A baseball hackathon In Chicago? Yes, please!

On October 18th, I woke up to a notification on my phone for an email titled “2016 MLBAM Bases Coded.” The preview read

We are pleased to inform you that your Team’s entry has been selected as a potential Finalist entry in the 2016 MLBAM Bases Coded Technology Challenge

Two weeks earlier on October 7th, I rounded up two of my friends and applied last minute, literally with minutes to spare, to Major League Baseball’s Bases Coded Challenge. I had first heard of this challenge only a few hours before, through a promotional email sent by Major League Baseball. Why their first email blast came just before the entry deadline, I can’t tell you. Thinking that an entry entailed submitting some sort of project, I was pretty bummed to have missed on out on a competition involving software and baseball, two of my passions!

Luckily I sat down later, after class, and took a closer look at the submission requirements. In fact, MLB only wanted an idea, not a completed piece of software. Winners would be selected based on the potential of their idea, and the experience of their team. With a couple hours left before the deadline, I started filling out the entry form as best I could. I began filling out profiles of my team, who we are, why we wanted to compete- along with links to and descriptions of our previous projects.

Thankfully, I had been brainstorming a baseball app during the months prior, and it was fresh on my mind. Though technically complex, the basic idea for the app was simple enough to fit into the 500 character limit the form required. I enlisted the assistance of my two teammates (Jon and Gio) to help fill out the rest of the entry form. At this point they agreed to help, and to be on the team (I knew they’d say yes). We ended up submitting our entry with 12 minutes left until the deadline, though to be honest, the last 15 minutes were spent deciding on a team name and mascot. We ended up with Benny ‘The Jet’ Rodriguez as our mascot, and our team name was decidedly, C the Ball.

And then we forgot about it.

When the email woke me up, I ran into Jon’s room, threw my phone at him and asked to confirm I was not seeing things. Long story short, we had been selected by Major League Baseball to compete in their 24 hour hackathon during the World Series. We would be flown out from San Luis Obispo to Chicago, be put up in the Chicago Hilton, and compete for a chance to win tickets to Game 4 of the World Series at Wrigley Field.

Our flight left SLO early Wednesday morning, and we arrived in Chicago by early afternoon. During the flight, me and Jon had our first opportunity to start brainstorming/debating how the app would work. Because all 3 of us had to cram schoolwork and studying into the week before our trip, we had no time to bring our idea anything past just an idea. We sat next to an older gentleman who was very interested in our project and who spoke with us for most of the journey. He was even more interesting. He spoke of designing an entire city in Saudi Arabia, managing the Chicago Cubs spring training, and running a foundation for supporting first generation college students. I haven’t been able to verify any of that, but it sure made the trip interesting.

From Chicago Ohare, we took the Blue Line train to The Loop, the meeting grounds for Chicago’s transit lines, and one of the nicer parts of the city (also where our hotel was located). We spent the evening at the hotel making plans for the hackathon the next day.

The hackathon was held at a Marriott Hotel a 30 minute walk north of our hotel. When we walked into the lobby and saw signage for “World Series Distribution Headquarters”, we knew we were in the right place. This must have been the hotel where MLB officials were working out of. On the 7th floor, a large hall, fit to hold hundreds of people, had just several small tables, four of which were for competing teams, and we decided on one we’d be at for the next 24 hours straight. As time neared the actual start of the hackathon clock, we met the three other teams, organizers from MLB, representatives from a company called New Relic, as well as a Senior Developer and Director of Research for MLB’s technology arm, MLBAM. All were extremely welcoming, and many of them I’d love the opportunity to meet again in the future! And so it began…

Our application, later named Scout, was to be a mobile application with a purpose of removing the confusion of statistics from the baseball fan experience. By leveraging the data we were provided by MLB directly, our app would determine the most exciting things about each baseball game to be played on a given day. This would be done entirely on the backend, by comparing pitcher/batter matchups, recent pitching/hitting streaks, rivalries, team streaks, and many more factors. For each game, our app would determine the most important factors and assign a tag to it, such as “Pitcher’s Duel”, or “Top Rivalry.” We spent the first couple hours planning, both what the factors would be, how the data would be funneled through our system, and what we wanted to present to the user. I began working on the iOS app, while Gio and Jon teamed up on the backend side of things.

