Snacks are opened on the table; calming music is playing in the background; voices are raised; hands are gesturing, writing, running through hair-and the challengers are barely 30 minutes in. With hours to go, teams are already diving in headfirst. These students have no illusions about the Challenge ahead of them: it won't be easy, but the reward will be worth it.
Six years after a busload of students went to New York City to present projects that were months in the making at the offices of Major League Baseball’s Advanced Media division, the MLB.com College Challenge is bigger than ever. From November 12th at 8:30pm to November 13th at 1:00pm, Hinds Hall was full of more than 130 students, all competing for a chance to share their work with MLB. Simply put, the Major League Baseball Challenge at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) is a competition like no other.
The MLB Challenge encourages dedication and innovation above all else. The "hackathon" presents teams of 2 to 4 students with a problem that needs to be solved literally overnight. The concentrated brainstorming session sees students take the idea they were given and run with it. This year's prompt was digital ticketing, and sent teams in directions as diverse as the students themselves.
The competition brings in participants from different disciplines, backgrounds, and class years to compete for an MLB TV premium subscription, and a trip to NYC with the opportunity to present their work in front of officials from MLB.com in their office at Chelsea Market.
Yet it's more than just the prize that motivates students and alumni at MLB.com to participate. Every person interviewed said that the MLB Challenge is an incredible networking opportunity, a chance to make connections with people and further yourself personally and professionally. All of the MLB.com employees who came back for this year's Challenge were Syracuse University alumni, and many of them found their jobs at MLB.com through participating in the iSchool's MLB Challenge.
The chance to network is of course on everyone’s mind, but more than that, the MLB Challenge presents a real-life opportunity to experience a certain type of work early-on: holding to a deadline, managing a team, managing yourself. Students volunteer for this opportunity despite the time commitment, the physicality, the stress, and the chance that you’ll come away with nothing.
It's a high-risk, high-reward challenge on the surface, but beyond that it's an opportunity for growth and experience that would be nearly impossible to find elsewhere. There are always a number of people who are ready and willing to help the students, both in the challenge and outside of it, with advice on marketing, research and development, engineering, and more.
The four students from Team Sixen (all members of the iSchool's NEXIS student lab, hence the team name, backwards) had different reasons for being a part of the competition: interest in walking out of the competition with contacts and potential job opportunities, wanting to experience the competition first hand, for a fun and unique experience, and even a desire to come back stronger than ever after a loss in last year's Challenge. The room where they worked was full of enthusiasm, passion, and ideas. Nick, Natalie, Brendan, and Christian were constantly building on one another, working through the constant ebb and flow of development that ends in results, just like the other 29 teams.
The MLB Challenge has evolved over the past 6 years. The original Challenge was spread out over two months, where competitors were given three different prompts to choose from. They were then bussed to New York City to present at MLB.com headquarters. From there, it became the overnight hackathon that it is today. This year's Challenge filled Hinds Hall to the brim, and could likely outgrow the building for future Challenges.
When asked about plans for next year, Josh Frost ‘08, manager of product development at MLB.com and a member of the MLB Challenge from the start, said that space isn't something that they're worried about right now. The main focus of the competition is face time and interaction, and will continue to be the focus as the Challenge continues to grow and expand.
As for where things might be going, Josh said that the team wants to look at their model of connecting real professionals with students and give them more of that experience. It doesn't scale easily, but "we would want to find ways to give this experience to more students because it’s valuable to us to meet more people, because it's valuable to us to tell our story." The MLB Challenge may find itself on the way to larger venues, but the core values will remain the same.
Ideas for each year's prompts come from Major League Baseball itself: What is relevant in the industry? What is being worked on? At the same time, everything is kept appealing to students and their curriculum. More time is spent on the idea for each Challenge than the logistics. Each year is easier to plan than the last as things become more and more streamlined.
When asked how they choose a winner, Frost gave two answers: in his own words, the “boring” answer is that groups' presentations are graded against a standardized rubric. Teams are split into one of four groups and will compete against the other teams in their group first. The best team from each group will present against the others, and the team with the best score wins. The more interesting answer? "We want people who can solve a fan's problem. We want to make the fan's experience better."
This year’s winning team was Ocean’s 3, made up of senior Adrian Hatch and junior Kevin Spector, both from the iSchool, along with junior Josiah MacDonald from the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
The three came up with a win by designing an RFID wristband for use in the park, along with a companion mobile app and website. Hatch explained that “the real heart of the idea is that you don’t need to take your phone out at the ballpark so you can focus on watching the game.”
Ocean’s 3 will be traveling to New York City soon to pitch their idea in front of officials from MLB.com in Marketing, Product Development, Software Engineering, and anyone else at the MLB's offices who are interested in hearing about the work that they’ve done.