Chris Olimpo sits in his car north of the border in Montreal, glowing at the thought of his project, his baby, his brainchild, sitting on the virtual 1-yard line, ready to be pushed across the goal line for the world to see.
Olimpo, frantic between meetings and finishing a big video shoot, seems ready to catch his breath. There’s more than a hint of confidence and determination coming from Arcadia CEO and co-founder Olimpo and business partner Jeremy Sholzberg. After all, the duo is preparing to embark on a quest to merge sports dimensions.
It’s not a Marvel movie or sci-fi TV show (though the inspiration may have some big-screen roots). Rather, Olimpo and Sholzberg are bringing to reality the next wave of virtual reality, joining the sports and esports worlds — two audiences that seemingly want nothing to do with one another. No big deal.
Enter Arcadia, the sports-esports hybrid that embraces the competitive nature of sports while adding the virtual reality element to competition and games, transporting players to a different plane of reality — sometimes leaving it altogether — by producing arcade-style VR games and blending them with legitimate, physical matchups.
Using VR headsets, gamer athletes and any field, arena, court, stage or rink, Arcadia pits two teams against each other anywhere the equipment can be housed, leading to endless possibilities for the esports and traditional sports worlds to collide. The dream of true virtual reality gaming has existed for a long time; the execution and production of it has not.
Challenges are always present in expeditions into the unknown. Unforeseen hurdles, slip-ups and missteps are common — but especially so introducing a disruptor to two industries that are very resistant to change.
So knowing there are difficult days ahead as they begin their foray into something of a vision quest to change the landscape of both sports and esports, a simple question: What is their biggest fear?
“That’s always a good question,” Olimpo said. A brief pause, some hmmms, a sigh, and an honest answer followed.
“My biggest fear — by far — is spiders.”
“I was about to say the same thing as soon as I hear the word ‘fear,'” co-founder Sholzberg added, with a laugh. “It’s spiders — or dying alone.”
Some laughs were had, discussions of wolf spiders and Mexican restaurants in Canada followed, but the honest assessment painted a picture of a confidence that the pair share heading into a critical moment for Arcadia: the genesis of a potential new wave of sports.
After all, it takes more than just some confidence and stones to take a metaphorical chainsaw to a wall between sports and esports and jump-start the future with something that has been fantasized about for almost 40 years.
That’s the mission of Olimpo, Sholzberg and Arcadia: Continue to break down walls and barriers between worlds, push the limits on VR capabilities and turn fantasy into reality.
“This was a very difficult thing to pull off,” Olimpo said. “When we started we had this idea, people were telling me, ‘You’re f—ing crazy. It’s not possible. Facebook would have already done it. It’s gonna cost you $10 million.'”
The dream, though, is becoming reality, and the “not possible” is actually very possible. Olimpo and Sholzberg are standing by the entrance of sports’ future with some sledgehammers and a sign with big, bold, spray-painted letters.
It reads: “Welcome to Arcadia.”
Arcadia is the fantasy of many who have played a video game or watched a sci-fi movie, but it’s the product of Olimpo and Sholzberg. The Montreal-based duo, along with fellow co-founders Eric Johnson and Guillaume Cote, look to shake up the sports world, pulling the sports and esports worlds into a marriage that’s long overdue.
Unlike picking up the controllers of the Nintendo Wii on your couch or putting on a smelly, sweaty VR headset in your local mall food court, Arcadia features two teams of players competing, well, anywhere the Arcadia tech is located; Whether that’s a basketball court or a hockey rink or a soccer field or a spooky basement somewhere, Arcadia can be a reality anywhere.
“The idea itself has been a collective dream for a lot of people,” Olimpo told SN. “The film ‘Tron’ came out in 1982, so people have been dreaming about this for a long time. But there’s a saying: Ideas are cheap until they’re executed. . . . The problem has been the execution of the idea hasn’t happened — no one’s really figured out how to do it properly.”
Olimpo, who has been working in the VR world for five years, admits to being dissatisfied with the VR market and was “pissed off” at the state of virtual reality gaming; The offerings from VR properties such as Facebook’s Oculus didn’t satiate the desire for what true VR could — and should — be.