Having participated in several hackathons, I can say we had above average focus. Maybe because we spent less time on the idea, maybe because of the stakes, or maybe because we were so interested in the project. Whatever it was, we did a lot in a short amount of time. At many points through the night, we discussed how the backend would be hooking up with the app, come time. Nearer the morning there came a point where the format of the data returned by our API changed, but otherwise the connection between server and client was quite smooth. Our biggest problems seemed to stem from using an Amazon EC2 instance to host our backend. Jon and Gio encountered many problems, especially as first time users, and noted the lack of documentation/tutorials to achieve simple tasks. Another problem we encountered was having to incorporate the monitoring software of New Relic, one of the sponsors, and an MLB partner. New Relic monitors your application’s performance, which while useful, was overkill for a 24 hour hackathon. Installing New Relic in our Python backend was not too bad, but trying to add it to our iOS app was not so graceful. We ended up ripping it out completely, but the entire process unfortunately killed the final hour and half of the hackathon. Nevertheless, time was up. The 24 hours had been filled with focus sessions, food breaks (oh man was the food good), Gio dancing in front of the GoPro that had been set up, and working hard on building a product we’re very proud of. To finish off the day, each team informally presented their project in front of the MLB/New Relic folks, not to be judged. The real presentations would come the next day, Saturday, when we’d return to present in front of the panel of judges. With just an evening in front of us, we had to find time to make up some of the lost sleep, build a slide deck, and prepare for a presentation. We began walking back to the hotel, discussing our thoughts on the other projects, and our shot at winning the grand prize. We were confident that our technology was best designed and most efficient (thanks to some preliminary comments from New Relic), and that if we could kill the presentation, we might have a chance.

After reaching our hotel room, we fell into our beds and didn’t wake up until quite later that evening. Hungry, we went out for some Giordano’s pizza, and didn’t get back until just before midnight. Setting to work on Google Docs, we began working on our presentation, defining our message, and honing in on why our application could be a success amongst current baseball fans and in bringing in new fans to the sport. With a completed slide deck, we hit the hay once again, alarms set for early the next morning- we’d be required back at the Marriott not much later than 8:30.

And so we were there early the next morning. The judging panel was revealed to be a writer for Sports On Earth, the Senior VP of Mobile Product Development at MLBAM, the CEO of a sports startup accelerator, and a VP from New Relic. The crowd for the presentations was not much bigger than the group of people we had met over the previous few days, but the tone was a bit more serious now that presentations were to begin. We ended up presenting third of four teams.

The first team to present was our favorite competitor. This team of friends from the Deep South was extremely friendly and we had enjoyed chatting with them both before the competition and after. Having seen their project the day prior, we decided they would be our main competition, and as we later found out, they had the same opinion of us! They developed a mobile app that allowed friends to play a simplified version of fantasy baseball. Instead of having to manage a team over an entire season, their game required players to choose 5 teams each day that they think would win, and compared the results to those of friends. Their project was extremely polished visually, and I would definitely play if it were available in the app store!

The next team was a group of Chicago natives who were experienced Python developers. They too developed a mobile application, but one that would be used by a fan during a game, not before and after. Their app would understand exactly what would be happening in a baseball game, thanks to MLB data, and explain different plays, vocabulary, and confusing baseball concepts to the user. Visuals were not the strong point, but the concept certainly tackled the problem of baseball being confusing to newcomers.

Next it was our turn. Our presentation hit a snag when our app froze on Jon’s computer during the demo. This was thanks to a rogue error left behind by the New Relic integration that had gone wrong, but luckily the iOS simulator was running on my computer as well- so we were back up quickly. We didn’t kill the presentation as we had hoped, but we got our points across and did a swell job.

The first three teams were composed of three guys each, but the final team had just two. In fact, one of the two showed up late and didn’t seem to do any work on the project, so it was truly just one. This team made a Twitter bot that tweeted when a hit or an out was unexpected based on historic data.

As the judges deliberated, we started talking again with the first team who we had become friendly with. We discovered they too had run into complications with New Relic. After 15 minutes or so, we returned to our seats to hear the final decisions.

As Chad Evans, the Senior VP from MLBAM pointed out the judges comments on each of the projects, everyone listened intently. For our application, he pointed out the originality of our idea, and described how the tagging of games was something MLB themselves had been trying to figure out for a long time. While each team received nice feedback, I was very inspired by ours. Unfortunately, the Twitter bot won, so Game 4 tickets were not in our sights.

But Chicago was amazing, we met some really nice people, and on the plane home we ran into a part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks who was wearing an enormous 2001 World Series Championship ring. The best part is that we’ll be continuing to work on our application and hopefully have it ready by the start of the next season!

Thanks to Major League Baseball for the incredible opportunity, and to our teachers who were kind enough to excuse our absence and extend some deadlines 🙂

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