The Crack of a Bat, the Wail of Guitar Hero. Wait, What?

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Capitol Hill resident Patrick Lavigne gets his family to Nationals games early. The idea, originally, was that they'd be spending that pregame time trying to get autographs or heckling and cheering players during batting practice.

"I thought that was half the fun," he said.

The last thing he expected was that he'd be spending time watching his son play a video game.

"I guess we've lost a little," he added as his 10-year-old took a turn at the racing game Gran Turismo 5 Prologue.

It's almost game time, as the real-world Washington Nationals get ready to play the real-world Texas Rangers. But in the stadium's free video game room, a few kids are trying to finish one last round of the PlayStation 3 baseball title MLB 08: The Show.

Boom! There go the fireworks outside, meaning that the young gamers and their dads are missing the national anthem. Ian Maddock, who is also waiting while his son plays, finally drags 10-year-old Austin off to their seats.

Another game day. One 20-something guy is holding the beers as his friends, in matching Nats jerseys, fake-rock against each other over at the Guitar Hero booth.

One of the jersey wearers asks his buddies something, but with the roar from all the video games, it's loud in here.

"What?" asks the one holding the beers. "The game? It's already started. Oh. It starts at 7:30?"

For some fans who come to Nationals Park early, a pregame stop at the PlayStation Pavilion, where Sony showcases some of the latest titles for its video game system, has turned into part of the new tradition. The Maddocks usually come 90 minutes early, and about 15 of those minutes are usually spent here.

The space, not far from the stadium's main entrance, can get crowded an hour or so before the game starts. After that, it mostly clears out -- except during blowouts or bad weather. "It gets crazy during rain delays," said booth manager Quay Rosengarth.

Some ticket holders, naturally, are a little baffled when they first lay eyes on the TV- and game-filled 3,700-foot space as they make their way to their seats. On a recent weeknight, Kate Coughlin, a 20-year-old student from New York City, shared a derisive chuckle with her friends as they strolled past the space. "Who plays video games at a baseball game?" she asked.

But the dads here on a recent Sunday, all pretty much all agree: This is a good thing.

Patrick Manley, from Alexandria, is watching his son play Guitar Hero. It's hard to make out what the song is, but 7-year-old Patrick Jr. seems to be enjoying himself.

"I'm just hoping to get my kids away from here so I can actually watch the game," he says. "We're not going to see a lot of baseball while this is here." He's joking, mostly.

Even so, he says, the game room is an "excellent idea" for the same reasons the other dads cite.

David Ward's 5-year-old son, for example, hasn't yet developed a love for baseball. But if this helps get him excited about a trip to the ballpark, so much the better. Father and son just stopped in to get out of the sun for a minute, anyway. "Clever idea" is his assessment.

The clever idea sprang out of a deal the Nationals have with Sony to buy broadcasting equipment.

Nationals President Stan Kasten said the team strives to do more with its partner companies than just sell them another ad in a program, and the idea grew out of discussions the two parties had along those lines. If you're a Nats partner company, "we'd like you to become a part of the park to activate and animate the park," he said.

The PlayStation Pavilion is the first Sony-sponsored game room in a sports stadium, but it might not be the last. In the past week, people from the marketing teams of both the Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels have stopped by to take a look. Sony said it has been approached by other teams interested in building similar spaces in their stadiums.

The pregame game scene at Nationals Park already has regulars. Brian Riemer, a 14-year-old from McLean, is wearing a PlayStation T-shirt he won as a prize earlier in the season after beating somebody at Guitar Hero. Tonight, he's trying to win a PlayStation 3.

Brian says he likes seeing the latest games, but baseball is still the main event. "The video games are just a bonus."

Every few Nats games, there's a brief sing-off in the middle of the fifth inning on the field in front of the entire stadium, a promotion for Sony's karaoke game SingStar. If you were in line getting a beer, you probably missed it. The two people who have scored the most points in a pregame tournament get 10 seconds to impress the crowd with their singing skills. The crowd determines the winners by cheering louder, or booing less loudly, for one contestant.

I'm rooting for Brian, but a few innings later, he loses, to a guy from Columbia who's able to hit some of the high notes from the U2 song "Beautiful Day" just a little more easily. The other guy gets the PS3. Another night, the crowd howls as two girls from Georgia flub a song by the Cardigans.

Even up in the cheap seats of Section 402, the game room is a conversation topic.

"Yo! They got Guitar Hero!" calls out Chris Jones, a 20-year-old student, to one of his friends, making an air-guitar motion. He just got beat by one of his friends on SingStar on the OutKast song "Hey Ya!" He's a fan of Grand Theft Auto, but he wants to buy a copy of Guitar Hero now.

The dads say that another thing they like about the PlayStation Pavilion is that the games there are free. But are they really?

Manley says his kids are starting to put on pressure to buy some of the new game systems. One wants an Xbox, the other wants a Wii, and "I need a second job to pay for it all," he jokes.

But Lavigne says he doesn't mind if his son starts angling for a PlayStation as a result of Sony's marketing experiment. After all, kids pressuring parents to buy stuff is a time-honored tradition unto itself.

"What did you bug your dad for when you were his age? I bugged mine for an 8-track tape player."

Circle of life.

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