MLB Virtual Ballpark Offers Fans a New, Immersive Digital Experience for Consuming Live Games
MLB launched the product during the Celebrity Softball Game at the 2023 All-Star Game
Professional sports leagues are always looking for new ways to engage with younger generations of fans. Typically, that’s through more-interactive experiences that allow the user to participate rather than simply spectate.
At All-Star festivities in Seattle this month, Major League Baseball debuted its latest digital experience, MLB Virtual Ballpark, an experiential and social digital environment offering fans a different way to enjoy the game.
In MLB Virtual Ballpark, users can create an avatar (wearing the MLB team jersey of their choice) and navigate an entire virtual stadium loaded with games, trivia, activations, and the ability to interact via voice with other participants in the experience.
It’s a first for a U.S. professional sports league and was well-received in its first live deployment, an opening of the digital ballpark coincident with the Celebrity Softball Game (hosted on Saturday of All-Star Week).
According to MLB, average time spent in the MLB Virtual Ballpark during that event was 37 minutes.
To MLB, the Celebrity Softball Game was the ideal event for a launch of this type: a low-stakes environment that still featured tentpole-level excitement.
MLB EVP, Media and Business Development, Kenny Gersh and the team were pleased with how it played out.
“We wanted to open it up with an event where we could play around with it, learn, see how it worked, and see if people liked it,” he explains. “From that perspective, it was very nice. We think it is setting the foundation for something that could be interesting for us over the next several years. In terms of that night, in a vacuum, it was successful on a small scale. Now the goal is to start opening it on some more high-profile events and do things with more regularity to get people in.”
In addition to the custom features and the ability to navigate one’s avatar anywhere in the virtual-ballpark environment, MLB also designated two avatar “hosts,” which moderated key moments throughout the night while offering introductory guidance to first-time users. Also, the stadium featured “videoboards” displaying the broadcast feed of the Celebrity Softball Game. Users also received the audio from the televised event.
Naturally, the MLB Virtual Ballpark concept is still very much a work in progress, the goal being to continue to grow the product and add such features as a group feature. For example, the experience during Celebrity Softball Game offered a universal chat function. There are plans to build custom group chats allowing friends to speak just to each other, and there will also be more mini games, giving fans additinal activities to participate directly in.
MLB Director, Gaming and New Business Ventures, Matt Japko notes that, although his team (as well as SVP, Business Development, Casey Brett) has been thinking about the project for a good year, building got started around the beginning of March.
“In terms of actual development work,” says Japko, “there’s only so much you can develop in a virtual space while still making sure it’s going to be stable and can stay up the entire time. When launching a product, there’s always the strategy side, as well as getting everyone coordinated. On the product side, though, I think there’s only so much we can get in. There’s probably another five to 10 features that we are excited to work into it.”
MLB worked with Improbable, a British company that specializes in creating metaverse technology. Through its M² network and Morpheus technology, the company assists in developing virtual experiences for a globally accessible and socially interactive product that eliminates lag.
“The whole media landscape is changing right now,” says Gersh. “Going from the traditional RSN models to potentially a more digital model, over time, to add to the viewing experience of our games helps give the fan different or unique ways of watching a baseball game beyond just sitting on a couch. Whether that’s something they want, I don’t know, but we’re putting the pieces in place to see how that plays out.”