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Take Me Out to the Virtual Ballgame

Major League Baseball comes to Second Life.

Virtual House That Ruth Built
Gutsy move with the foam Red Sox finger in the Bronx

Major League Baseball teams that missed the playoffs, a.k.a. the second season, now have an opportunity to play in Second Life. Yes, baseball fans can add the virtual universe to the list of options of seeing a game live in person, on TV, on a cell phone or on a computer screen.

Imagine my happiness when I, a Red Sox fan, was able to walk into Yankee Stadium on a late October day and watch my beloved crimson hose take on the pinstripes. I had a great seat, popcorn, a hot dog, a beer and a giant Red Sox foam hand, all for the hefty price of zero dollars.

Sure, the game was occurring in Second Life (SL), the synthetic world created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, and the score didn't really matter. I have to admit, though, that I was thrilled to watch a game involving my favorite team, the one that unceremoniously missed MLB's playoffs.

As it turns out, the game I sat in on was a replay of an actual game that occurred in September. At the time,

MLB.com organized a real-time, virtual world re-enactment of two games between Boston and New York in its SL home, Yankee Stadium. Digital versions of the players, called avatars, re-enacted every play in real time while live video of the actual ballgame was concurrently streamed on the stadium's virtual scoreboard.

"As a platform, we're fascinated by the technology," said Justin Shaffer, senior vice president of New Media with MLB.com. "It's an entire new way to interact online with a portion of our fans that are more technologically savvy."

True to the real-life struggle of getting a seat to witness the rivalry first hand in real time, only 45 game tickets were made available for each of the September games at the price of $500 in the SL currency, called Linden. Currently, one U.S. dollar is worth roughly 273 Linden.

Built on MLB's aptly-named Baseball private island, the virtual Yankee Stadium also doubled as Pittsburgh's PNC Park, home of the 2006 All-Star Game. MLB was able to stream live video footage of the home run derby on the SL scoreboard. A limited number of virtual tickets were made available to SL users for $1,000 Linden.

"The people who came into SL sold out the event," Shaffer proudly announces. "Our product is sticking tremendously online, but this is taking in one step further. I really think this is all about being participatory."

Of course, it wouldn't feel like an authentic MLB event if not for the overabundance of merchandise. A virtual David "Big Papi" Ortiz jersey would set a member back $100 Linden, while a Yankees hat for an avatar costs $75 Linden.

'PNC Park'
Home of the virtual All-Star Game

"Instead of being on a message board, you can represent an affinity for your team in a jersey while chatting with fans and friends on Second Life," Shaffer notes.

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In addition to Red Sox and Yankee paraphernalia, MLB offers hats for the Philadelphia Phillies, the Houston Astros, the Baltimore Orioles, the Chicago White Sox, the Florida Marlins and the New York Mets in SL. Other teams are expected to have merchandise added to the virtual MLB store in the future.

While a sale of a single jersey or synthetic cap would amount to peanuts for MLB, there's certainly a possibility of selling a large-enough volume of virtual merchandise to baseball's virtual faithful to reap significant rewards. (Indeed, SL's economy doesn't seem to have been affected by Wednesday's

five-hour outage. Instead of missing an opportunity to add users, Linden Lab saw the subscriber rate rise to 1.14 members from 1.11 members on Wednesday. Virtual business owners' profits followed the same trend; over the previous 24 hours, more than $535,000 of goods and services were exchanged.)

Red Sox Heaven
Manny or Big Papi jersey?

"We could build replicas of all the ballparks, but there are some limitations to allow us have a certain number of people in the stadium, similar to real life," Shaffer says. "However, it does get easier and easier every day."

The one noticeable difference between the real Yankee Stadium and the SL replica is the lack of billboards or advertisements in the virtual landscape. This is something that MLB could certainly capitalize on in the stadium replicas, should an advertising boom hit SL.

"We're trying to create an environment as close to being in a real ballpark," Shaffer says. "

Advertising is certainly an alley to explore, so certainly we hope brands follow us in that belief."

There are a few drawbacks to the virtual world that Shaffer acknowledges. "Ultimately, scalability is an issue," he says. "We are somewhat limited in terms of reach, especially in this simulation world."

However, Shaffer is quite confident that, in the near future, the SL medium could become the next generation of a web browser. "Instead of an HTML world, we might be operating in a 3-D world," he says. "For MLB, it's just another way to view content on our web site, a better way even."

Shaffer is quick to point out that "there's no better way than to watch a game with friends and share the experience. You can't do it the same way in a text-based chat or on our MLB.com message board."

"We're going to let consumers help us understand what the best prospect is," Shaffer declares. "At the end of the day, we're all baseball fans"

Robert Holden is staff reporter Robert Holmes. He reports often from Second Life.