One of the oldest forms of gamification in sports is the all-star game.
Major League Baseball’s All-Star game is the most prestigious, though not the most watched, and dates to 1933. The National Football League began playing all-star games in 1938, although the event didn’t gain blockbuster appeal until the merger between the National and American football leagues and the creation of the Pro Bowl in 1971. Although the Pro Bowl draws more television viewers than any other sports all-star game its future, ironically, is in jeopardy, and I doubt many people will miss it when it’s gone.
But baseball without its All-Star game would be unthinkable. I remember attending the game in Cincinnati in 1970 and it was just as exciting as going to the World Series.
At first glance an all-star game might appear to be a game itself and not the gamification of a game. Isn’t a baseball game a baseball game?
Well, no. It’s outside the system. Even the pre-season exhibition games serve the practical purpose of training the players and letting management select the starting roster. But with the exception that the winning league gets to be home team for the World Series, there is no practical reason for the All-Star game to exist as far as the integrity of the league goes. Rather the reasons for it are gamification reasons: rewarding the players, engaging the fans, making the sport even more exciting and fun, and of course generating revenue for the owners, the network and the host city.
Even the rules are modified to suit the All-Star game. Pitchers, for instance, can only pitch a maximum of three innings to allow more pitchers to participate. Rule changes in the Pro Bowl have become so pervasive that it’s become a non-violent travesty of a violent sport. Injury concerns aside, all-star games are also better suited to sports that focus on individual action, such as baseball and basketball, rather than a sport like football with its complicated playbook.
The All-Star games for Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are gamification events that have spawned other gamification events. Gamification upon gamification, by people who probably never heard of the word or watched Gabe Zichermann’s TED talks. Letting fans vote for players, as well as the home-run and slam-dunk contests are all successful examples of increasing fun and fan engagement for events themselves created to increase fun and engagement!
While the professional baseball and basketball all-star games are exciting, well-planned events, conveniently breaking up the season, the Pro Bowl was flawed from the beginning.
Because of injury concerns it has to be played after the Super Bowl, so it is anti-climactic, and the players from the Super Bowl teams aren’t able to participate. While players appreciate the honor of being selected, many don’t want to play, worn down from the brutal season. The league moved the game to Hawaii in 1980 as an incentive that gamification professionals would be proud of. But the top quarterbacks are wealthy enough to buy their own islands. For the 2011-2012 season the league moved the game back to the Mainland, to Miami, the same venue as the Super Bowl, hoping to capitalize on the media and tourist buzz. But the effect instead was to focus attention on injuries, and talk arose of scrapping it.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the baseball All-Star game, or anyone who does like the Pro Bowl. Yet the Pro Bowl consistently draws higher television ratings, apparently because Americans will watch anything with helmets, except Verdi. This has created an interesting dilemma. What if you are a company, in this case the NFL, with a poorly designed gamification program that is, almost in spite of itself, profitable?
This is an issue that will become salient as gamification becomes second nature to businesses and organizations. It’s not enough that gamification works. It has to work in the right way. Short-term profit can’t be the only variable. Other measures, such as safety and brand integrity have to be taken into account.
And yes, corporations whose employees play catch in a park or pat each other on the butt before bashing their opponents over possession of an oblong ball do have integrity. They do.