The weather is warming up and that means a lot more than Cherry Blossoms in this country — bring out the beer and bentos! Baseball season is back! The new season also brings some cool new technology that will knock pro baseball off the TV screen, out of the ballpark, through the sports bar doors’ and right onto your keitai screen. Like many traditional staples of entertainment here, pro baseball is going mobile — but with a decidedly animated twist.
Tokyo-based Craftmax’s Digital Stadium broadcasts select American and Japanese pro-ball games over DoCoMo 3G cell phones transforming live action into an animated play-by-play, pitch-by-pitch rendition of the game right down to ball speed and trajectory, complete with an electronic scoreboard, the roar of the crowd and sound effects for hits, runs and score changes. This is not fantasy baseball, and not an online game, but rather The Real Thing — rendered into animated avatars standing in for flesh-and-blood players. Check-out this quick video preview below of our upcoming program including a product demo and chat (which was for the most part in Japanese) with the company founder Mitsumasa Etoh.
“Live sportscasts over mobile really aren’t practical yet,” Craftmax president Mitsumasa Etoh told WWJ in a demonstration of their patent-pending technology at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. “Streaming video can be very expensive for mobile viewers. Think about it; baseball games usually run three hours. Few phones can handle terrestrial TV for that long and reception is still so-so anyway. Plus, licensing for live TV is a very costly and difficult process. Those barriers are greatly simplified with mobile animation.”
This Grand Slam technology for rendering sports into nearly real-time animation (lag time is just 15 seconds from live game to mobile) was developed in-house by Etoh and his team of baseball-obsessed engineers.
Originally a video program producer with only a rudimentary knowledge of baseball, Etoh was working with the then-Fukuoka Daiei Hawks when the idea for a mobile game site first came up. The company began with real-time text-based broadcasts of games for six different Japanese pro-ball teams while crafting their true vision for the company.
“Reading about games is not very engaging,” says Etoh. “It is also confusing to novice baseball fans who can’t visualize the action. We wanted to recreate the excitement and fun of watching a real game — the noise and cheering — but we had to come up with completely new software for rendering the action as it happened.” What the company did was invent a coding process that reads around 30,000 possible baseball plays as they happen and then transforms them into animation that simulates real-world action by the pitcher, fielders, batter and runner(s) with only a few seconds delay. The process also compresses the calculation results so that packet transmission of an entire three-hour game, watched live, works out to only 150 yen for the subscriber.
Craftmax also built in options for Japanese sports Geeks (not an oxymoron here) faced with the ‘too many games, too little time’ conundrum. Overworked corporate slaves and victims of time zone madness (US major league games may be broadcast between 02:00 and 05:00) can opt for a number of time-condensing formulas to view games cached for whenever/wherever access. If the game is already finished, subscribers can view separate innings or use the “highlight playback” button for scoring plays. Cached games are condensed from three hours to 30-45 minutes by editing out all non-play action time (commercials, spitting, posturing, more commercials, extra spitting, etc.). Viewers tuning in to the middle of the action can access a ‘catch-up’ playback feature; this high-speed playback shows the progress of the game up to connection time.
One programming perk notifies fans when their favorite Japanese player is either coming up to bat or ready to make a base run. Says Etoh, “Our target base is men in their 30s and 40s. They leave for the office early and stay working late, so this batting feature lets them at least check out how their favorite players are doing even if they can’t watch the game live.”
Currently Digital Stadium is available for games played by the Yomiuri Giants, Lotte Marines, Nippon Ham Fighters and Softbank Hawks. Subscribers access the site from the teams’ official homepages. Out of the US, Craftmax provides games from the Cardinals, Mariners, Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Padres, Devil Rays, Oakland A’s, White Sox and the Washington Nationals. The company is not directly affiliated with Major League Baseball, instead buying the transmission data from an America sports data supplier. However, that may change as Craftmax is approaching MLB.com about supplying Digital Stadium-style games for their Web channel and possibly as a mobile site too.
Here in Japan, advertising targets stadium billboards, stadium screens and flyers. “Stadiums are the most economical and synch squarely with our target audience,” notes Etoh, indicating future directions for revenue possibilities.
And baseball is just the beginning.
Digital Stadium programs are currently in production for soccer, sumo, tennis, golf, car racing and beyond. Each has presented the company with unique obstacles. “Baseball was easy compared to soccer, where you have to track 22 players dashing all over the field kicking the ball between them,” laughs Etoh ruefully. The software’s original mathematical formula for baseball was abandoned in favor a motion-tracking process. Sumo, too, demanded its own rendering system, one that could transfer complex hand, arm, leg and body movements. Despite the obstacles Digital Stadium will debut Sumo for subscribers at the Summer Basho and plans on being ready for Japan League soccer’s autumn kick-off.
The company has several patents pending for all this new coding and plans to take their sports technology out of the domestic ballpark and into the overseas arena with one of their first targets being the European soccer clubs. “Now that we have the experience and own the technology, there’s really no limit to the types of sports we can cover,” says Etoh. Batter up!
– Gail Nakada