Traditionally, the sporting public has not been the most technologically enlightened public. ("What do you mean the Indians' game has already started? The VCR says it's only 12:00...12:00...12:00....") Mention the inexorable progress that the information superhighway is making into living rooms across the country, and nine out of 10 sports fans will cringe and clutch their remote controls a little more tightly to their bosoms. But like it or not, the future is zooming into view, and when it comes to entertainment choices—sports programming included—the future lies in interactive multimedia.
For the most part, multimedia entertainment is carried on compact discs. Those shiny little platters you've been using for the last few years to spin your favorite tunes can store huge amounts of data: words, pictures, sounds and even video clips. Put them all together creatively, and you get a work that combines the visual wallop of a movie, the interactivity of a video game and the information of a book.
Look up Hank Aaron in a multimedia encyclopedia, and you will find a written biography as well as complete career stats. You can also see film of the Hammer and listen to Milo Hamilton call the rightfielder's historic 715th home run at Atlanta Stadium. Browse through the entry on Aaron, and the encyclopedia will offer a look at related topics such as Babe Ruth and the Negro leagues.
The promise of this magical new medium has sent a titanic jolt through the entertainment, publishing and electronics industries. Last year more than 100 million multimedia CDs were manufactured worldwide, creating a $1.5 billion market, so it is no wonder that everybody and his techie brother are scrambling to serve you the future on a silver platter.
Before you can use multimedia CDs, however, you need a multimedia player—a box that hooks up to your TV, or a special disc drive that connects to your personal computer. There are at least a dozen multimedia systems either on the market or soon to be released, but each one, unfortunately, has its own distinct format. To the uninitiated, choosing among these systems is a little like deciding between Beta and VHS, only with six times as many ways to go wrong. And with choices such as 3DO, CD-i, CDX and PC CD-ROM, it seems you need a Ph.D., or at the very least ESP, to sort out the ABCs of this industry.
Not to worry: Here is a primer on the major systems now available, along with a roundup of the best sports titles in each. Consider it a sports fan's road map to the information superhighway.
Polygram, which is owned by Philips Electronics, the Netherlands-based consumer-electronics giant, introduced the first compact disc in 1983 and changed the music industry. Philips hoped to make the same impact in home electronics in 1991 when it brought out its multimedia player, the compact disc interactive system, or CD-i ($499). A machine designed to resemble a VCR, the CD-i fell short of Philips's expectations, although it has carved out a sizable niche for itself.
One of the best sports titles for CD-i is A Great Day at the Races (Philips, $49.98), a simple-to-use program that walks you through the fundamentals of pari-mutuel betting, from the proper way to read a racing form to advanced handicapping strategies. Once you've got a handle on the basics, you can test yourself by going off to the (virtual) races. Study the field; place your bets; then cheer on the digitized ponies as you sit back and watch a race. Need a tip? You can even get expert advice from—I kid you not—Mickey Rooney. The Mickster weighs in with such incisive commentary as, "This is a well-intentioned filly who just needs to try harder. Go with it." O.K., so he's no Jimmy the Greek.
Another worthwhile title for CD-i is Sailing: A Guide to Sailboating and Seamanship (Philips, $49.98), which allows you to explore all the parts of a sailboat and test your knowledge of sailing principles. And if you're interested in games, International Tennis Open (Philips, $49.98) puts you in the role of a tour player and lets you compete against an array of opponents at different venues around the world.
With 150 titles, the CD-i software library is well stocked. Nevertheless, it took Philips a little more than two years to claim a base of 150,000 CD-i owners in the U.S. The Sega CD system ($229) sold twice that many units in its first two months of availability, starting in November 1992. The video-game juggernaut's marketing prowess proved to be of vital importance: Sega convinced nearly a million people—mostly young and male—that Sega CD was the multimedia system to own. With the recent release of the Genesis CDX (Sega, $399), a system that combines the Sega Genesis video-game machine with the Sega CD in one portable unit, the company expects the number of Sega CD users to reach two million by the end of 1994.
Sega means games, so it's no surprise that Sega CD means games on CD, the best of which is Prize Fighter (Sega, $59.99). Prize Fighter puts you in the shoes of an up-and-coming contender as he attempts to make his way to the top of the boxing world. All the game's action is live video—no computer-animated characters or cartoons here—and was directed by Ron Stein, who staged the boxing sequences in Raging Bull and Rocky III. The effect is stunning—the game is essentially an interactive movie with you in the title role. From the taunting of your ring opponents to the raspy exhortations of your cornermen to the resonant cadences of announcer Michael Buffer, Prize Fighter achieves a level of verisimilitude unparalleled in video games.
No multimedia company arrived on the scene with greater fanfare than 3DO. Backed by corporate giants such as Matsushita, Time Warner and AT&T, The 3DO Company spent most of last year hyping itself as the multimedia standard, without having a player on the market. By the time Panasonic introduced the first 3DO player, the REAL system ($499) in October '93, the expectations for the machine were unrealistically high.
Luckily for 3DO, the system is supported by games like John Madden Football '94 (Electronic Arts. $59.95). Madden was already a classic in its Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis incarnations. The 3DO version offers NFL film footage, and action enhanced with stereo sound. The game resembles an NFL telecast, complete with John Madden introducing the teams and the games. Madden on CD: Who ever thought compact discs could hold that much data?
If you're interested in exploring multimedia but can't stand the thought of cluttering up your wall unit with another high-tech TV accessory, you can always try CD-ROM (Compact Disc-Read Only Memory). A CD-ROM is not really a system but rather a special drive that connects to your PC or Macintosh. With a pair of external speakers and a color monitor, a CD-ROM can transform your home PC from a utilitarian appliance that crunches numbers to a multimedia center that will enable you to analyze the music of Beethoven or examine evidence in the Kennedy assassination.
Your first purchase alter you install your CD-ROM should be Complete Baseball (Microsoft for PC CD-ROM, $79.95). This disc includes statistics from the mammoth reference work Total Baseball, well-re-s searched articles about all aspects of the game, biographies of the great players and much more information than you I could sift through in one lifetime. All this data is enlivened by more than 7,500 color photographs and drawings, 84 audio clips and 12 video clips. In addition, if you have a modem and can spare $1.25 a day, the program will fetch for you a daily electronic newspaper containing current baseball scores, stats, news and even photos.
Less comprehensive but just as intriguing is Baseball's Creates! Hits (Voyager for Mac CD-ROM, $49.95), which takes great moments in baseball history and delivers them to you in the form of newspaper stories, original radio calls and. in some instances, video and film segments. Among the latter is a rare home movie of Babe Ruth's celebrated called shot.
Other noteworthy titles are The Sporting News 1993 Pro Football Cuticle (Comp-ton's for PC CD-ROM, $39.95), which provides stats on every player and team in the NFL, and Sports Illustrated's 1994 Multimedia Sports Almanac (StarPress for PC and Mac CD-ROM, $39.95), which contains video highlights of 1993, stats and records for all sports, and the full text of every issue of SI published from November '92 to October '93.
Signs that multimedia is pervading everyday life are everywhere. In March the New York Times Book Review included within its august pages a review of a multimedia art title. And last month the staunchly mainstream Book-of-the-Month Club included a multimedia poetry CD among its May selections.
So choose your vehicle and hop on the infobahn. It's time to get with the program. Even if the clock on your VCR is still blinking 12:00.