After all, unlike traditional video gaming, you don’t need to be glued to a couch for Arcadia, and much like physical sports, you can be out on a field or court playing against other people. Sounds easy enough to do given the technology we have in 2021, but it hasn’t been done successfully yet.
For Olimpo, making the VR vision a reality required just two steps: space and simplicity.
“I can connect these dots that other people could not connect, in terms of, what are the specific things you need to solve to create a next-level experience like Arcadia?” he said. “It was essentially like you needed a large-scale arena and it needed to be simple to use.”
As constructed, Arcadia meets that criteria. Two teams wear Arcadia propietary VR headsets and physically face off in a virtual arena setting known as the Arcadia Arena. The teams — it can be anywhere from two to 10 players — compete in arcade-style games inspired by classic quarter-operated machines.
That’s it. It’s as simple as it sounds.
Just think about how heated you get over “Galaga” or “Pac-Man” in a local arcade, and then translate that to real-world competition on the board — a competition in which you can outrun, shoulder-check and even tackle other players in the real world, with the actions having consequences in a virtual one.
Olimpo and Sholzberg say Arcadia could be taken anywhere, even to larger-scale athletic fields. The setup process itself also is simple: Using a router, a laptop and the VR headset, it’s as simple as plug-and-play.
Building out the Arcadia Arena hasn’t been as simple, though: Behind the scenes — under “stealth mode,” as Olimpo and Sholzberg call it — it took three years for the arena to come to life, a production timeline that equals that of most major summer blockbuster films.
“We’ve been running a league, secretly here in Montreal, and we have a roster of 80 players that keep following up with us,” Olimpo said. “We keep track of their scores, they keep track of each other, they come back week to week to play the games and practice.”
The competition, they say, is very real. Don’t make the mistake that some confused sports journalists make and compare it to something as simple as laser tag — Olimpo laughs at the feeble comparison.
While bachelor parties and Bud Light-fueled excursions to your local mini-mall laser tag joint can be fun for a quick getaway or a 13-year-old’s birthday party, Olimpo and Sholzberg found that there’s legitimate competition born inside Arcadia, among other distinctions.
“I don’t think (comparing Arcadia to laser tag) is fair at all, actually,” Olimpo scoffs, with a smile. “I’ll be honest — a lot of the arcades work this way — it’s kind of like a theme park model: You try a ride in VR and then you’re done, you don’t want to do it again.”
Sholzberg added that the audience experience — getting to watch the athletes compete against one another — far exceeds that of watching some dopes play laser tag. (Laser tag? Pah. How 1998.)
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A “Pac-Man”/”Galaga”-type game combined with basketball is one of the many that will be part of Arcadia’s offerings, further pushing the envelope of what Arcadia is able to do.
“We look at a modern-day sport and we think, ‘If we were to put that sport into Arcadia, how do we level it up? How do we make it something that’s not possible in reality?’ We look for inspiration from classic arcade games afterwards,” Olimpio said.
“The reason why we combined them is because sports and classic arcades have those things in common: They’re simple to understand but they’re hard to master, and they have an audience experience built in — they’re fun to watch.”
Sholzberg adds that the digital world lends itself to things that may not be physically possible or financially feasible in the real world: Things such as altering the physics of a basketball in-game or changing the dimensions of a play area are simple and possible and come down solely to in-game coding. In our reality, changing the size or dynamics of the court can cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
Arcadia even introduces things like power-ups to the games, which are staples of online mulitplayer games.
“We can change the physics of the sport, even though you’re running and jumping, but the ball and the stadium and all of that is not limited by reality,” Sholzberg said.
Though the games that will be played are only viable and possible in a digital dimension, the games that have already happened in the secret Montreal Arcadia league have lent themselves to a level of competition that “keeps players coming back.” Not only because of the fun, but also the competitiveness.
Olimpo and Sholzberg said the level of competition in the Montreal league was unexpected. The teamlike competitive atmosphere was a welcome byproduct of the game’s immersiveness.
“I see it more similarly to some of the intramural sports leagues I played in my entire life,” Sholzberg said. “Once or twice a week, I’m in a soccer league with my friends, and it’s a dedicated time. All week you’re like thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going up against this team’ or we discuss we want to do better than last week — it’s similar to that.”
