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MLB aims to ‘democratize’ esports with inclusive push around Home Run Derby VR game

2019 Home Run Derby VR Championship at the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland on July 8, 2019 in Cleveland, OH

  • Major League Baseball has staged three formal competitions around virtual home-run hitting competitions, with a fourth planned for August
  • League has drawn audiences from numerous demographics for its esports events
  • Game has represented a key success story for frequently debated virtual reality technology

The scene inside Major League Baseball’s Play Ball Park, the fan festival held conjunction with the annual All-Star Game, looked much like many other esports events, at least at first glance.

Staged inside Cleveland, Ohio’s Huntington Convention Center at the booth for the league’s Home Run Derby Virtual Reality (HRD VR) game, there was a live video production being streamed on Twitch, an enthused in-person crowd growing toward the tournament finals, and plenty of heated competition throughout, including a walk-off home run to clinch the title.

But that is essentially where MLB’s similarities to most other esports competitions end, particularly those staged or hosted by other major US stick-and-ball sports leagues and venues.

There was nothing near the $30m (€27m) prize pool doled out last weekend for the Fortnite World Cup finals at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with winners instead getting a MLB All-Star Game merchandise prize pack, a Tiffany-made trophy, and tickets to the All-Star Game events. 

Unlike the National Basketball Association’s NBA 2K league based on the series’ simulation-based video game title, NBA 2K, there are no city- or team-based franchises for baseball’s HRD VR competitions. HRD VR players are not elite professional talent, but instead come from all walks off life and often veer far from the college-aged male demo currently dominating esports at large by drawing heavily from women and children.

Unlike most esports events like Electronic Arts’ Madden Championship Series based around the Madden NFL game franchise, the baseball esports competitions are not stand-alone events. Rather, they are held adjacent to real-world events such as the All-Star Game and Little League World Series.

And unlike the heavy strategy and PC-based gameplay often dominating the first-person-shooter titles common in many esports events, HRD VR instead is a simple and intuitive yet immersive grip-it-and-rip-it home run hitting contest where players use a video game bat and try to hit as many simulated homers as possible within the given time. Compared to many other sports video game titles, not to mention those in other game genres, HRD VR is heavy on direct player agency and relies far less on artificial intelligence.

Such is MLB’s esports business strategy, as it seeks to be much more inclusive and participatory and also help feed other existing tentpole events rather than forge its own elite-oriented path in the emerging space. And by doing that, league executives believe they can ultimately reach a far wider audience and also serve existing revenue sources.

“We want to make sure we are entering the market in a way that has the largest and widest growth opportunity,” says Jamie Leece, MLB senior vice-president of games and VR, and the league’s point person for its esports strategy. “We see HRD VR as a way to democratize esports.”

The 2019 Home Run Derby VR Championship, held in conjunction with this year’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game, was won by Ohioan Bill Brunnett Jr. in front of an enthused crowd (Maureen MacGregor/MLB)

Organic growth

MLB’s original path toward esports wasn’t about esports or organized competition at all. The league originally debuted Home Run Derby in 2013 consumer-oriented video game that featured avatars of real-life Derby participants and MLB ballparks. 

That title was then expanded in 2017 to a virtual reality version, extending an industry-wide trend in which the immersive media format has proven far more successful in a gaming context than it has as a distribution avenue for live sports broadcasting.

The league that year to great success introduced fan engagement-based, non-competitive versions of HRD VR at that year’s All-Star Game in Miami, at the MLB Battlegrounds fan festival in London, and started the first of what is now 19 MLB ballpark-based deployments that fans can play while attending a real-world game.

At some of those initial events, wait times to play extended beyond two hours and drew a wide demographic swath, serving as something of a lightbulb spark for Leece and his colleagues.

“We got everybody, really,” Leece said. “Moms, dads, kids of all ages, boys and girls, older folks, people from all different walks of life. It really opened our eyes.”

Those initial forays were also boosted by the increasing integration of MLB’s real-world Statcast technology and realistic renderings of every MLB team’s stadium into the league’s suite of video games, which includes the other flagship title RBI Baseball. The Statcast data, used in actual MLB and Minor League Baseball games, provides a series of advanced metrics including exit velocity, launch angle and distance traveled for hits – all critical data that was infused into HRD VR.

