By Dan Rafter It took him a little longer than most kids, but at the age of 17, Markus Heinsohn finally discovered baseball. A native of Germany, where soccer is king, Heinsohn had never played America's national pastime until a friend returned from a trip to Miami with a bat and some gloves. Heinsohn was instantly hooked. Just a decade later, he has grown into not only a baseball expert, but one of the biggest names in the growing field of computer sports simulations -- creating games that allow fans to manage their own digitized teams.
Heinsohn, who lives in Stade, Germany, is the CEO and co-founder of Out of the Park Developments. Like others in the category, the company's product is one part video game and one part fantasy sports. It allows fans to draft real or fictional baseball players, send them onto the field against opposing teams (controlled either by their computers or fellow gamers), and compete for the World Series title. Players can keep their teams season after season, drafting rookies, making trades, and signing free agents.
RUNS ON THE BOARD. Like all such text-based simulations, success relies more on smarts than on hand-eye coordination. Players manage their teams, telling players when to bunt or execute the hit-and-run, and they set their own pitching rotations and lineups. But don't need to be skilled with a joystick -- and that's part of the appeal.
Out of the Park is just one of a growing number of independent, largely homegrown, computer sports simulations that are now thriving on the Internet. And while Heinsohn and his fellow game creators regard their ventures as labors of love, they say their sport simulations have turned into successful businesses. Heinsohn says his company sells a "nice five-figure" amount of Out of the Park games every year, with fans downloading them from ootpdevelopments.com for $19.95 a pop. His seven-employee company, founded in 1998, achieves annual six-digit revenues. "Granted, that is nothing compared to the big companies like Electronic Arts (ERTS)," Heinsohn says, "but we survive pretty nicely."
That growth is emblematic of the overall category's success. Frustrated that he couldn't find a realistic sports simulation game, Heinsohn developed his own in 1998, and in 1999, sold 250 copies. Just six years later, his outfit -- which also publishes a boxing game -- is successful enough to be Heinsohn's full-time career.
NO CYBERSTEROIDS. Simulations like Out of the Park, WhatIfSports.com, and Front Office Football are small potatoes when compared to the big-name sports games released each year titles such as Madden NFL Football and Triple Play Baseball. But the simulations have an advantage: They aren't competing for the same audience.
Mainstream sports titles emphasize action and hand-eye coordination. Depending on the skill of the gamers involved, players such as Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds can put up 90-homer seasons, while games with 20-19 scores become routine. The creators of sports simulations, though, don't compete for this crowd. Their fans are interested in statistical accuracy, wanting their computer baseball players to perform much like their real-life counterparts. Their Sammy Sosa might hit 40 homers, but he certainly wouldn't blast 90.
The fans of games like Out of the Park are more likely to come from the same group that has made fantasy sports -- where participants draft real players and then succeed or fail depending on how these players actually perform -- such a big success. The fan base is solid: The Fantasy Sports Trade Assn. estimates that 15.2 million Americans now play fantasy sports. And according to Major League Baseball, fantasy baseball fans spent an average of $178 in 2003 on site fees, books, and magazines. That interest in statistics, the numbers behind the game, is largely what's fueling the success of sports simulations.
TEAM PLAYERS. Tarek Kamil has been part of the sports-simulation world since October, 2000, when he first began selling his What If? brand. His Cincinnati-based company now offers simulations for baseball, football, hockey, and basketball from its Web site. The games allow fans to see how different teams would fare against each other. For instance, gamers can pit the 1975 "Big Red Machine" Cincinnati Reds against the powerful 1998 Yankees, led by Derek Jeter, to see who would win a seven-game series.
Players spend $12.95 to buy a certain team -- like, say, the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates -- and then compete in an online league against other players. When the full 162-game season ends, which takes about six weeks, players can choose to buy the same team again or purchase another squad.
Kamil says that fans download between 300,000 to 400,000 teams each year. Growth has come not from advertising but word-of-mouth: Thousands of fans post on What If? message boards to boast of wins and bemoan losses. "Our users do interact with each other," Kamil says. "They talk online with people who are like-minded, and that does help spread the word about our games. We have one common interest, and it is these types of games. People even hold get-togethers. They'll meet in Chicago, say, and go to a Cubs game. It's quite amazing."
WHERE THE HEART IS. Despite their grassroots success, these small players do face hurdles in the video-game industry at large. Jim Gindin, owner of Amherst, N.H.-based Solecismic Software and creator of Front Office Football and a college-themed spin-off, says promoting his game has become increasingly difficult. "Seven years ago, the market was much more tapped into a few sources of information," he says. "The major gaming companies didn't see that. The smaller developers did. Now the major companies know how to create an online buzz, so it's much harder to get a word in edgewise. They simply have more resources."
Still, Solecismic is doing well enough to serve as Gindin's full-time job since Feb. 20, 1998 -- a date that he still refers to as "freedom day." He says the game provides a "decent" living, but admits that he is probably earning a little less than a computer programmer of his experience would command on the open market.
"I make enough to justify continuing, because there is always the hope that somehow this will become a hit," Gindin says. "Frankly, it's worth losing some money to have the additional freedom and a career that you love." For these entrepreneurs and their loyal customers, it's all for the love of the game. Rafter is a business and technology writer based in Chesterton, Ind.