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Baseball making online drives to engage fans

TOKYO >> Nippon Professional Baseball brought fans back to stadiums in limited numbers last month after opening the season without spectators to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Amid caps on attendance, many teams have come up with new ways to enjoy games outside the physical stadium — and generate revenue in the process.

The Yokohama DeNA BayStars and telecommunications giant KDDI Corp., for instance, have launched a virtual stadium pro-ject called “Virtual Hamasta.” They held a trial run in August.

The system allowed baseball fans to create avatars that gathered at a virtual stadium, where a real game was shown on a big screen.

Fans were able to enjoy the virtual experience during a game against the Hanshin Tigers at Yokohama Stadium, a venue affectionately called Hamasta, by controlling their avatars through their smartphones, home computers and other means of technology. They left comments of joy and happiness on the system’s chat feature.

A KDDI spokesperson said the system allowed them to gather important information about how people chose to cheer for their favorite team. Visitor were able to applaud alongside other avatars and take pictures.

The virtual stadium attempted to replicate the ambience of an actual ballpark, to create an environment that encouraged a sense of unity.

More than 30,000 people participated in the free trial. The real Yokohama Stadium can accommodate about 34,000 visitors.

The virtual stadium’s ability to pull in fans has proved to be an attractive income generator for baseball businesses.

In July, in cooperation with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, advertising giant Dentsu Inc. held a demonstration at the Sapporo Dome using a robot equipped with a 360-degree camera. The event is regarded as a milestone in the establishment of new sports businesses that allow people to enjoy games from outside the ballpark.

By remotely controlling the robot, installed next to the third-base bench, baseball fans could see the pitcher on the mound and players on the bench. They could also clap and talk with others on the screen.

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