“Every iteration, every improvement of what we do is a benefit across the entire portfolio,” Leece said. “The development we do on other games fuels HRD VR, and vice versa. So it accelerates our path across the board.”

Still, there had to be a first step from moving from strictly a consumer product and fan experience element into a competitive arena. And that step came at last year’s All-Star Game in Washington DC, where the league after months of planning expanded its batting cage-style setup from Miami the prior year and established two rounds of formal competition. A series of open qualifiers yielded a set of the top 32 scorers, who then squared off in a bracket-style competition. 

And again showing the game’s marked demographic divergence from other forms of esports, not to mention general sports fandom overall, the four semi-finalists in that first event were all younger than 12, and the competition was won by a nine-year-old from Staten Island, New York.

“There’s such an easy accessibility and inclusivity about Home Run Derby VR,” said Jamie King, executive vice-president of esports for Engine Shop, the Bruin Sports Capital-owned experiential marketing agency. King and Leece previously worked together at video game publisher Take-Two Interactive, and Engine Shop has helped MLB develop and stage the HRD VR competitions and corresponding live productions. 

“There’s been research that suggests that at much as 70 per cent of video game players consider themselves competitive players. Not competitive in the sense that they’re going to be professional and this is going to be career, but still competitive against others. So there’s a huge audience out there that can still be directly engaged in and around esports, and this is a property that can be really appealing to that audience. There are really no barriers to entry to playing this game,” King says.

That ease, in turn, makes HRD VR and its related competitions a key element of the league’s broader goal to attract new fans, in part to stem an ongoing attendance decline, and like every other sports property to lower its average fan age.

“We see this connecting beyond baseball,” Leece says. “We want to help remain our audience of who we are in part through this game, but we also want to grow awareness of the sport more generally.”

A production of a Home Run Derby VR competition that was shown live on Twitch and hosted by MLB Network and NHL Network broadcaster Jackie Redmond along with online influencers nicknamed Shelfy and Fuzzy (Maureen MacGregor/MLB)

Markers for success

That initial HRD VR competition in Washington drew more than 120,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch, good enough for the top live streaming video on the popular site at the time. This year’s event in Cleveland, Ohio, drew a total of 617,000 unique viewers, again ranked as the top live streaming video on Twitch. The peak concurrent number for Cleveland was about 85,000 viewers, showing a drop from Washington, but MLB still found improvement across a variety of engagement measures.

Additional data from Nielsen showed MLB’s competition at last year’s Little League World Series, which was held roughly a month after the All-Star Game event in Washington, drew a total viewership of 362,000 on ESPN, representing the third-largest esports draw on US television for all of 2018. 

MLB will be returning with HRD VR competition and a companion video production to the Little League World Series in August in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. There are also continued international ambitions, both for HRD VR and the league at large, and there will be fan experience booths for the game this fall at a baseball road show planned for this fall in China that may ultimately lead toward formal competitions outside of the US

The league has not released financial results from the HRD VR efforts to date. But in these early stages, the immediate push for MLB remains less about on-site financial profits and more about growing fan engagement and participation, and also supporting existing efforts such as the larger events the gaming tournaments are part of.

Also critical for the league is building up the storytelling around each tournament and focusing heavily on the backstories of the competitors, even if they are children and don’t yet have much of a backstory. This particular portion is where Engine Shop has been most heavily engaged with MLB.

“What makes for good esports for the observer is when then there is a narrative you can follow and interest in the outcome,” Leece says. “These are the elements where we have been really focused.”

Leece also promises that HRD VR will not be baseball’s only foray into esports. But further entries will follow along the same core principles of accessibility and inclusion.

“There will be other esports experiences from us beyond HRD VR,” he says. “You can count on that.”

An interview with 2019 Home Run Derby VR Championship winner Bill Brunnett Jr. MLB has made storytelling and player narratives a key part of its emerging esports strategy (Maureen MacGregor/MLB)

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