Former baseball star Johnny Damon once hoisted a World Series trophy in Yankee Stadium as a member of New York’s famous sports franchise. On Friday, he returned to the Bronx for a different kind of challenge.
Instead of stepping up to the batter’s box, the 18-year MLB veteran stepped into virtual reality to play Sparc—a VR sport that crosses racquetball with tennis—against US Army soldiers stationed at Riyadh Air Base in Saudi Arabia and Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Soldiers from West Point and Fort Hamilton were also at Yankee Stadium to take on the two-time World Series winner.
“I’ve been a big gamer ever since I was a kid, I’ve always dreamed about virtual reality, and I’m also a big military guy,” Damon told AListDaily. “My dad served our country [for 20 years], and I heard that we had the opportunity to play against troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.”
The event was organized in a partnership headed by Pro vs. GI Joe, an organization founded by Greg Zinon and his wife Addie Zinon, which pits professional athletes against active soldiers in video games like Call of Duty and Gears of War.
The event marked the first time Pro vs. GI Joe has featured a VR game, and for Sparc creator CCP, the event further underscored the message of how it’s more than a video game—it’s a full sport that happens to be played on PlayStation VR (and it will release for other platforms in the future).
“I hope that this event will at least play a small part in helping drive VR to where it’s going in the future,” Adam Kahn, senior director of communications at CCP Games, told AListDaily. “We’re at the very beginning of VR right now, akin to where we were with mobile phones in the early 1980s, where it was a novelty and the equipment was pretty big and expensive, so not everyone had it. [CCP] has gotten on this train early, and we want to see where it’s going.”
But even at this early stage of the technology, it makes for a great experience for all those involved. Even for Damon, Sparc was more than a video game.
“The game is also a total body workout, and you could see me sweating quite a bit,” said the two-time All Star outfielder.
“It’s about boosting morale,” Pro vs. GI Joe and 514 Esports founder Greg Zinon told AListDaily. “For the last 10 years, we’ve had the unbelievable success of getting as many athletes as we get. Coming up, we have 22 NFL teams in just over a three-month period, and it’s all to boost the morale. That’s it. We just want to give the guys a little fun where they typically wouldn’t have any, like in Syria or Turkey.”
Although connecting active soldiers with pro athletes through video games has been a passion project for both Zinon and his wife, he admits that part of him didn’t think that a cross-continental VR match would be possible.
“I didn’t think it would happen,” said Zinon. “Even 10 years later, when you pull up the guys in Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s crazy, even with the way technology is today. It’s crazy to pull out these guys and have them play online from 6,000 miles away. But it can happen. It’s one of those things you need to see to believe.”
Zinon said that the event was inspired by how the military already uses VR to train and how the organization is always looking to push the envelope when it comes to bringing online gaming overseas.
“The world is changing, especially on the military side of things,” he explained. “They’re using VR on their end, and what better partnership to bring in on the gaming side? If they’re going to do it for work, why not do it for fun? So, it seemed like a perfect match.”
But there are other reasons why VR holds a lot of interest for Pro vs. GI Joe.
“You make a fool out of yourself with the way you’re swinging around, and it makes for great content,” said Zinon. “It’s like when we used to play Guitar Hero—it’s funny watching these big athletes play. Same thing with virtual reality. They’re shaking their hands, and it’s wild.”
Although an online VR competition featuring Damon (who was playing a VR game competitively for the first time) at Yankee Stadium was a significant event, it was attended only by military guests and media without being livestreamed. That might seem like an odd decision, but Zinon explained the reason for it.
“What we found is that livestreaming is a matter of consistency,” said Zinon, who originally planned to livestream all the Pro vs. GI Joe events. “If we had a consistent livestream Monday through Thursday, then this would fit in. But since we don’t have other livestreams this week, and we won’t have an NFL event until October 3, consistency is broken. So, I don’t think you would have the viewership you would expect or want, even if Johnny said, ‘Watch me play Sparc’ on social media.
“It typically doesn’t work the way people think, where half the people who follow him on social media are going to watch. If we had done three events and livestreamed all of them, then we’d start picking up steam on the third, just like a typical Twitch stream. Another thing is the length of the event, which is one or two hours. Twitch feeds start picking up in viewership after two or three hours. So, having a shorter event wouldn’t be as successful as people would think, and it’s better not to do something than have it not be successful.”
However, that’s not to say that the event went unnoticed. In addition to the press, Zinon pointed out how all the attendees from West Point and Fort Hamilton were sharing their Yankee Stadium experiences on social media, bragging about how they were going to take on Damon in a VR game.
Zinon also explained how this could lead to more VR events in the future, featuring other celebrities.
“We deal directly with the athletes and celebrities,” said Zinon. “Before coming here, I had dinner with one of the top surfers in the world, one of the top skaters, some of the WWE girls and some of the top NFL guys. They always know what we’re doing, and I told them about the Yankee Stadium event with Sparc to gauge their interest and see how we can move forward.”
Meanwhile, Damon shared his thoughts about the growth of esports.
“I think this is the wave of the future, and the future is here,” said Damon. “This was a tremendous opportunity to let people know about this game and I think it’s going to really take off.”
Although no one could tell who would win the VR game competition, Damon admitted that the GIs had the initial advantage. The retired ballplayer won the first game, but the GIs were able to figure out his strategy and defeated him in subsequent matches.
“That’s good, because our troops need to know how to win and that’s exactly what they did,” said Damon. “The GI Joes definitely had the advantage, and we thank them for everything they do. I’m just glad we had an opportunity to have fun with the GIs thousands of miles away.”
Got some new PS4 & VR gear over to some guys in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait last so they can take on Johnny Damon,… https://t.co/OCdqZjMPMH
— PRO VS. GI JOE (@PROVSGIJOE) September 16, 2017