This article was written by Allison R. Levin
This article was published in the The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)
A young boy does “the Wave” as a digital spectator to a baseball game, from his own couch at home. (ANDRIY DOVZHYKOV / DREAMSTIME.COM)
There is no denying that baseball is getting more expensive, with fans being priced out of watching games in person.1 The result is fans struggling to recreate an in-person experience at home through so-called “third venues.”2 These may include setting up multiple screens to get as many different perspectives as possible—from social media to Statcast to camera views not provided on the over-the-air-broadcast. Fans are also texting, Face Timing, posting on social media, or otherwise communicating with friends during the game to maintain a communal feel. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to replicate the unique feeling one gets from attending a game—the atmosphere, smells, and excitement just don’t exist when watching from your living room. All of this means that fans are frustrated, and many are tuning out of baseball.3 Luckily, fundamental changes will emerge over the next twenty years, driven by technology, that will bring at-home fans back into the game. The various advances will center around two main features—the fan’s desire to watch the game on their terms and replicating a communal feel. By 2040, fans will be fully immersed in the game through advances in artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and 4D effects (4DX).
To understand how the viewing experience will change, we must examine how second screens or double screens are used in 2021. Further, I will look specifically at millennials and Gen Z to predict how the technology will grow, because these populations will become the core audience watching the games as well as the ones to develop and create the technology we will be using in 2040. Currently, second or double screens allow fans to establish social connections and interactions while watching games live.4 This technology is essential for millennials, among whom only 31 percent report they prefer to watch the game alone.5 Since younger fans crave a shared sport experience even when watching at home, fan interaction will become a significant focus beyond what currently exists.6 Growth in this area will begin by expanding the devices and platforms people can use, in order to make it easier to watch what you want, how you want, and where you want. Athlete-and team-generated content is also rapidly increasing, which helps fans feel a stronger tie to both brands and build a shared community with people who are enjoying the same content.7 These expanded content opportunities will lead to fans enjoying multiple interactive experiences while watching the game.8 Over 55% of millennials report that they currently use social media to get updates on their favorite team and players while watching the game.9 Currently, these interactive experiences include fans watching a game on a television (or streaming the broadcast to a digital device) while connecting on social media platforms to communicate with fellow fans (in real time) as well as getting to know the team and players through their content. The trend of combining the consumption of the broadcast with social media interaction is growing. As the interactive experiences continue to expand, so will the fans’ desire to augment what they are watching live through these third venues.10 As the ones researching and developing these technologies while also making up the core audience, millenial and Gen-Z fan preferences will translate into what we will be using by 2040. Fans should expect the second screen process to become more streamlined, allowing more options to replicate an in-venue experience, including the all-important sense of community.
This streamlining will occur through a complete overhaul in the presentation of games incorporating AR, AI, VR, and 4DX to give fans a fully personalized and immersive experience. First, we must understand what each of these terms means for baseball coverage. The most logical place to start is with AR, as we already see great strides in this technology with Statcast. Specifically, AR is how technology enhances parts of the viewer’s physical world with digital content.11 We are witnessing the start of this revolution with over-the-air broadcasts overlaying launch angles and home-run distances over the plays on the telecast. This is only the cusp of the potentional for AR. The other three, AI, VR, and 4DX, are not nearly as developed in the context of baseball; however, all four working together will be crucial to the future of our digital viewing experience.
For our purposes, AI is building systems using human reasoning as the model to create better products and services.12 In other words, it is not what we typically think of, so-called strong AI, where the goal is trying to achieve a perfect replica of the human mind. Instead, it is about creating more intelligent technology that assists the consumer—or, in this case, the viewer—in meaningful ways.13 AI can be used to predict what at-bats a viewer would want to see and alert them when those players are at bat, to respond to questions, or even make in-game purchases or place bets.
VR is not a new concept, but it has not been fully explored in the context of baseball yet. Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation where a person interacts with an artificial three-dimensional world, typically using cumbersome goggles and gloves. However, technology is advancing to where soon people will need only a special pair of glasses to access the virtual world.14 VR will allow viewers to feel like they are at the game from wherever they choose to watch. We mustn’t confuse VR with AR. VR provides an immersive experience, while AR enhances the world we view by providing graphical overlays.15
The final element of the technology that will change how we view games is 4DX. 4DX is not new, but it is not widely used outside theme parks and highend movie theaters. If you have ever been on a ride or gone to a movie where your seat has moved in time to what was occurring on the screen, you felt the appropriate weather (warm or cold air, wind, rain) and experienced scents that matched what you saw on the screen; you have experienced 4DX.16
Now that we understand the basic idea of how these four technologies work, we can begin to imagine how they all will work together to revolutionize how we will watch the game in 2040. It is easy to imagine somebody deciding to watch baseball and sitting in their 4DX chair to enjoy the game. They would put on their simple, lightweight VR frames (by 2040, we will no longer need the cumbersome goggles and gloves) and be transported to the stadium of their choosing. They can select any view from the stadium to enjoy the game—from the bleachers to the front row to the dugout—there are no limits. Even better, by simply turning their head or asking the AI for a different angle, they can have a 360-degree view of the game.17 The 4DX chair will allow the fan to replicate the inperson experience by providing the same conditions those in the stadium feel and smell. The chair will be fully customizable, with fans choosing what in-person elements they want to experience—perhaps choosing to experience all the smells but forgoing the weather, so they don’t have to experience the rain, freezing cold, or heat and humidity.
