This is a continuation of a post written a few weeks ago talking about the history of mechanical scoreboards in baseball. You can read part 1 here.
The last post about mechanical baseball scoreboards looked at cultural imaginations of technology use, visual telephony, and the fan behaviors viewing a real-time reproduction of a sporting event. This was an intentional focus on how people engaged with mechanical scoreboards, and how they fit into a broader historical trajectory of sports fandom. These were fun things to consider, but they took a bit of a step away from the actual designs of the scoreboards, and how they visualized baseball.
Considering more closely on the actual design and implementation of the mechanical scoreboard, like the Coleman Lifelike, I can’t help but think about how contemporary visual reproductions of baseball draw on some of the basic design principles and approaches developed for the early scoreboard.
What are the ways that visualization of baseball have remained consistent for over one hundred years? What impact, if any, does the liveness of the event have on how the data is visualized, versus the traditionally historical visualization of a box score? While it is generally imagined that personal computing on the Internet is a solitary behavior, how have social media platforms and other forms of social computing been integrated into the designs of baseball visualizations, and do those features create new, online publics that resemble the crowds huddled around a scoreboard on a street square a century ago? Beyond continuities, it’s also worth considering how visualizations have changed over the last hundred years, especially given how fast computers, other digital sports media like videogames, and the ubiquity of the Internet have impacted the way we follow sporting events.
The most obvious connection, in my estimation, to the mechanical baseball scoreboards of old (beyond scoreboards in stadia) is the gamecast (ESPN version pictured above, MLB version pictured below). Gamecasts, of which there are many varieties hosted on different sports websites and platforms, offer nearly real-time data visualization of baseball games. I have, on many occasions, and especially to keep track of fantasy players, watched a gamecast when the video alternative was not available for whatever reason. The best gamecasts are interestingly watchable, and they allow or even amplify the natural tension that ramps-up in baseball as a pitch is being delivered.
The connections to the mechanical scoreboard may seem simple and obvious, but they are none-the-less important for drawing an historical connection between different ways of visualizing baseball. In both examples, of gamecasts as well as with the picture of the Coleman Lifelike, the traditional line score is displayed prominently to show the inning by inning runs scored, as well as the score, the hits, and the errors. A field is depicted prominently as the central object in all three gamecasts, although with the mechanical scoreboard, and the ESPN gamecast, it is used to depict more information such as runners on base and even where the ball is hit. The At Bat visualization takes a slightly different approach, basing their depiction of the field using images from the videogame MLB The Show. In fact, I find the At Bat gamecast builds on some of the visual style and approach that have evolved through the history of baseball videogames and applied it to game real-time game visualization, but more on that later.
Over the years, the breadth of information available from Major League Baseball for use in Gamecasts is staggering. As you can see in the example above, not only is pitch sequence displayed but so too are the pitch speeds and trajectories in a separate pane on the side. The design is hypertextual, with elements logically leading to new data at the click of a mouse or tap of a screen—tap on a player name, and their player ID pane, complete with personal statistics and news items comes flying in from off the edge of the screen. It’s a deep network of connected data that can be fairly easily navigated by the savvy baseball fan.
MLB Advanced Media, the digital media arm of Major League Baseball and the group behind At Bat are largely responsible for this new, highly detailed, statistically rich approach to a gamecast. In many way baseball, with it’s historical connection to a culture of numeracy and statistical emphasis is the perfect sport to experiment with a robust data visualization approach to real-time data visualization.
To me, the most interesting design feature of the MLB At Bat Gamecast is their use of imagery from the popular Sony videogame series MLB The Show. For those who know me, or who have read my blog posts here before, I love MLB The Show. I have not played any game more than I have that series, and even as my videogame playing time has declined over the past few years, the game keeps pulling me back season after season.
MLB The Show, when viewed in relation to professional baseball as played on a field, could be seen as a specific type of interactive baseball visualization. I argue in my master’s thesis (and all over the place really) that the audio visual rhetoric of modern videogame sports is based on televised sports, adopting many of the features found in the televised game for communicating the action to the videogame player. There are commentators, replays, the scoreboard in the corner, intro sequences, and the camera angles too, all support the notion that what is being simulated in the videogame is not just sports as played, but sports as mediated by television. It makes perfect sense, as TV remains one of the most popular forms of sports visualization worldwide.
So the fusion of decidedly televisual MLB The Show images with the At Bat interface is an interesting one to me. Perhaps the folks at MLB are using the images from The Show to signal something more televisual, to make the experience of the gamecast more palatable, and to emphasize the real-timeness of the visualization. Or maybe it’s an explicit move to signal the videogame, to connect their data visualization with another form of new media. Or maybe it’s both.
A great point of contrast, however, as we consider the data visualization of scoreboards is the way Out of the Park Baseball differs from MLB The Show. OOTP is a baseball management simulation, and the designers have chosen to not rely on the aesthetics of television much, instead drawing influence from the gamecast model of baseball visualization.
And here we are again, looking at something that closely resembles those old Coleman Lifelike scoreboards, except this time we are looking at a management videogame baseball simulation.
There’s a lot to digest across these examples and across time, but what I find most fascinating is how certain models of visualization in baseball have remained static, despite some drastic changes in media technologies over the course of 150 odd years. We have lots of different ways to visually mediate baseball, from scoreboards to television, gamecasts to videogames, and in every instance there are family resemblances that tie them all together.