Built in partnership with British metaverse company Improbable, it’s not without its early bugs, since the Virtual Ballpark UI was a little choppy. But like anything new, the experience should get better over time.
To get in under the hood of the Virtual Ballpark, I talked with Matt Japko, director of gaming and new business ventures at MLB, who championed this initiative.
Japko told me it took a significant effort to create the Virtual Ballpark. “To build something like this takes a lot of groups,” he said. “So our product team worked on it along with marketing and design. Our strategy team was also involved. It truly was a league-wide initiative.”
Japko added that the intention was to build a virtual space to recreate the ballpark experience. “We have lots of games, lots of travel around the country,” he said. “But not everyone can actually go to a ballpark. And, personally, and I think a lot of people agree the best part about baseball is going to the ballpark.”
Unlike football or other sports, the ballpark experience — hearing the crowd, cheering with people, talking about the game — is what people crave about baseball. “We’re never going to recreate the perfect stadium experience, but we wanted to get people as close to the feel of what it’s like to be at a ballpark,” Japko said.
Japko said MLB first met Improbable about a year and a half ago. The company describes itself as “the metaverse technology company” that “leverages gaming expertise, blockchain and AI to develop breakthrough metaverse technologies.” Initial discussions around the idea of doing something within a virtual ballpark percolated, and the two decided to work together.
For this initial run at the Virtual Ballpark, Japko said thousands were in attendance, with a limit of 15,000. The Virtual Ballpark uses cameras MLB has had in place since 2020 to track player movements. “In 2020, we installed the Sony Sport Hawk-Eye cameras — 12 in every ballpark,” he said. “They’re doing the limb tracking and bat tracking.”
All this data is then pulled into the Virtual Ballpark system and represented, in near-real time, as avatars of ballplayers.
With only a few days left of the regular season, this experiment won’t repeat this year but will likely return in 2024 with lots of learning from this initial experiment. There’s no shortage of ideas, with exclusive content, customized jerseys, fan interactions with players, special emcees and getting former players involved all on the table.
But Japko says everything on the edges must support a great baseball product. “We may get to a point where you’re customizing your avatar if you want to get a special jersey, sure,” he said. “But no one would want to do that if they didn’t love the product. So that’s ultimately where we want to focus. A great baseball experience is really the foremost goal.”
I asked Japko if they would consider this a “metaverse” version of an MLB game, and he pushed back a little. “I consider a baseball product,” he said. “We’re just testing the community and trying to recreate the ballpark experience. Whatever word people want to use, I don’t like to think about it that way. So I just like to think about our core baseball experiences.”
Regardless of whether you apply the metaverse term, I see it as a unique hybrid of virtual and real-world experiences. I applaud MLB for pushing the boundaries and looking for new ways to engage with fans who can’t make it to a game.
Think of all the fans who live beyond a reasonable driving distance (say, two hours) of a ballpark. It must be millions. With the right tech, which MLB and Improbable are working on together, this could be, quite literally, a game changer. Add in the existential struggles that many regional sports networks have, and it could be an excellent solution for the future of broadcasting local MLB games.