But that is just the start of the experience. Through the VR frames, one can seamlessly move from game to game in the snap of a finger, and when we add in AI and AR, the experience becomes truly personal. Through AI, fans will be able to invite friends to join them in the interactive experience with a simple voice request (akin to today’s “Hey, Siri/Alexa/Google”). Even better, everyone can be present and enjoy the social element of baseball, even if they are not all watching the same game. If you want a friend to see something exciting in one of the games, you just ask them to move over to it (again just by directing the AI), and everyone can watch it together. In essence, many people worldwide will have all that day’s games at their fingertips, available for simultaneous play.
Another change that will develop out of this technology is fans choosing what announcers they are hearing. While subscribers to MLBTV through MLB.com can already swap the audio on many streaming video broadcasts, including alternate languages, and Amazon has started exploring this option in their NFL broadcasts, it will continue to become more prevalent and easier to accomplish.18 If a viewer wants to change announcers, all they’ll do is ask the AI to switch it. We also expect there will be personal replay capabilities, including the ability to listen to the same play again but with a different set of announcers. Viewers will also customize their experience by controlling (through AR) what shows up on the screen during the broadcast. Instead of being stuck with the universal “score bug” we have in the corner of our screens now, they will have access to a near-unlimited choice of options, including what statistics they prefer to see, what Stat-cast overlays appear, and how the screen is formatted.
Further, using a combination of VR and AR, the fans who like to check social media or online discussion during the game will no longer need to juggle multiple devices or screens. They will easily be able to swipe their social feeds into the main viewing area, check what others are saying, and then move them back out of the direct line of sight. The AI’s excellent voice recognition will make it seamless for fans to post when they want to, regardless of whether the feed is up on the screen. If a favorite pitcher strikes out the side, it will be as simple as saying, “post the Cardinals are dominating.” The AI will also provide notifications when replies or messages arrive, or if friends or favorite accounts post. The user can have them read aloud or swipe them onto the screen, as well as choose where these feeds appear, ensuring the game remains visible.
Through the capabilities of AR built into the VR experience, fantasy players will be able to see the statistics of their active players overlayed on the game broadcast. Through AI technology, the fans can be alerted when their fantasy players are coming up to bat or pitching in other games throughout the league(s), and potentially see that action instead of— or in addition to—the game they are already watching. Miss a key play? No problem, just ask the AI for a replay, and it will pop up on the screen. Since its legalization in the US, sports betting is a rising trend being embraced by Major League Baseball, with commissioner Rob Manfred telling reporters in 2019 that he sees it as a “great source of fan engagement.”19 By 2040, it’s possible the AR will allow fans to access the biometric profile of the player, giving them more insight into the player’s fatigue level, perhaps helping the fan make more informed betting decisions.20 And much like our current fantasy sports experience, one will easily be able to access any daily bets and place in-game wagers, only these will be through the accessible AI features built into the viewing experience.
With this technology, fans will be able to call up plays that happened in other games, or years or centuries ago, by asking the AI for the footage, much like fans today can use the MLB Film Room launched by MLB in 2020, only incorporated into their 4DX display.21 If somebody wants to see a replay of a play that just happened, they can have it show up on the screen and view it from 360 degrees to make their own decision about the call. If a team is bringing in a pitcher to face a particular batter, one can easily ask the AI to see a replay of every time that pitcher and batter have faced each other. If fans argue about a particular historical play, they simply ask the AI to access it and share it with everyone, hopefully deciding the argument. Further, it is easy to imagine a situation where one disagrees with a replay or where a hitter goes against their trend versus the pitcher and simply asking the AI to switch to “video game mode” to replay it in the VR frames to see if the result is any different.
Fans are craving the best possible experience when watching from home while not losing the human, communal element of watching the game with friends.22,23 These technological advances are on the way. Allowing fans to watch anywhere without the need for anything other than a pair of VR frames with incorporated AI and AR technology (the 4DX chair adds to the at-home experience), baseball will fully adapt to the wants and needs of the next generation of fans. There is already an indication that these advances will increase viewership. More than 40 percent of the next generation of fans point to AR as something that would increase their desire to watch the game, and 54 percent say that VR would increase the likelihood of them watching a game.24 By 2040, the at-home viewing experience will have changed significantly. In the process, the fans who are currently reluctant viewers will be drawn in through the complete customization and integration of their interests and desires.
ALLISON R. LEVIN is a Professor of Sports Communication at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, a member of the SABR Board of Directors, and the chair of the Educational Resources Committee. Her research builds upon an eclectic background in political science, economics, women’s studies, communications, and law. In recent years she has focused on the effects of social media on pop culture, communications, and sports, primarily baseball. Born and raised in St. Louis, Allison is an unapologetic Cardinals fan, even if her favorite player is Clayton Kershaw.
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