VR will make baseball better, but not in the way we expect.

Baseball fans now have an unprecedented number of ways to watch America’s Pastime, and that number continues to grow (unless you follow the Dodgers, of course). Facebook recently signed on to broadcast 20 major league games. The league rolled out virtual reality trials throughout the month of June. And if you’re a VR fan in San Francisco, you’re in luck: the Giants and Intel have teamed up to show Giants games in VR every Tuesday.

Speaking of Intel…

Intel just announced a partnership with the IOC to showcase the Olympic games in virtual reality, starting with the 2018 winter games in Pyongyang. And just like Major League Baseball, the IOC cited this VR play as a means by which they look to gain a foothold with younger viewers.

Admittedly, these are different sports. Popular Olympic events (marathon excluded) are ripe for VR: they’re short, snackable experiences with few alternative ways to watch. Between trials and final events, there are repeatable times to experience each event in its own way and audience burnout on events is low. On the contrary, the typical major league baseball game now averages slightly over three hours per game. Pace of play is the hill Rob Manfred will die on. And we’ve all watched baseball – it’s a routine experience. But how many people have been up close and personal to experience pole vaulting, or luge?

In total, about $2.3 billion was invested in VR and AR in 2016, and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ annual Global Entertainment and Media Outlook predicts VR revenue to reach $15 billion by 2021. But are younger fans as data-obsessed as the big tech players are? MLB will have to navigate the pace of play issue, as well as the social aspects of the game and the creation of meaningful capture of the sport. Some issues regarding this have already been named, including the size of the ball and the distance between VR cameras and the on-field action.

MLB VR 2

MLB VR, as it is now, is married to the 2-D television experience. Integrated stats, pitch tracker, and other play-by-play info borders the customized central screen. The expanded video has been described as “baseball on an IMAX screen.” It seems like a first step.

Now it’s only expected that the league with the best tech arm in sports would jump on VR. MLB Advanced Media and their partners are fully capable of managing the technology, but I wonder if VR is really a sustainable value add for fans or if this is merely a strategic onboarding of the hottest two letters in Silicon Valley for popularity/visibility. This very well may be MLB saying “I know VR.”

To my knowledge, cannibalization of existing revenue streams by VR has not been directly addressed by league officials. Rob Manfred and Adam Silver were asked the question in a live interview a short time ago, but it was Silver to address (see: sidestep) the question:

“Our teams have done a great job of creating something entirely different from what you’d get at home or on a phone or tablet… Season ticket sales are at an all-time high in the history of the league. Our attendance, in the last three to four years, we have set new attendance records. People are living these virtual lives. They crave the ability to be around people.”

So VR/home experience has not affected stadium attendance, according to Adam Silver. But what is it adding? Going beyond jargon, it’s not particularly clear.

To be fair: MLB spokesman Matt Gould has admitted how nascent VR technology is:

“You’re in the bottom of the first inning in terms of where this is today. Where it is today is very different from where it will be in three years.”

I believe virtual reality is poised to make the game better, but not in the way we expect. Instead of enhancing the fan experience, VR’s bigger potential is in enhancing game play. VR as a simulator for batters poses the largest opportunity for the game, particularly for interleague play and situations in which a team is exposed to new pitchers.

EON Sports has developed VR in its “Project OPS” software, specifically designed for professional use. Over 50,000 different pitches from thousands of players create what EON’s CEO Brendan Reilly calls “an advanced scouting report.”

Even if fans don’t immediately latch onto VR, or if it doesn’t fit the three-hour saga that is the modern baseball game, it still will advance the game. The key will be incorporating VR technology in Spring Training and preparatory play, such that players can gain exposure to otherwise unfamiliar pitchers. As game play improves, that three hour saga won’t feel quite as long. The fan experience is improved, albeit in a more indirect and nuanced way.

There are a few MLB teams currently leveraging VR for player development – and it must be working, considering only the Tampa Bay Rays have publicly disclosed they have invested and are seeing results in it. Teams don’t want to disclose tech moves – particularly when they work.

Is this the start of a beautiful friendship, or are VR and Major League Baseball going to be as awkward as Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt’s final kiss in As Good as it Gets? We’ll have to see.

ASAIG
I might be the only league on the face of the earth that knows you’re the greatest tech on earth. And that makes me feel good… about me.

What do you think? Is engaging VR possible for the MLB viewing experience, or is this the latest fad that will struggle to fully monetize in the years ahead? Comment in the space below.

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