Data is only as interesting as what you do with it, and MLB Advanced Media has a long history of capturing data from games of baseball — which is perhaps our most statistics-heavy sport — and presenting it to fans in an intelligent, comprehensible manner. The company is at the vanguard of bringing technology to sports in clever ways.
The NBA may be leading the way when it comes to virtual reality, having released a stunning short-form documentary in VR about last year’s NBA Finals. But MLB’s latest VR experiment marries baseball to the incredibly detailed data that the league captures every second of every game, and it’s impressive to behold.
This takes place in a mobile app that’s built upon MLB.com At Bat, perennially one of the highest-grossing and most consumed sports apps in existence. MLB.com At Bat VR, which launches June 1 exclusively on Google Daydream, combines live baseball games from the league’s MLB.TV subscription with up-to-the-moment scores and statistics. It plays out in a futuristic virtual viewing area that allows you to simultaneously watch the game and interact with near-instant data visualizations for every player and every pitch.
At Bat VR unfolds across three tabs: Videos, Games and Standings. You swipe left and right on the Daydream controller’s touchpad to move between the tabs, and use the controller’s cursor to aim at what you want to click on. It’s standard stuff, and I was able to intuit the navigation quickly — the app doesn’t require any familiarity with VR experiences. As always, if you don’t pay for an MLB.TV package, you’ll still be able to access individual highlights and game recaps for free (from the Videos tab, or by going into a game).
Let’s say you did have a subscription, and you wanted to pull up a game that was in progress. As usual, you’d have the ability to choose between the home or away team’s broadcast, and whether to enable closed captions. At Bat VR loads up the live feed quickly, putting a large video window right in the center of the screen underneath a box score; you can mouse over to see the line score, which is a great way to handle a feature that any baseball fan will want.
On the right side of the video, you can flip through the two teams’ lineups and the hitters’ in-game stats. On the left, you’ll see the current pitcher and batter, along with a play-by-play feed of every event in the game, down to the pitch. If you don’t care about any of that stuff, you can make the video window larger; in your field of view, it’ll look about as large as a big-screen TV in your living room.
The heart of the At Bat VR experience lives below the game broadcast. There, you’ll get a three-dimensional virtual strike zone to visualize every pitch. A second or two after you see a pitch in the live feed, it shows up in the strike zone — red for strikes and foul balls, green for balls, blue for pitches hit in play — and you can mouse over it to see the pitch speed and type. The strike zone shows the hitter’s hot and cold zones, and you can also choose to see it with his on-base plus slugging percentage for each part of the strike zone.
I spent the first few minutes of my demo simply being wowed by the technology on display. At Bat VR is a tremendous showcase for Statcast, the analytics system that’s set up in all 30 MLB stadiums to track the location and movement of the ball and every player on the field. Statcast can tell you the speed at which a batted ball left the bat (“exit velocity”) and the amount of movement on a breaking ball, among many other things.
“The data is there,” said Jamie Leece, vice president of games and VR at MLB Advanced Media, during my demo. At Bat VR doesn’t yet surface all of it to users, but Leece explained that the developers worried about information overload. The trick, he said, is to make sure it’s intuitive.
The thing is, this kind of data is already available in the existing At Bat app on tablets and smartphones, and in the MLB Gameday setup for following live games on the league’s website. But VR brings a new dimension to it, and not only because of the video game-like interactive element of the experience. It’s very quick to mouse over the pitches and see what they were, and I found myself thinking like a baseball analyst in the middle of an at-bat: Well, he’s thrown three straight high fastballs in a 1-2 count, so he’ll probably go with a slider down and away now.
Leece also pointed out that being able to watch a baseball game in VR, on a phone, helps in his home life. He described using At Bat VR to check out a Blue Jays game in bed while his wife watched an episode of General Hospital. You probably wouldn’t watch a full three-hour game with a Google Pixel XL strapped to your face. But why take up a TV in your house if you’re just watching a ballgame by yourself?
When At Bat VR launches this week, it will offer this Statcast-driven VR experience with every live game for the rest of the year. However, users will also be able to go back all the way to the start of the 2015 season — when Statcast was introduced — and watch any archived game with the same exact features, plus DVR functionality.
Update (June 1): MLB.com At Bat VR is now available on Daydream via Google Play.