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This video game transports the gamer back to the days of Negro Leagues baseball

An avatar in the virtual reality game "Barnstormers" follows through on his swing. The game tells the story of the Negro Leagues, an all-Black, segregated professional baseball league.
Derek Ham
An avatar in the virtual reality game "Barnstormers" follows through on his swing. The game tells the story of the Negro Leagues, an all-Black, segregated professional baseball league.

Nearly everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson.

The infielder broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947 when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, helping pave the way for both the modern athlete and the American Civil Rights Movement.

But Larry Doby's story is lesser known. The South Carolina native broke the color barrier in the American League just three months after Robinson did when he signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians. He was the first person to join the majors directly from the Negro Leagues, an all-Black professional baseball league that was created in 1920 as an answer to segregation.

Doby, who hit left-handed and often played second base and centerfield, helped Cleveland win a World Series in 1948 — just two years after he helped the Newark Eagles win a Negro League World Series.

The stories of hundreds of Negro Leagues players have largely gone untold until now. And Derek Ham — the department head of art and design at North Carolina State University — wants to change that.

Ham's virtual reality experience "Barnstormers: Determined to Win" tells the story of the Negro Leagues. It allows gamers with an oculus rift headset to step inside the shoes of iconic players such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige and was made in partnership with the Negro League Baseball Museum.

Ham sat down with WUNC recently for an interview about his project, which he showcased at Cannes XR.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

I think it’s super cool that the Negro Leagues Museum teamed up with you and helped out with this project. But what is your relationship with baseball like? And what is your relationship with this league?

"Oddly enough, I personally never played baseball. It skipped a generation. My dad played Little League and played a little bit in middle and high school. My kids play baseball: I have three kids — a daughter and two boys — but my boys, they play baseball.

"I've always been fascinated by the game. And when you begin to start thinking about baseball, as a topic… It's easy to see how there's this beautiful relationship between the history of this country, America, and the game of baseball, because so many things were parallel on the field and off the field.

"So, for me to look at something that had the sports angle and had this history angle, I was thinking to myself, 'This is just too good to pass up. I need to really keep scratching on the surface, and see what's there.' And when you start looking at the story of Negro League baseball — here's one of these stories where we kind of know about it, but it's not household information. And even some of the players that are in that league are not household names, like Babe Ruth, like Ty Cobb, like some of the white legends of the game.

"And when you start going into this kind of peeling back the layers, and you say the name Jackie Robinson — everyone knows Jackie Robinson — but I think there are people who still don't know that Jackie Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs. So, there is this rich deposit of history that's there, underneath the surface.

"I was like, 'Can I potentially create some content, some storytelling, that will incite the imagination that will sit and allow people to say, oh, what's going on here? I want to know more. I want to open up the history books, I want to go to Kansas City and go to the museum.' This is a really fascinating part of history that I should have known about."

Where did the idea come from? And I know you specialize in this, but why VR? What makes that the right way to tell the story?

"When I put on just my VR development hat, I think about user experience and what people actually do in VR.

"I feel so much of the market right now is saturated by the same types of actions. I would say one action is shooting. It's holding a controller and frankly… If I was to go into the VR marketplace and put a toggle to say, remove every single game that involves holding a gun and shooting, I would guess maybe 60-70% of the content would be deleted.

"I started thinking about holding a bat, throwing a ball. That's not something that you see every day in VR. There's not a whole lot of like VR baseball games in general, because the mechanics of holding the bat or catching with a glove and throwing… So, for me, that was just fun in itself.

"One of the first scenes I built was working on the mechanics of being at the bat and hitting a fastball. And once I built that test scene and felt and put even haptics in the controller to give it a little shake once you hit it, you know that joy flooded over me all the dopamine rushed. And I was like, ‘Okay, this is something that people would really, really enjoy playing. Now how can I then wrap the history story around it and kind of interlace between that type of gameplay activity with receiving a real historical message and understanding something that probably you have never heard of?’

I've watched a couple of the trailers and have seen a few screen grabs of the gameplay. I noticed a water tower out in the back of the outfield. I know that water towers are not specific necessarily to Durham, but do Raleigh and Durham (have any role in the game?)

This AP file photo shows Walter "Buck" Leonard at his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in February 1972. The native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina won three Negro League World Series and two batting titles. He had a .346 batting average for his 14-year career.
Dave Pickoff
This AP file photo shows Walter "Buck" Leonard at his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in February 1972. The native of Rocky Mount, North Carolina won three Negro League World Series and two batting titles. He had a .346 batting average for his 14-year career.

"No, there were no sites in Raleigh or Durham. But there is an interesting connection between Barnstormers and North Carolina.
"A lot of people aren't familiar with some of the history here and one of the figures in the game is Josh Gibson, who played for the Homestead Greys (based in Pittsburgh). Now, Josh Gibson had a teammate, and they called them the Thunder Twins. And it was Josh Gibson and it was Buck Leonard. Buck Leonard is from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. And when I made Barnstormers, during the process of rolling it out, I started connecting to some of the Negro League players’ families.

"I was connected to the Leonard family and to go to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, with Barnstormers, put (the family members) in the headset to see ‘Hey, here are the Homestead Greys. This is Josh Gibson, and Buck is playing with him. It’s right there.’

"That immediately became a nice connection for me and a very personal touch. And even after working, talking with them, I was able to take one of the avatars of the game and specialize model that as Buck Leonard. I didn't know about that, until I started getting into the history and the work."

Do you have one piece of history, or maybe a fun fact that kind of stands out that you learned during the process of making Barnstormers?

"I'll say two things. One, there was a piece of history that I was not able to include in the game. But I think if I was to ever do like an extension story or do something, I would want to include it. And that's the fact that some of these guys went overseas and played in Cuba in the offseason. And when you get into the history of it, when they went to Cuba, often times they would wonder 'Should I even come back?' They were treated so well over there in Cuba, and they were celebrities and didn't have as many problems off the field as they had on the field and were making tons of money. I think that's a really interesting fact to see these Negro League stars playing in Cuba making that money, and coming back.

As far as the moments in the game, there is a beautiful component when you're at a gas station, and I really kind of hit you with that reality. Imagine the Atlanta Braves bus going and stopping, and the irony of the stars getting off the bus, and they're like, 'Oh, no. You can't use the restaurant.' Imagine the Yankees on a bus going somewhere, and Aaron Judge is sitting there and it's like, 'Oh, no. You're you know, look at you. You can't come in here.' And so, I tried to kind of tap into that trying to highlight how great they were. And then I completely flip it to a scenario where it's like, 'Okay, we’re stopping for some gas, and you want to use the restroom? Are they going to let you use it? What's going on here?' And that again, I'm trying to highlight is the scenario and the world in which they lived.

Josh Sullivan is a social media producer with WUNC’s digital news team.
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