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Catching Lightning — Why the Tampa Bay Rays are Investing in Gaming

The Tampa Bay Rays MLB: The Show 'Sunburst Invitational' Finals will be on Monday, August 28.
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The Tampa Bay Rays will be hosting the 'Sunburst Invitational' on Monday, August 28, to crown a champion at Full Sail University, just outside of Orlando, Florida.

We sat down with the Rays' Patrick Abts, the Vice President of Marketing, to discuss the lead-up to the event.


How the 'Sunburst Invitational' Originated

Pat previously worked with the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning and became interested in esports and gaming. The idea of gaming tournaments originated during this time when the NHL league office approached teams with the option of either organizing tournaments for the NHL's official Game World Championships (GWC) or conducting their own tournaments without GWC involvement. The Lightning opted for the former and created their own tournament called the "Chell Challenge."

After his time with the Lighting, Pat joined the MLB's Tampa Bay Rays, where he and his team recognized the potential of reaching new audiences through MLB: The Show. The MLB was very receptive to the idea, which led to the creation of the "Sunburst Circuit" tournament.

As Pat took on his journey with the Rays and analyzing the success with gaming in the NHL, he believed it could translate well to the MLB audience. While the NHL's approach was more league-driven, the Rays took the initiative to explore esports within their own budget and resources.

The Pioneer of Competitive MLB: The Show

The idea was to engage a niche community, reach new audiences and expand the fan base. The Rays allocated a budget for the tournament, which is entirely self-funded. Pat expresses enthusiasm about introducing a similar tournament, the "Sunburst Circuit," to the MLB: The Show community, becoming one of the pioneering MLB teams to venture into esports events.

Pat had major aspirations and intentions for the tournament, drawing inspiration from his experience in both NHL and MLB games. The idea aimed to create a highly competitive tournament featuring top MLB: The Show players worldwide and attract elite players regardless of their geographic location, ensuring the tournament's competitiveness.

Also, delivering a captivating streaming experience that resonates not only with MLB: The Show enthusiasts but also with the broader fan base of the Tampa Bay Rays fans is a major point of the event. This involves bridging the gap between the MLB: The Show community and MLB fans.

The uniqueness of having a live, on-site event at Full Sail University for MLB: The Show, which is less common in the gaming space, has an immense amount of potential to bring together elite players, engage diverse audiences, and contribute to the growth of esports within the MLB: The Show community. Yuki Taketani, the Emerging Tech Coordinator with the Tampa Bay Rays, actively engaged with the MLB: The Show community through communication channels like Discord. He also used other connections and their social media channels to promote the tournament, generating wider visibility beyond their own channels.

With Funding from the Rays, they could fully cover travel expenses to the final LAN event and a cash prize of a total of $10,000 for the two participants competing. They also are awarding a $5,000 scholarship to a student at Full Sail University, which is a very meaningful gesture to support education.

Not only did the Rays cover the prize pool and travel expenses for the competitors, but the budget for the tournament also covers execution and production costs. The decision to allocate resources for the tournament was backed by the Rays' leadership, displaying the organization's willingness to pioneer such initiatives. Pat notes his excitement about being part of an organization that is open to exploring new and unproven ventures, which the Rays have a history of being at the forefront of unique opportunities.

The Venue

The event will be hosted at Full Sail University's Armada Sports Fortress in Orlando. This top-notch facility offers high-quality production and learning opportunities for students involved in executing the event. 

Full Sail University's students will be contributing to the execution of the event, creating a unique learning experience while ensuring a high standard of organization. Pat expressed his confidence in the event's production quality, emphasizing the facility's exceptional capabilities for hosting such events.

While the event is open to the public, the focus is on providing the best possible streaming experience for viewers on platforms like Twitch and TikTok.

The event's stage is set up in a distinctive MLB diamond-shaped format, utilizing a 360-degree setup with a large screen backdrop for enhanced visual allure. Pat anticipates that both the contestants and viewers will be excited about the event's setup, capturing a dynamic and visually engaging experience for the audience.

Overall, Pat has the utmost confidence in delivering an exceptional event through quality production, innovative setup, and engaging streaming for both the contestants and the audience.

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What Classifies a Successful Event?

According to Pat, a successful event will be focused on a well-produced stream with high viewership and engagement. The importance of viewer engagement, such as interaction in chat and comments, rather than just raw viewer numbers, will help make this event what he has envisioned.

The Rays have shown interest in repurposing the event content for broader distribution. Potentially, the tournament will be available on-demand through the Rays' regional sports network, expanding the reach to audiences that might not typically engage with streams like Twitch or YouTube.

