MLB begins rookie season as a mobile game publisher

Major League Baseball is moving beyond streaming games to making games.

With the official launch of Home Run Derby on iOS(s AAPL) and Android(s GOOG) Tuesday night, the league is making public its ambitions to build a mobile gaming division.

Its first attempt at building a standalone mobile game started with quiet release of the Home Run Derby app last month, which was relaunched Tuesday night with improvements and fixes. The Home Run Derby app is free, but has lots of in-app purchase options within the game. The launch comes right before the real-life Home Run Derby taking place at the league’s annual All-Star Game next week.

That real world tie-in is key and signifies exactly what MLB hopes to accomplish by becoming a gaming brand: to reach more mobile users and maybe even convert them into baseball fans by making games that are baseball related, but that you can enjoy without being a hardcore fan.

“At Bat appeals to the super-engaged baseball fan. Home Run Derby is an action game, a hyper-realized slice of baseball, the art and cool of hitting a home run,” Jamie Leece, VP of MLB Advanced Media’s Gaming division told me on Wednesday. “It should appeal to anyone who likes an action product and to someone who really loves baseball and likes specific players.”

MLB Advanced Media, the digital office of the league that created the At Bat app and about a half dozen others, published the game. It is a departure from its roster of apps, which are tools for attending MLB games, watching games or following teams or particular players. The Gaming division was created in May 2012 when Leece was brought on from Canadian mobile gaming company Behaviour Interactive.

Becoming a game publisher “broadens our reach, that’s one of our strategies,” said Leece. “It’s an area we haven’t had a lot of focus on in the past. Fans are getting younger, and we want to get fans into baseball early and keep them engaged.”

So far, the Gaming division is Leece and five employees with a few outside contractor developers. But he hopes it will grow the way MLBAM’s mobile division has since 2005, both in terms of employees (there were two in 2005, now nearly 60) and success with customers. Also on Wednesday, MLBAM announced its At Bat app for the 2013 baseball season had already been downloaded over 7 million times this year. That matches the number of downloads all of last season, and the two previous seasons combined.

Leece says there are more games planned, including a casual game and a strategy game. Like At Bat, which is free to download, but requires a $20 in-app purchase to unlock any useful content, MLB games will follow the free-to-play model so popular among iOS App Store game developers.

However, early reviews of the Home Run Derby app showed users were a bit miffed by the need for in-app purchases to advance through the game. You don’t hear that much complaining from MLB fans about the in-app purchases necessary to watch baseball games or access highlight clips. And that’s mostly because the value proposition is so clear: what you’d normally have to pay a cable or satellite company for, you can watch on your mobile device or at the office for a once-per-season fee.

That’s not to say Home Run Derby game isn’t a quality game — the graphics look really good. But the MLB brand is starting from scratch among casual gamers. MLB already has one of the strongest brands in mobile when it comes to media content, and is known for quality among baseball fans, but it’s obviously starting fresh with many non-baseball lovers.

And, like any rookie, it’s going to have to prove itself.