NEW YORK — Within the VR headset, I look down and see a home plate and two batter’s boxes, as one would expect in any old baseball video game, but when I look right, I see the aquarium embedded into the backstop of Marlins Park. Looking left toward the outfield, the infamous monstrosity circus prop home run sculpture is digitally rendered in remarkable detail.
When I glance down at the pitcher, he begins his windup and throws a batting practice pitch. With a snap of my hands and crack of the bat, the ball follows the trajectory of any number of Giancarlo Stanton blasts from the past few years into the left field bleachers, albeit my blast nearly hit a circular “2x” target that would have doubled my score.
Marlins Park, as rendered in MLB’s HR Derby VR (Courtesy of MLBAM)
Major League Baseball’s new Home Run Derby VR game — released today on PlayStation VR and HTC Vive — is the first console virtual reality title built and released by a U.S. professional sports league.
“When people think about baseball from a participation standpoint, they think about what it would be like to step up to the plate and hit a home run. That’s what we recreated here,” MLB’s senior vice president for games and VR, Jamie Leece, said, adding:
“The feeling of presence and the transformative nature of VR, that’s just not something that can be recreated on a traditional static screen, no matter how large it is.”
My tutorial in the game takes place in an MLB Advanced Media conference room jury-rigged into a VR studio and, after taking a number of swings to get my timing (even breaking a small sweat), I’m able to start launching some moonshots. We live in the Statcast Era, so of course the requisite exit velocity and launch angle figures are reported, and somehow one of my parabolic arcs with a sky-high 45.7-degree rise escapes the field of play.
An enterprise version has been in operation for nine months and will be in use at 12 ballparks this season with participants taking swings in digital versions of the local venue, including San Francisco’s universally beloved AT&T Park and the defending World Series champion Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park.
This new commercial product features three ballparks: the 2016, ’17 and ’18 All-Star Game sites of Miami, Washington and Cleveland. The enterprise version at ballparks and the home game have differing difficulty levels: the ballpark setup is designed to be easier given that most fans line up to wait and then have one turn while the home game allows for a progression of skill.
The league has taken the enterprise product on a road show since its development, bringing it to London for its MLB Battlegrounds event last July 4, as well as to Miami for the All-Star Game, to Cartagena, Colombia for a World Series watch party, to Puerto Rico and Monterrey for recent and upcoming regular season games and even to the Broccoli City Festival summer concert at Washington’s RFK Stadium before another appearance in the city for the All-Star Game. The international fans in particular have never seen the home ballparks of their favorite players.
“They were able to step into where their heroes play . . . and it’s magical,” Leece said.
As MLB considers following the lead of their North American peer leagues and making a future entry into esports, the league focuses for now on generating excitement and engagement with easy-to-play video games like R.B.I. Baseball and HR Derby, which has also been available on mobile devices since 2013. The new VR version will have leaderboards to motivate fans to compete against each other, but there are no plans yet for organized tournaments.
MLB built the VR product in-house over the last two years, a project that was accelerated by its earlier efforts in gaming. The development team cross-used some mechanisms from the mobile game and the digital ballparks from R.B.I. They paid particular attention to ensuring high-fidelity 3D images with a high frame rate because a VR game essentially produces two screens of content (one for each eye) simultaneously.
“We need two times the horsepower to run the product, so we had to go in there and be very sophisticated about our optimizations to make sure it wasn’t going to be something that wasn’t visually performing,” Leece said.
My own experience certainly felt natural, with attention paid to every detail. When I yanked a few (OK, several) balls foul down the left-field line in Cleveland, I could see Quicken Loans Arena in the distance.
What was missing? My father’s voice with a repeated refrain from childhood, reminding me not to open up my front shoulder .