Major League Baseball unveiled its latest innovation over the weekend, inviting fans to attend an online watch party for its All-Star Celebrity Softball Game at its new Virtual Ballpark.
Although last-minute travel plans prevented me from checking out this first-of-a-kind event, it nevertheless represented an important development in exposing fans of the national pastime to the future of digital engagement while also allowing brands to see the possibilities for them in a virtual environment.
According to Sports Business Journal‘s preview, the experience was to include a live stream of the celebrity softball game on the virtual stadium’s video board. In addition, “there will be exclusive interviews available to virtual attendees, who will see avatars of a host and celebrity in the environment. About 15,000 fans can join concurrently. Fans can dress their avatars in team jerseys. Sorare is sponsoring a scavenger hunt for cards.”
Visitors could also use their device’s microphone to speak with others they encountered in the stadium. “Spatial audio technology will attempt to replicate real world conversations. People (or in this case avatars) in close proximity will be able to hear each other,” SBJ reported.
Attendance was free, a feature that MLB intends to keep for now. “There will be business and revenue opportunities down the line, whether it’s sponsorship within the ballpark, selling tickets to events or selling merchandise that becomes a persistent part of your digital identity,” MLB executive vice president of media & business development Kenny Gersh told SBJ.
The possibilities for brand involvement are about as numerous as they are in a real stadium, creating opportunities for both current baseball sponsors seeking new activation platforms, as well as for brands looking for a way into the sport.
The distinguishing factor that set this experiment apart from other virtual sports and entertainment experiences was the simplicity of access. Fans could attend simply by going to a page on MLB.com, significantly lowering the barrier to entry compared to similar metaverse experiences that require additional hardware or new apps to be downloaded and learned.
That is no small feat, especially considering that baseball fans skew older. While most virtual events are rightly aimed at younger, tech-savvier consumers, rights holders shouldn’t completely ignore older and less digitally versed fans. Only time will tell whether the investment in streamlining the experience made by MLB and Improbable, the tech company that built the virtual ballpark, will pay off, but the league deserves credit for democratizing advanced fan engagement.