to me and told me how much Onward, a tactical 5v5 mil-sim VR FPS, has helped them with their symptoms, and even reduced their frequency.”

Veterans or others with PTSD sometimes try to avoid public places because there are loud noises that bring back frightening memories from their time in the military and those memories provoke anxiety. Although immersive VR games make people feel like they’re actually in the game, their minds logically know that they’re safe in their home. Exposure to the situations that caused fear, anxious thoughts, or negative memories can allow them to confront the emotions and begin to experience less stress when they’re in environments that previously triggered PTSD symptoms. VR games help because they’re essentially exposure therapy.

In addition to the physiological impact of virtual reality, there’s an emotional impact in being part of the VR community. Since there’s the feeling of presence in virtual environments, it’s easier to observe a player’s emotional state through a combination of their body language and voice responses. Unlike flat games, presence in VR makes tends to bring humanity back to gaming. This makes it more likely that someone will recognize when you’re feeling depressed or even having a rough time in game. VR players tend to look out for one another so they can reach out to one another if there are signs that someone is struggling.

For people who might find social interactions challenging, VR can be a great way to acclimate to social settings, get used to talking with others, or simply make some friends.

Atkins, who is originally from Roanoke, Virginia, now lives in Los Angeles. He enjoys cars and playing music, but most of his hobbies revolve around virtual reality. Some people make the most of opportunities and Atkins is one of those people. The 30-year-old has made friends around the world, he continues to promote VR esports, and he is helping build VR communities that will make a positive difference in the lives of others. All because he happened upon the video of a VR game.

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Sonya Haskins

Sonya Haskins, also known as "Hasko7," is a respected voice and leading journalist in the field of VR esports. She has experience in VR tournaments as a player, attendee, and organizer. Sonya was the first seated player and the first female player to qualify for VR League in Season 1. She founded VR Community Builders LLC, has written 8 books and lives with her family in Northeast Tennessee.