R.B.I. Baseball 18 isn’t the only video game that MLB Advanced Media is making this year. The company announced today that it is also developing MLB Home Run Derby VR, a smaller experience that the studio is planning to release on PlayStation VR and HTC Vive this spring.
The batting practice game has its origins in a product that MLBAM created last year, an experimental ballpark attraction that became so wildly successful that the company is expanding it in 2018 — both to additional stadiums and to the gaming audience. It’s a testament to the smart way that MLBAM uses all the parts of the buffalo when it comes to the software it develops. And it’s also a lot of fun.
Home Run Derby VR debuted at the 2017 All-Star Game FanFest in Miami, a series of fun baseball-themed events and experiences scheduled around the game for baseball fans to enjoy. MLBAM has been making an annual Home Run Derby game on mobile devices for years, and the company wanted to find a way to turn that app into a life-size experience that could bring fans closer to baseball.
The full experience features a batting cage, which is, of course, where the player stands when they’re swinging for the fences. The user puts on an HTC Vive headset and picks up a weighty plastic bat with the Vive Tracker — a small $99 accessory that allows the Vive Lighthouse sensors to follow the bat’s movement — attached to it, and then swings away.
You can see a trailer above featuring the ballpark version of Home Run Derby VR, which the league has taken to events around the world in places such as London; Nuremberg, Germany; and Cartagena, Colombia. Jamie Leece, vice president of MLBAM’s gaming and VR division, told Polygon in an interview last fall that the studio designed this version of the game to be a quick experience that takes only about 90 seconds per person — half the time playing, the other half strapping on and then removing the headset — which is crucial. Peter Banks, MLBAM’s director of marketing, said the attraction was so popular that fans often lined up to wait for multiple hours.
MLB subsequently worked with the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres to bring the full batting cage experience to the clubs’ respective ballparks last fall as a concourse attraction. The league expects that at least 10 teams, and maybe even 15, will get that version of Home Run Derby VR in their own stadiums by the end of the 2018 season. And attendees at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this weekend will be able to try it out as well.
Home Run Derby VR was developed by the same group at MLBAM that’s making R.B.I. 18, and the team is very focused on getting a lot out of the crossover between its work on multiple pieces of software.
“We thought having that core competency, a bigger team here, could not only help the effort of R.B.I., but also help us as these evolving technologies start to spool up,” said Noah Garden, executive vice president of commerce for MLB, discussing MLBAM’s decision to spin up a development team for games and VR. “The effort that we put forth on R.B.I. has really given us sort of a leg up on that.”
Back in early 2016, before the hiring of the full team, MLBAM directed its then-small gaming group to develop a television product. The company wanted a way for producers of live MLB broadcasts to integrate the league’s real-time data tracking system, Statcast, into visualizations of baseball plays. This required the team to build digital simulations of all 30 MLB ballparks, an effort that began with the existing stadium models from R.B.I. Baseball 15. And a year later, that work became the basis for Home Run Derby VR.
“All of that innovation really came out of that first three-month opportunity to build something for the company that really had nothing to do with video games, but was leveraging all of our knowledge and skills that we’ve developed over a bunch of years,” said Alexander Reyna, director of experience design for MLBAM’s gaming and VR department.
I got to try the consumer version of Home Run Derby VR earlier this year at MLBAM’s offices in Manhattan, on both PSVR and Vive. At launch, the game will feature three stadiums done up in their All-Star Game presentation: the home ballparks for the Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians, which are the hosts for the Midsummer Classic in 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively.
I played in the latter two venues and in Fenway Park, which may arrive in the game later as downloadable content. A spokesperson for MLBAM told Polygon that the company will release additional stadiums over time, but did not specify whether or not they’ll be free. (MLBAM will charge for the game, but isn’t announcing pricing yet.)
As you would expect, Home Run Derby VR on Vive is superior to the PSVR version, both from a visual and technical perspective. The Vive has a higher-resolution display than PSVR does, and the kind of powerful PC necessary to run it can produce a more detailed rendering of the stadiums than a PlayStation 4 can. With the PlayStation Move wand that’s used to play the game on PSVR, you can pretty much just flick your wrist and hit a homer. Obviously, playing the Vive version with a life-size bat really goes a long way in making the game feel immersive, but the tracking also seemed better there than on PSVR.
Yet the difference, though palpable, isn’t massive. PSVR owners shouldn’t feel like they’ll be missing out on a much better experience, because they won’t; I still had a great time with both versions. There’s definitely an adjustment period in going straight from one to the other like I did — which, obviously, is something that almost nobody will be doing in practice. And just from a few hacks, you quickly get an intuitive sense of what kind of movement will lead to long streaks of home runs. I know I did!