19 March 2008

Where’s My Virtual Beer? Hanging Out at SportsBLOX.com

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC, Sportswriter & Steelers Bar Aficionado

TURFgeek, my avatar at SportsBLOXSo I’m hanging out at this bar, but there’s no one around — no bartender, no waitress, no other patrons. Everything behind me is fuzzy, but I have the power to change the way I look at the touch of a button…

A strange burrito induced dream? No, that’s the scenario at SportsBLOX, a new virtual world run by one of my former MBA classmates.

Until today, I’ve held back from checking out the whole virtual world thing. Since I live in L.A. with near-perpetual sunshine and a million cool places to go, I’d sooner hit the actual world. Now, were I still living in small-town Oregon, with its wet freezing winters, I might have escaped into virtual reality long ago — particularly if I were trying to find people who shared my passion for Steelers and Trojans football.

And that’s where SportsBLOX comes in. Launched this past Monday in beta (unfinished) form, SportsBLOX is a virtual sports-oriented neighborhood. You create an avatar (a symbolic representation of yourself) and pick from a number of virtual joints to visit. There, you have the option of chatting with any other persons present.

So I created my avatar, TURFgeek (named after my primitive sports-blog site from the ’90s), and I fortunately found a Steelers bar there. Very cool. But I was alone, very alone. So as I started to write this blog, an avatar named Zigzag showed up, representing a Steelers fan from Sacramento. We chatted a bit about the site and our backgrounds. We made our anime-style avatars do funny poses. It was a friendly experience, but not enough to tear me away from my real Steelers bar here in L.A., primarily because I can’t actually watch a game at SportsBLOX.

Now if SportsBLOX could hook up a deal with the NFL, ESPN, the Big 10 Network, Versus, or anyone else who can actually let them show a game — or just news — then I’d check it out for the virtual group watching experience.

What would also help would be some incentives. For example, SportsBLOX sponsors should be handing out various prizes — a discount from a sportswear shop or a free pizza (real, not virtual) for home delivery during a game.

Since the success of a virtual world depends on large numbers of active participants, there should also be incentive for inviting friends to join, perhaps in the form of virtual money. I could then use that virtual money to buy real stuff from their sponsors.

I reckon the founders of SportsBLOX know all this, and will have more features and promotions when the site officially launches. The company behind it, Numedeon, sprang out of Caltech to create a number of virtual worlds, from the kid-oriented Whyville (which claims 3.3 million members) to sites for Disney, Toyota and Virgin Records.

A classmate of mine from the USC MBA sports-business class (the best class ever) is the GM of SportsBLOX. I’ll have to hook up with him and talk about the possibilities.

But I insist on doing it over a real beer.

Update 1/6/2009: I just found out that SportsBLOX died less than 4 months after its launch. Evidently, no matter how bad the real world gets, most adults still don’t care about virtual worlds. The stillbirth of SportsBLOX is also proof that all the cool technology in the world won’t guarantee success without a good marketing campaign. This is particularly true of any Web 2.0 operation that depends on critical mass for its business model. The business world ain’t the Field of Dreams, folks — just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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