One of the major goals for the future is to secure sponsorship for subsequent tournaments. Pat anticipates building a compelling case for sponsorship based on the success and positive outcomes of the current event.

The Future of Competitive MLB: The Show

The future plan is to continue conducting the tournament in the coming years, and the positive feedback and engagement they have received from the league and fans will be what drives more events. While there has yet to be formal communication between other MLB teams, the league has shown interest in the Rays' initiative. Some other teams have reached out, displaying a growing curiosity about similar events.

Pat welcomes the idea of other teams organizing tournaments, even if the format differs from what the Rays are doing. Some teams have organized smaller, more localized tournaments in collaboration with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club.

The primary goal is to nurture the growth of the gaming community around MLB: The Show. There is a lot of enthusiasm about the prospect of inter-club tournaments involving winners from different team-sponsored tournaments competing against each other.

While not all teams might be in a position to conduct large-scale tournaments immediately, even smaller-scale efforts can contribute to the expansion of opportunities within the MLB: The Show community. Organizing such events requires effort and resources, and it will take events like the 'Sunburst Invitational' to help grow the idea.

The Ugly Truth - Cost

Despite facing initial challenges and hiccups in the first year, Pat believes these issues will be resolved, and the experience will improve for future events. There is always a learning curve associated with organizing such events. The upfront costs and challenges encountered in the inaugural year will be reduced as they become more experienced in managing the tournament.

The primary goal is to make the tournament a more sustainable initiative. While the tournament won't likely be a significant profit generator, the intention is to seek sponsorships and partnerships to help cover costs and potentially move towards a budget-neutral approach.

Furthermore, the Rays have thought about expanding the tournament's scope in the future. This includes potential expansion of qualifiers, finals, and even collaborations with other MLB teams to create larger inter-club events.

While there's an acknowledgment of the need to manage the budget, the commitment to the long-term continuance of the tournament is to focus on reaching new audiences, engaging the gaming community, and finding ways to sustain the initiative without compromising its quality.

How the 'Sunburst Invitational' Works

The choice to feature only the Tampa Bay Rays in the tournament was driven by branding and the desire to showcase their own team's players. Rather than having each player pick their favorite team or the best of the best, both players must play as the Rays.

Rather than using a Diamond Dynasty approach, where players can choose from a mix of teams, the Rays aim for a level playing field by focusing on their own roster. This ensures that all participants have access to the exact same team resources.

The strategic elements in baseball, including pitching, batting, and lineup decisions, make the tournament unique. Participants face the challenge of effectively managing their team's resources while considering factors like player attributes and performance.

Injuries in real-life baseball impact the virtual tournament as well. Players injured on the real-life Rays or are not on the current roster can't be used in the tournament, adding an additional layer of strategic decision-making for the competitors.

The decision to focus on the Tampa Bay Rays has proven beneficial, not only for branding purposes but also because it adds depth and intrigue to the strategic aspect of the tournament. According to Pat, it creates a unique chess match between participants, amplifying the excitement of competitive play.

How to Watch the 'Sunburst Invitational'

  • Date: Monday, August 28, 2023
  • Time: 12:30 p.m. EDT
  • Location: Full Sail University

The Rays are utilizing various resources to promote the event, including MLB's gaming channels, their own organic digital channels, and the promotional support of San Diego Studios, the creators of MLB: The Show. Local media coverage is also being used to increase visibility and awareness of the event.

The Rays plan to stream the event on different platforms to maximize reach. Twitch and YouTube are the primary streaming platforms, while TikTok has also shown surprising engagement for previous qualifying tournaments. 

By streaming on various platforms, they aim to reach a diverse audience. They want to engage both the esports and gaming community as well as the more casual Tampa Bay Rays fans.

They are also looking to expand the reach of the event by exploring options for on-demand streaming through their partnership with Bally Sports. This move could introduce the event to a wider audience through their streaming products and linear channels.

'Sunburst Invitational' Tournament Settings

  • Cross play: ON (network setting)
  • Add friends: ON (network setting)
  • Messaging: ON (network setting)
  • Mode: Exhibition
  • Team: Tampa Bay Rays Live Roster
  • Stadium: Tropicana Field (Higher "seed" in bracket will be home)
  • Hitting: Legend
  • Pitching: Legend
  • Guess Pitch: OFF
  • Quick Counts: OFF
  • Strike Zone: ON
  • Hot Zone: OFF
  • Balks: OFF
  • Umpire Accuracy: Perfect
  • Umpire close plays: OFF
  • Ejections: OFF
  • Injuries: OFF
  • Presentation mode: Fast Play
  • Created ballplayers are not permitted.