Olimpo added: “I think it’s way more like a sport like basketball or soccer or football, where you want to be the best at the game.”
“You want to show up on game day and be the best version of yourself . . . so that you could be the champion.”
As is the case with all televised and viewed sports, production, packaging and delivery are key for the viewer.
For those sitting at home, watching live Arcadia games will be an immersive experience that viewers can catch on YouTube and social media, with plans for Twitch to also play host to Arcadia events later this year.
You’ll be able to sit down and watch live games like any other sport once it gets going — with a nice futuristic twist on how it’s viewed.
“What (the viewers) are going to see is a mixed-reality sport,” Olimpo said. “Then, that’s slowly going to blend into shots of those athletes getting transported into another dimension called ‘Arcadia.’ While the athletes are playing the game, you’re going to see those athletes, you’re going to see their bodies inside the virtual world playing those games. . . .
“We’re gonna be mixing virtual footage with real footage, and doing all kinds of really crazy s— that no one’s seen before.”
If you’re still trying to wrap your head around how it’s going to look, Olimpo said that “Tron” is probably the best visual representation for what you’ll see while watching Arcadia. Unlike “Ready Player One” — which has “a lot of weird s— that doesn’t make any sense,” Olimpo said, and features wires and treadmills and things that only make logical sense when you shut your brain off — there’s a seamless blending of the virtual and physical worlds with Arcadia.
“The actor in ‘Tron’ was in a green-screen room, he was talking to a tennis ball,” Olimpo said. “An Arcadia athlete is a pro, athletic gamer — it’s someone who’s an athlete and is a gamer.
“While they have that headset on they’re in that space. They’re not playing pretend, they’re playing for real. When they’re dodging something, they’re dodging it for real. When they’re catching something, they’re catching it for real. This a real athlete in the world’s largest virtual-reality play space.”
Olimpo, Sholzberg and Arcadia are moving south from Montreal into the U.S. soon (they’re eyeing the Golden State) in search of those athletes who will fill the Arcadia ranks.
Those who want to partake in the game — and are in top physical form — may be in luck. Arcadia plans to tour the United States in the coming year to look for its first champion. And, taking notes from traditional sports, Arcadia plans to pay its players.
“People who want to play our games or become an athlete, they’re not going to have to spend a dollar — it’s going to be free,” Olimpo said. “The same way that sports pay their athletes. We’re going to be spending our year looking for the world’s first Arcadia champion. That means we’re going to do open tryouts this year — we’re going to start doing open trials in six select cities in North America.”
Viewers can vote for their cities on Arcadia’s website, Arcadia.tv. After the tryouts, the top two players in each city will advance to the final city for a chance to be crowned Arcadia champion. The whole concept is similar to that of “American Idol,” just much cooler and a lot less William Hung (probably).
The open tryouts and subsequent championship coronation will mark the beginning of Phase 1 of Arcadia’s plan. Olimpo and Sholzberg plan for a great showing as they begin to tour — at least if anecdotes are any indication.
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“We went to a college, and we put up posters saying, you know, virtual reality sports coming to Dawson College (in Quebec). We got over 1,000 signups in one day,” Olimpo said.
To that end, Arcadia is banking on its “gut instinct” that the audience that signed up that one day at Dawson College will eventually increase tenfold (and more). Along with the immersiveness of viewing or playing the game, the “audience experience” is a big part of Arcadia, but it’s not without pop-culture precedent.
From the release of “Tron” in 1982 to Marty McFly’s kids wearing TV-screened goggles in 1989’s “Back to the Future: Part II” to Nintendo introducing the Virtual Boy in 1995 to the launch of the Oculus Rift in 2016, gamers and dreamers of the future have grown tired of taking baby steps and instead wanted a big leap into the future of VR gaming.
Interactive games have always had their place, but to combine them with a live-audience experience has always been a different level of gamer hedonism that esports doesn’t necessarily provide.
Think about it: You’re at an arcade, mowing down line upon line in Tetris or outrunning Pinky, Blinky, Inky and Sue, and a crowd forms around you, wanting to see you dominate. It’s that same experience that Arcadia hopes to implement in in its live games.
