In MLB.com Challenge, College Students Pitch Tech Ideas
Major League Baseball, Syracuse University partner on hackathon to give students real-world career experience and the league new ideas to engage fans.
notoriously difficult interview process thanks to the MLB.com College Challenge, a competition cosponsored by the university's School of Information Studies (iSchool) and Major League Baseball (MLB) Advanced Media.
The contest offers participants a crack at some of MLB.com's real-world tech challenges, and an opportunity to pitch solutions to representatives from the big leagues. The annual event wrapped its third edition at the end of November and focused on how MLB.com could harness the trend of "gamification" to engage fans. Students worked in a hackathon-like environment; though the competition's broad themes were known ahead of time, specific challenges were not revealed until the event actually commenced. From there, students worked in teams throughout the night to develop proposals that were presented to MLB representatives the following day.
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Participants gain not only experience with practical problem-solving, but also the chance to measure their finished products against professional scrutiny. In years past, the contest has also led to job opportunities for some of the participants -- a trend that some of the soon-to-be graduates in this year's contest no doubt endeavored to continue.
[ For more on technology in sports, see Celtics, Nets Score With Unified Communications. ]
Jeffrey Rubin, an associate professor of practice at the iSchool and one of the competition's organizers, said in an interview that the event began as a recruiting trip to MLB.com's headquarters in New York City. Students were challenged to improve MLB teams' websites and were given assets to work with weeks in advance. To up the ante, the competition adopted the single-night marathon approach the next year, when the theme shifted to how MLB.com could use social media to improve the fan experience.
The winners, he said, testify to the real-world feedback participants receive. He said a past team built a fully functioning Android app that presented users with various types of pitches and challenged them to swing their phones like a bat in response. "A pitch would come in, a curveball or a fastball, or whatever," he said, "and the phone would vibrate if you made contact." Though the project was a fun idea and, given the short timeline, an impressive technical accomplishment, Rubin said the app failed to win the top prize because MLB representatives found it impractical. "How many people are going to sit in a living room and play this game on their phone while watching a live game on TV?" he asked.
The winning project, he said, presented a way to merge all of the social media documents that a single game might produce -- smartphone photos, tweets, Facebook status updates, etc. -- into a single interface. The project's creators, though, didn't actually build the project, rather presented it through a series of mock-ups. "It's not the most technical project that wins -- but the best idea," Rubin stated, adding that this approach makes the competition an interdisciplinary challenge that's open to students of all backgrounds, rather than just engineers or computer science majors.
This interdisciplinary quality not only makes the contest accessible but also encourages students from outside the hard sciences to consider careers in technology. Marc Squire, a Syracuse alum who was part of the first MLB.com College Challenge's winning team, is a case in point.
In an interview, he explained that he entered the competition without any Web design skills -- an ostensible disadvantage, given that his group was tasked with redesigning the Milwaukee Brewers' website. Still, the problems his team perceived -- "a lot of clutter, no real hierarchy of information" -- didn't require a background in coding languages, and the team was able to succeed simply by creating a presentation in Photoshop.
The experience, though, galvanized his interest in technology. The competition took place during the fall semester of his senior year, and in the spring he enrolled in Web design classes. The work paid off, as he now works for MLB.com, designing microsites dedicated to certain teams' facilities and sites for individual players, such as derekjeter.com. He is one of several College Challenge alums who've managed to land at MLB.com after graduation.
"From my perspective when I was a student," he said, "I didn't see any other companies offering opportunities like this on campus, or any other challenges to get involved in a real-world scenario like this. You see big corporations like banks and consulting companies that recruit on campus, but tech start-ups and sports media agencies, not so much."
In this way, the competition is more than an attractive resume item or an opportunity to workshop job interview skills; it's also a way to alert students to the way technology now factors into virtually all academic disciplines. This year's winning team, which devised a novel spin on fantasy baseball, was composed entirely of sophomores, so it won't be immediately clear if the competition's legacy of spurring job opportunities will continue. But with students from varied backgrounds encouraged to participate, Syracuse's program represents a fine model for helping students find jobs, as well as encouraging technological innovation to flourish in more places.
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