Sunny, 77 degrees, azure blue skies, the coconut scent of Hawaiian Tropic, hotdogs, frothy cold drinks, the crack of a bat, peanuts, cotton candy, a roaring crowd, leather gloves and dust…

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Major League Baseball has come to Arizona for Spring Training 2009. It is a nearly religious experience for the legion fans that follow favorite teams to our desert Mecca. Spring Training is an annual excuse to take a “sick” day for we desert denizens who call Phoenix home. It is a singularly spectacular event for all who love the game.

As if the headiness of the experience isn’t enough, GamesCampus representatives showed up at Tempe Diablo Stadium to introduce their new game before the Angels took on the Mariners. What? How do computer gaming and the ultimate outdoor game work in harmonious tandem? You’d be surprised.

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Games Campus is bringing Major League Baseball to your computer in a big way. GC marketing representatives Hanna Jung, Henri Duong, Chris Ahn and David Chang were on hand to show off Major League Baseball Dugout Heroes, the first officially licensed MLB game for PC.

While not specifically a traditional MMO, MLB Dugout Heroes will undoubtedly be massive in its scope and in the numbers of players it is bound to attract. It is decidedly and absolutely multiplayer. And Dugout Heroes is only playable online. Add quests into the mix and, well, you definitely have the makings of a terrific sports-themed MMO that is willing to go up against any console baseball game out there.

For those unaware of the recent history of MLB Dugout Heroes, the game was originally developed in Korea by Neowiz. North American publisher GamesCampus worked together with Major League Baseball and Neowiz to ink a deal bringing the MLB brand to Dugout Heroes. The game’s announcement hit the airwaves last November.

As originally developed for the Korean market, the game consisted of only eight teams. Since November 2008, the herculean task of localizing Dugout Heroes has taken place alongside the closed beta test. Developers have worked hard to bring the game up to MLB’s thirty-three teams, English voice acting, and modeling hundreds of players both past and present. Additionally, team stadiums of from yesterday and today have been introduced into the game.

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I had a long interview opportunity with the GamesCampus marketing team led by Executive Vice President for Market and Business Development David Chang and Assistant Manager and PR contact Hanna Jung. I also met senior marketing manager Henri Duong and marketing specialist Chris Ahn. Chang felt that it was imperative that the entire marketing team make the trip. It didn’t take a genius to see this team’s utter commitment to and enthusiasm for MLB Dugout Heroes. The whole team, despite a tiring day at the ballpark, happily talked about Dugout Heroes.

The closed beta included approximately 10,000 players participating and the number, according to David Chang, has at least doubled since the open beta began on March 19th though he did not have the hard data available. Additionally, and directly due to the GamesCampus presence at Spring Training in Arizona, local downloads and connections from this area have spiked dramatically.

A typical day for the GamesCampus team involves an early wake time and arrival at the facility by 10 a.m. Set up is complete before the gates open at 11:00. Staff hands out ‘draft cards’ to fans which allow them a free player once they’re ready to play Dugout Heroes. There is also a demo table with a large screen monitor to watch and the GC team is on hand to talk about their game. The day doesn’t wrap up until after 5:00. This grueling schedule has been going on for almost two weeks with almost another to go. According to Chang, however, it’s all been worth it. Getting the word out is essential to the game’s success and from the numbers, it appears to be working.

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Dugout Heroes offers both hardcore and casual baseball fans everything that console-only gamers have enjoyed for years: A fully featured, Major League Baseball endorsed, addictive game complete with quests, tournaments, leagues (aka guilds), customized teams, MLB draft, team and league rankings, simple controls, easy learning curve and even a World Series. Developers are committed to adding all the features that fans and players want, are dedicated to timely updates and to making the game work.

MLB Dugout Heroes has something that no console baseball game can even come close to matching. MLB Dugout Heroes is free to play. That’s right. There is no $50 to get out the door. There is no subscription fee. MLB Dugout Heroes is FREE without caveat. There will be a microtransaction ‘store’ for players but Chang was very specific when he said that balance will not be thrown off by items purchased at the Item Mall. Most of the store items will be cosmetic such as custom uniforms, cleats, etc. In fact, most things that can be purchased with real world cash can also be purchased with in-game currency earned through quest completion. Not a bad deal considering the console alternative.

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GamesCampus is so confident in the imminent success of MLB Dugout Heroes that it is already beginning to consider where to go with the sports MMO genre in the future. Tentative plans include reaching out to the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Soccer (MLS), boxing promoters, and even the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). It appears as if their future is indeed bright.

The open beta client for MLB Dugout Heroes can be downloaded at http://www.mlbdugoutheroes.com and the game is fully functional. There are certain features that are not yet activated and won’t be until the game’s official launch towards the end of April 2009 but there’s no question you’ll get a worthy look at the game.

In my few play sessions to this point, I have seen that MLB Dugout Heroes appears to be a solid entry into a new era of online sports games and a winner to boot. While I have never been a fan of sports themed games of any type, I have found myself curiously excited by the game and having a lot of fun. MLB Dugout Heroes looks to have everything a baseball fan could want except maybe the smell of hotdogs and roasted peanuts. That aside, however, I plan to spend a lot of time with my Dugout Heroes.

I’ll have a ‘first look’ article for your perusal in the coming days. If you can’t wait, head to the link above and try MLB Dugout Heroes for yourself! I suspect you won’t be sorry. BATTER UP!

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