AR gamesAugmented RealitySports & Fitness

ONTOP Studios Wants to Bring Theaters Back to Life With XR Esports

XR esports in a theater? Sign us up.


Have you ever seen an empty theater and thought that the space had more potential? It doesn’t even have to be an abandoned theater, just a theater with more rooms than it regularly uses, or a theater that isn’t showing movies at all hours of the day. What if those theaters could be used for, say, XR esports? That’s the idea that Nuno Folhadela is exploring with ONTOP Studios.

Meet ONTOP Studios

ONTOP Studios makes AR experiences, filters, and games. Its mission is “turning the world into your playground” through augmented reality. The studio makes independent projects but also works with an impressive list of partners including Vodafone, Samsung, and Snapchat.

ONTOP’s most recent venture, ARcade Sports, involves turning empty theaters into XR esports playgrounds through its social AR games. The idea didn’t come about because Folhadela, the Studio’s founder, has anything against movies.

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“My background is in cinema, but I’ve been working in games,” Folhadela said in a video call with ARPost. “My interest is always to bring stories into the real world… Going to the cinema isn’t just about movies, it’s about an experience.”

So, why change that experience? The answer, as so many answers do these days, has to do with trends that were already underway before the pandemic caused them to explode.

“After the pandemic, movies really got hit hard. We realized that gaming is what the younger audience is going for,” said Folhadela.

From Movies to Games to Esports

Games are more interactive than movies, but they’re also more social, and both of these elements of storytelling are drawing younger people away from conventional forms of linear narratives, according to Folhadela. But, that’s not the end of the story. Games are more interactive and social than movies, and AR is a more immersive medium than 2D games.

“As a player, [AR] brings everything that we view on a screen into the real world,” said Folhadela. “All of these adventures that you have, are confined onto a flat screen. Now, you can bring all of your adventures with you.”

All of this talk about young audiences doesn’t mean that ONTOP is only interested in kids. Like VR arcades, ONTOP’s theater arenas appeal to visitors of all ages, including entire families.

ONTOP Studios - esports - ARcade Sports - game Morgana

“One man said that it felt like the first time playing with his kids – he was used to them sitting and playing Fortnite and him sitting and watching them,” said Folhadela.

Further, AR gaming can involve a lot of movement. This makes things more exciting for the players, but it also opens up a whole new level of attraction for spectators. At a time when streaming video game playthroughs is already popular, making gaming more human brings a lot of promise by making esports a lot more sporty.

“You really see the players running around so when you see a good player it’s seeing a good athlete. It’s bringing those worlds together,” said Folhadela. “It’s taking the ‘e’ out of ‘esports.’”

Buying Tickets and Paying Bills

So, how does ARcade Sports work? Folhadela describes the esports platform as a “b2b2c” (business to business to consumer) model. ONTOP Studios develops the content and maintains the companion app. Content is then licensed to property managers who promote the availability in their area. Content can even be modified to fit different areas or different business licensees.

“ARcade Sports is a platform, it’s not a game. We are always adding new games and new features,” said Folhadela.

A ticket to play in the XR-enabled esports facility includes a QR code. Scanning the QR code with the companion app lets players enter the same session. The app tracks the players’ performance in the game including their activity levels. Games are tiered based on difficulty, so beginners aren’t left out and veteran gamers don’t get bored.

esports - ARcade Sports - Morgana game

Right now, ARcade Sports is only available at select locations in Portugal. That’s set to change.

“We launched the games locally to understand the mechanics … for many players, this was their first experience with AR,” said Folhadela. “Now that this is at the right moment, we are hoping to expand to the US this year.”

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

During our call, Folhadela displayed a number of experimental social features that aren’t yet ready to be fully integrated into the platform. However, hopefully, by the time that ONTOP Studios brings its unique brand of XR esports to the US – ideally this summer – there will be even more to keep gamers entertained, whether they’re playing or watching.

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Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.