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Will this new online game change sport?

Claire Stocks | 13:36 UK time, Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Empire of Sports is a massive multi-player online role player game (MMORPG to use the jargon) which has apparently been more than two years in the making and is costing several million euros.

A closed beta version is due to be launched at this weekend's annual Games Convention in Leipzig with a public beta said to be going live before the end of the year.

I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination (I quit when I found myself dreaming in the character of Lara Croft ) so don't take this as any kind of expert view.

But for what it’s worth, I think I may have seen the future – and I can’t work out if it is very exciting, or very scary.

A screenshot of downhill skiing in Sportopia. Pic courtesy of EoS

The game works like this. Users create their own character (avatar) within a virtual sports world (Sportopia) and then travel around training and competing against other people's avatars in a suite of multi-player games (eg, basketball, tennis, football, skiing, bobsleigh).

There are gyms (where you workout), shopping malls (where you buy the latest gear) and clubhouses (where you can kick back with your team-mates).

It is being developed by Infront Sports and Media (CEO Philippe Blatter) – a reasonably big player in the sport business industry (responsible for global media rights for the Fifa World Cup).

While virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (the world’s largest MMORPG with 9m players worldwide), Habbo Hotel and Second Life were invented by creative computer geeks, Empire of Sports has been conceived and built primarily as a sports marketing tool.

“This gives sponsors and sports-rights holders the opportunity to reach their consumers again,” was how the two marketers I met last month put it.

The sports media industry is worried that changing consumption habits mean old business models are no longer working (eg, broadcasters are stumping up millions for football rights but the kids just watch 'em on YouTube, minus the ads and channel branding).

A screenshot of how the tennis game might look. Pic courtesy of EoS

But the aim is not just to create a successful game, but a new interactive platform - via which for instance one could watch live sport in a mind-blowingly fun environment.

As Christian Müller, the managing director of EoS puts it on the company blog, this could be "the future of PvP" and "the birth of a new genre".

If they meet their target of several million users, and have the right geo-blocking technology and security in place, they could presumably have rights holders licking their lips to pipe live sporting action directly into the virtual world.

Stuff like this is already happening in Second Life, where Radio One streamed their Big Weekend last year.

So where’s the threat?

Fans of MMORPGs claim they are “the most instantly gripping, involving and demanding entertainment technology ever invented. The addiction rate appears to be about twice that of crack Cocaine”.

So with obesity rates in overdrive and participation rates in freefall, could such seemingly attractive online community gaming further usurp real sport among the next generation of teenagers?

Not necessarily. Indeed, it could be used as a means of boosting sport participation. For instance, what if users were sent a GPS-enabled computer chip they attached to their trainers to measure their distance/speed when they ran – and the data was fed back to their avatar.

But equally, while EoS say the game's integrity and its community are their main priorities, the merchandising and consumer elements could create a monster..

For instance, while the main ways to progress your avatar are to train, eat and drink well, and develop good game skill (with the mouse/keyboard) - the fourth is to use the right gear.

So, if you buy the latest trainers, you will play better. Or if you fly first-class to a tournament then you will arrive more rested – and are more likely to win.

If the brands take over, could Sportopia turn into a sinister, elitist, survivalist world where mercenaries, as skilled with their keyboard fingers as Ronaldo with his feet, fly round in their Lear jets up for hire to the highest bidder?

(A bit like the Premier League then...).

I guess the world really is their oyster.

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