There’s no launching of jet balloons during the seventh inning stretch or Yasuaki Jump for the closer at Yokohama Stadium amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Unless it’s in cyberspace.
The Yokohama DeNA BayStars and telecommunications operator KDDI have launched a virtual stadium experience project called “Virtual Hamasuta.” On Tuesday evening, they held their first trial run during the club’s home game against the Hanshin Tigers.
The system allows fans to have a virtual experience at Yokohama Stadium, affectionately called Hamasuta by baseball fans, by using avatars to walk the stadium’s concourses.
These “visitors” can watch games on the field — a place they’re rarely allowed to go — on big screens suspended in the air above the diamond. To put it simply, it’s a virtual public viewing.
Baseball fans have been asked to refrain from some of their traditional forms of cheering, such as singing and yelling, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. BayStars fans, for example, can’t jump up and down and yell as they normally do when star reliever Yasuaki Yamasaki emerges from the bullpen.
In the virtual world, however, nothing is off limits.
The BayStars and KDDI had been working together even before the coronavirus pandemic, having joined forces to introduce things such as cashless payments, via AU Pay, at shops around the stadium.
While their earlier collaborations had been aimed at making the stadium experience more convenient for fans, they were forced to change course in response to the pandemic and the fact so many fans are unable to attend games in person.
“We are currently in a situation where we can’t create so much excitement at the stadium,” Hiroyuki Hayashi, the director of the BayStars branding division, said during an online news conference Tuesday. “But we wanted to come up with plans, and not just accept the situation.”
The 2020 NPB season kicked off behind closed doors June 19 and has allowed a maximum of 5,000 spectators to attend games since July 10. The BayStars have been one of the most proactive teams in the league in terms of using internet tools, such as Zoom, to remain connected with their fanbase.
Through its partnership with KDDI, the club hopes to provide fans with a more interactive experience.
With 5G high-speed wireless technology having officially started operations this year, the experience could be enhanced even more in the future.
Kohei Shigeta, director of 5G and XR services at KDDI, said the Virtual Hamasuta project does not require 5G, but that the technology would enhance online services for the fans going forward.
“This is perhaps the first case in Japan, and maybe first in the world,” Shigeta said. “We’re hoping to give the fans new experiences that they can only have through the virtual space.”
Shigeta added that KDDI does not intend to limit the virtual stadium technology to only the BayStars and hopes to inspire other teams and other sports to adopt similar ideas, considering the coronavirus is expected to affect the world for a long time.
“We would like to help sport as a telecommunication company by adopting different technologies,” Shigeta said. “As the areas of 5G expand, it should be easier to do that. We would like to expand 5G technology while partnering with a flagship club like the BayStars. We think it’s nobody else but the BayStars that can do things like this drastically and quickly. So if we keep working on such a thing like this, we think it will increase demand.”
The BayStars may eventually monetize the program, for instance, by charging for entry to the virtual stadium. But Hayashi did not say if, or when, that might happen.
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