As Nationals star Bryce Harper took the MLB’s 2018 Home Run Derby in dramatic fashion at his home ballpark Monday night, kids were dominating the league’s first-ever virtual reality derby.
Four children (all under the age of 12) reached the semifinals of the competition, outlasting the 3,000 people of all ages who competed as part of the league’s All-Star FanFest. The tournament was clinched by nine-year-old Chuck Smolka, a Staten Island-based Mets fan with the acronym “ASG” (All-Star Game) shaved into his buzzcut.
Besides the noteworthy (but perhaps not surprising) fact that kids dominated adults in this four-dimensional virtual-reality video game, another point to note is how much engagement the tourney attracted on Twitch.
In the final round between Smolka and another nine-year-old, peak concurrent viewership on Twitch surpassed 120,500. The livestream was the No. 1 live video across Twitch’s entire platform at the time, even surpassing popular video games such as Fortnite.
The two finalists had a back-and-forth final round where both players held and then lost multiple leads, inadvertently mirroring the dramatic on-field action between Harper and Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber.
Monday’s competition topped off a Friday-to-Sunday 32-person bracket-style qualifier. It was live streamed across multiple platforms and featured commentary from MLB Network’s Alexa Datt, gamers and content creators RealShelfy and Fuzzy, and nine-time MLB All-Star Fred Lynn.
A special All-Star multi-player version of the home run derby game, developed by MLB’s Games and Virtual Reality team and powered by HTC’s Vive headset, was used for the tournament. Fans had 90 seconds to hit as many home runs as possible using a proprietary VR bat controller.
In a statement, MLB’s senior vice president of games and VR, Jamie Leece, said the league was taken by the camaraderie displayed by the players and the engagement delivered by fans.
“The competition’s emotion captured the essence of true sportsmanship as opponents of all ages were cheering each other on and genuinely built an immediate connection and community amongst themselves,” he said.
The MLB’s inaugural fan-fueled virtual-reality home run derby helped to once again prove the power of Twitch. Its livestream showed how traditional sports are gaining a presence on the Amazon.com-owned platform. Twitch is already hugely popular among the esports community. Popular gamers and social media personalities have helped bridge that gap, often serving as commentators and connecting the fan bases of both competitive gaming and traditional sports.