The Dove Foundation Interviews Co-President of Humongous, Lauren Schechtman

by Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation

One of the forces behind the newly-released, multi-platform video game, “Backyard Sports: Baseball 2007” is the Co-President of the company which produced the game. Lauren Schechtman holds that title for the Humongous Company, and spoke recently with The Dove Foundation about the newly-released game and other Backyard Sports projects.

We began the interview by informing Lauren that a thirteen-year-boy, Daniel, played the game on behalf of Dove, and thought it was pretty cool.

“Fantastic!  I love hearing from thirteen-year olds because they are sophisticated in the game world, and that would be the very top edge of our audience, so we always say if they like the game then our sweet spot audience, 5-10 year olds will love the game.”

We asked Lauren how the idea originated for the game. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this but this is actually the fifth generation of ‘Backyard Baseball.’  The brand started with ‘Backyard Baseball’ in 1996. And since then we have produced games for all the sports that kids love to play and watch. So we have ‘Backyard Basketball’, football, baseball, soccer, and hockey. We’ve been around for ten years and have been growing every year.”

We suggested that some changes have no doubt occurred over the years in the baseball game. “You’re absolutely right,” said Lauren. “We were looking at what was happening in the kids’ marketplace. What we noticed was that there were a lot of kids that were interested in sports who were playing the more adult games like ‘Madden’ and some other really complicated and sometimes violent games. These are a little bit more hard-core than kids needed to play. On the other hand, there were adventure/fantasy games, with a sports flavor. But there was a big hole in the marketplace because there was no true sports game for kids, who really love and are serious about sports, so that’s where ‘Backyard Sports’ comes in. It is a game for kids but it’s all about sports. It’s realistic and we work with the leagues to make sure that the rules are consistent and authentic to the game. Yet, it has an arcade/fantasy element to make it really fun for kids.”

We asked Lauren what challenges she and the company faced in making this latest version of the game and she replied, “I think the challenge is staying true to the game, but still making it really fun for kids. We wanted it to be authentic and realistic, and we wanted kids who had played baseball since they were five years old, who know the rules and strategies behind it, to feel like this was really a test for them, that they were being challenged with a true sports game. They’re very serious about their sports but yet they’re kids so we have to include a lot of fun and funny elements. We worked closely with Major League Baseball to ensure that the game was consistent with the real game.”

“What is really cool about this game is that kids are learning the nuances of baseball by playing ‘Backyard Baseball.’ So the strategies and techniques and little hints that they learn they can apply to the field when they get out there on the little league team—when to steal, what kind of pitch to throw—they’ll learn it in ‘Backyard Baseball’ and actually use it on the field.”

Dove asked Lauren about the people involved in the creation of this game and she said, “The creative team behind ‘Backyard Sports’ are really two people: Skip Saling and Erik Halding. Both guys are sports fanatics and have been playing sports games since they were kids. Erik is our Creative Director and when he was a kid he used to write letters to the game publishers with suggestions on what they could do to make the games better. He’s a perfect blend of an artist and sports jock!”

Dove asked about their use of famous players such as Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols. “We have licenses with Major League Baseball and Major League Baseball Player’s Association, which is their union, so we are allowed to use the pros in the game. But it’s a different story for the highlight player which is the pro player that is on the cover of the game. For that we had to have a separate contract. So we have a contract with Albert Pujols. I am proud to say that he contacted us and asked to be on the cover of the game. He played an earlier version of ‘Backyard Baseball’ with his son A.J. and loved the game and had his agent call us. We were thrilled! I mean, he was the MVP of the National League last year and St. Louis went on to win the World Series this year. Who could be better?”

The cover includes a picture of Albert on the left and an artist’s rendition of him as a kid in his baseball uniform on the right. Lauren commented that they take the players they endorse seriously.

“We’re really very, very careful about our game and the player who is on the cover because we want to make sure we have this wholesome image and that every player on the cover of our game reflects good sportsmanship and has a great reputation. Albert has really done a wonderful job with that. He’s a great role model on and off the field.”

“It’s  tough to find the right cover player,” said Lauren, “because some of the best players in sports, especially in other sports like basketball and football, are not what we consider  to be a ‘Backyard’ player with their values and sportsmanship. So we have to turn them down even though they’re wildly popular.”

We asked Lauren what she considered to be some of the best features of the game. “There are a couple of things,” she said. “I think as a parent, one of the best features is that it is instructional.” A child can play this game and have a great time but take something away and then go out to his little league game and be able to apply what he’s learned to his actual physical game. I think that’s really a huge value for the game. It’s not just playing a video game to play a video game. I also love that there’s a lot of stats involved and a lot of decision making and season play. It’s really a thinking game, not just a button-smashing game or a shooting game. You really have to think about it and you’re rewarded for making the right choices. The game has a whole group of Backyard Kid players to create a team from, and they play depending on who they are and what their likes and their interests are. You really have to give it a lot of thought and you can play throughout the whole season.”

Lauren stated that they like to use the word “instructional” because some kids are turned off if they hear the word “educational.”

We asked if there was anything she wished would have been different with the final product of the game. “I think with the ‘Backyard Sports’ brand the one area I would have done differently is the technology-platform. We have been a PC game for a very long time and we should have changed earlier. Our audience, which is largely made up of kids, are very sophisticated game players and they are playing games mostly on consoles. We were kind of late in getting to console platform. We’re there now but the newer platforms like DS and Wii, that are really popular with our audience—we’re not there yet. I kind of wish we would have been a little bit more pro-active there on the technology front. It’s a work in progress.”

Lauren made note that most computers are in an office or family den and most kids want to play where the family is, so they are playing “more of the kinds of games that are hooked up to the TV.”

“Next fall we’re planning a Wii version of ‘Backyard Football.’” We asked if there were plans for a Wii baseball game, and she said, “Definitely. And we’re working on that for 2008.”

We wanted to know if Lauren was receiving some positive feedback about the new baseball game. “We’re really happy and relieved with the response we’re getting back,” she said. “We went through a lot of changes with this version of ‘Backyard Baseball’—we changed everything—the packaging, the graphics, mostly the characters and the background. We updated it and made it a little bit older. We found that a lot of kids loved the game but it was very babyish looking. They loved to play it but a lot of them were embarrassed to say that they played it! We call them closet players. If you were to see the older versions of it—the characters were all round headed with big bellies–and really very young. Many kids in our audience have been playing video games and sports for five years or more. So they know what they want—they’re very opinionated. The last thing you want is to create a great game that kids are embarrassed to play. The best way to get your name out there is for kids to be talking among their friends.”

Lauren wanted to add that one other great feature of the game is the pros being seen as kids in the game. “The fact that we have the pros in the game and they’re no better athletes than the other ‘Backyard’ kids that we have, and that everybody has their talents in specific areas,  empowers the kids who are playing to feel like that they too can go on to greatness in baseball.”

A game that attempts to be instructional as well as fun is to be commended.  With Lauren Schechtman co-piloting future projects, it would seem that ‘Backyard Sports’ has quite a future in store.