Taking that small-scale arcade feel and combining it with the basics of traditional sport helped to provide a springboard for the atmosphere and infrastructure needed for Arcadia to survive.
“This is the thing that most people miss,” Olimpo said. “Classic games have an audience experience built in, and they’re simple to understand: You know I’m dodging bullets and I’m killing aliens. Like, that’s all you need to know.
“That’s what sports are: There’s two teams trying to get a ball through a net, and the two teams are the obstacles — and by focusing on those basic principles, that allowed us to excel and build Arcadia faster.”
Sports have problems. Sports fans know this.
Some are big, some are not, but they all have problems: For numerous reasons, baseball has been struggling to attract younger viewers. Though not the be-all and end-all, NBA TV ratings have been down for a number of years. High school football participation rates also are down.
This provides Arcadia an opportunity to really stick it to the man, right? Plant its flag and thump its chest and take the throne? Unzip its pants and urinate on the ashes of the sports world as we know it?
Not at all. Not even remotely.
Even though they’re introducing a true disruptor into the sports and esports worlds, the folks at Arcadia aren’t hoping to tear down sports — they’re looking to bridge the gap between them.
“That’s part of what we were looking to solve: to end that debate. To end the debates of, ‘Is esports an actual sport?’ There’s a lot of indoctrinated stuff that we don’t need anymore (from traditional sports). We have an opportunity to introduce a new sport to the world — that means we can rewrite all the rules and we can start fresh,” Olimpo said.
The debate between the traditional sports and esports communities have raged for years, with neither side backing down or being willing to acknowledge the other’s standing in the grander entertainment scale. Younger generations are engrossed in “Fortnite” and “Call of Duty.” “League of Legends” teams across the globe sell out arenas for their championship series.
On the other side, some esports fans reject the inherent machismo of the sports realm, pointing to baseball’s failures as a microcosm and a potential genesis for the eventual failures of the larger traditional sports world.
Esports is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world, like mixed martial arts was when it burst onto the scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s. MMA didn’t replace boxing or pro wrestling or anything else in the combat sports world, though — it just provided an alternative for viewers and fans. The same can be said about esports.
“Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that the next wave replaces the old wave,” Olimpo said. “Moving pictures did not replace books; we still have books today. The internet did not replace everything; we still have other mediums.”
With the war raging, there’s no turning back for either side. (Just open up your local Facebook comment section on an esports story the next time you want to see some real fireworks.)
The two schools of thought, though, now have an opportunity to get together and really work on coexisting, kissing and making up — especially now that there finally seems to be a viable solution, a happy medium on the come-up.
Bridging that gap between the two communities is one of Arcadia’s goals. Not only does the company want to provide a push and lead the charge of the future of gaming and sports, it also wants to build an army of sports and esports fans coming together.
“I think this will absolutely end the debates between esports and real sports, because it’s active and it’s a game,” Olimpo said. “It’s literally both. It satisfies both audiences.”
As conversations about Montreal’s famed smoked-meat sandwiches, Cuban cigars and good ol’ Canadian warmth and hospitality wrap up, there’s still the big, looming storm cloud of a question hanging over the heads of Olimpo, Sholzberg and Arcadia at large: What’s your biggest fear?
After all, embarking on a venture as Herculean as this one should weigh in on these guys, at least a little bit.
“We have a lot of things on our roadmap, but there’s limited time and resources,” Sholzberg said, wrestling with reality. “There’s a fear of getting distracted, a fear of being pulled in too many directions, a fear of being paralyzed by the limitless possibilities. This doesn’t sound good for an article, but the fear is that there’s so much opportunity for us.”
“We’re kind of fearless, to be honest,” Olimpo added, putting the wolf spiders in the rear-view mirror. “Everything about this company was about being frustrated with just waiting for this future to happen. We keep seeing it in movies, we keep seeing it in all these places. We’re not gonna wait for other companies like Facebook to magically build it.”
Olimpo briefly paused, giving a distant, pensive stare through the windshield of his car.
“We’re not going to wait for people to give us permission to build the future of sports.”
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