Sports have been a way to stay healthy, have fun, and demonstrate skills since ancient times, but getting into and regularly practicing those sports can be both expensive and challenging. VR gives people a way to simulate sports cheaply, but will practicing them in VR make you better in real life?
A VR headset allows you to play a virtual version of almost any sport almost anywhere. For example, some game options will enable you to go sailing without a boat or access to open water, shoot safely without a range or gun, and even spend an afternoon fishing without getting wet. Your only expenses are a Meta Quest 2 (formerly known as the Oculus Quest 2) and around $10 to $30 each for the games themselves.
The range of games is extensive, so I’ve rounded up five sports and some popular VR equivalents of varying quality. Let’s take a look at what difference, if any, practicing in VR can potentially make to your real-world sports performance.
Skyrim VR has received praise for its implementation of archery. Still, the game itself is not an accurate archery simulator. Things like leveling up and the different bows available will make Skyrim VR less accurate. Still, Youtuber habie147 decided to see if he could improve his archery skills by doing nothing but playing the game.
Surprisingly, they showed a 200% improvement in their ability to hit a target from a distance using a cheap bow and arrow they purchased on Amazon. Archery crops up in VR a lot, from the bow you probably have laying on the coffee table of your PC-based Oculus home to games like Elven Assassin. But there isn’t an out-and-out archery simulator with realistic physics yet.
I have a theory that the two things that make VR practice effective in the real world are realistic physics and a close approximation of the tools you would use to play that sport. What’s fascinating is that Skyrim has neither, yet still showed some benefit.
The ball physics of Eleven Table Tennis have received almost universal praise, and the standard VR controller weighs about the same as a paddle. Given that, I would say time spent playing table tennis in VR is likely to improve your real-world game skills.
The game has you work on your coordination and timing, which are significant facets of the sport. Because of its excellent ball physics, Eleven Table Tennis can help you develop the muscle memory needed to do things like add spin to the ball consistently. If you want to take things further and swap out the VR controller for something closer to an actual paddle, you can even buy or 3D print a controller mount.
Another major factor this game offers is online play. You can play ranked matches against opponents who are at or around your skill level, and the ranking system allows you to continuously challenge yourself instead of relying on AI opponents that you might outgrow or learn to exploit. The ranking system also adds some meaning and pressure to games. All of this should translate to real-life the next time you find yourself holding a paddle in real life.
The two leading cricket simulators are IB Cricket and Cricket Club VR. Both focus on batting, though IB Cricket also allows for some tactical work in multiplayer games. IB Cricket also features an extensive training mode, so it is probably the best option if you’re new to the sport and looking to pick it up.
Crucially, both games allow you to play with a real bat. You secure your controller to a bat of your choice and calibrate it in-game. Just as bringing a real keyboard into VR makes working in a virtual office easier, playing a virtual sport with the actual piece of equipment you’d use makes your practice more effective. It’s worth noting, however, that if you’re used to playing with a light controller, switching to a three-pound piece of wood might disrupt your game a little (at least at first).
IB Cricket uses your headset to monitor cricketing basics like head position and following the ball. If you’re learning to play the game, IB Cricket will do a great job of teaching you the basics. For more experienced cricketers, it can help tune things like your form and timing.
As with cricket games, a VR golf simulator tracks your head position and movement, as well as your swing. Add some decent physics, and you have a simulator that can help you get the fundamentals down. You can also troubleshoot problems you have in your real-life game and improve them. Golf 5 E-Club, for example, has improved my golf game.
Both Golf 5 E-Club and Golf + replicated a slice (an unintended spin to the right) I’ve struggled with on the course. Playing in VR allowed me to identify the cause (head movement) and practice until I improved. An afternoon at a driving range showed that, while the slice hadn’t gone completely—I was now hitting the ball straighter more regularly.
Golf is one of the most—if not the most—expensive sports to participate in. Fixing the slice through private range time and lessons could have potentially cost me hundreds of dollars. As it stands, I picked up Golf 5 E-Club for around $15 and was then free to hit as many balls as I wanted in my living room at no additional cost. And it made me better.
The Thrill of the Fight (TOTF) may be one of my favorite VR games, and it is undoubtedly the best boxing simulator I’ve ever played. However, the artificial intelligence that powers TOTF also limits it. Your opponent won’t move like an actual boxer; they’ll cover up initially, but drop that guard after a light jab in the stomach. Unloading with a series of big haymakers is also rewarded instead of punished. In short, don’t go into an actual boxing match the way you’d go into a VR; you’ll end up getting hurt.
So is the game useless? No. Cardio is a core component of most sports and vital to boxing. Going 12 rounds on TOTF a few times a week will get you in good shape and teach you to pace yourself through a fight while keeping basic things like your form in mind. Depending on the size of your play space, you can also get more confident with things like distance control, bobbing, weaving, and slipping. If you mess up, it won’t hurt, allowing you to experiment and express yourself more before stepping into an actual training gym.
Yes, to varying degrees. Some games, like Eleven Table Tennis and IB Cricket, are quite close to the real thing—and can involve actual equipment. Even games that aren’t a perfect analog for real sports, like VR boxing or Skyrim‘s archery, still look like they provide some benefit.
Beginners might see the most benefit, as they can learn the basics of something like table tennis, cricket, or golf for a fraction of the cost. More experienced athletes may spot some shortcomings, but VR does not eliminate conventional training. VR is more of a supplement to traditional training. If you’re an avid golfer who can’t get to an indoor range during winter, you can practice your form in your living room and stay sharp for next season.