OpenTV Fulfills Fans' Fantasies

jon.healey@latimes.com

For the vast majority of us, the idea of owning a pro baseball or football team is just as unrealistic as playing on one. That's why so many sports fans have joined fantasy leagues on the Internet, where they can pretend to draft, sign and field players to compete with other make-believe owners.

Now, interactive TV company OpenTV wants to bring the virtual games to television. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has developed a way to play one-on-one fantasy baseball games on TV and is doing the same for football.

Eventually, it plans to let viewers compete against other fans across the country in national fantasy leagues. That technology, however, isn't ready to roll yet.

The offering reflects the blooming infatuation between the professional sports world and Internet or interactive TV companies. Teams see interactivity as yet another way to cash in on fans, while TV and Internet companies hope that the fans' enthusiasm will fuel interest in new technologies.

As with all interactive TV ideas, the key for OpenTV will be persuading a cable or satellite company to deploy it. The only guaranteed roll-out is by a small cable operator, USA Media Cable Group, whose most advanced system is in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

OpenTV's customers also include satellite TV operator EchoStar Communications Corp., whose Dish Network serves 6 million U.S. homes, but EchoStar hasn't committed to offering the new service.

Here's how the game will work. Fantasy owners will pick a lineup of players for that day's game, with their choices having to fit within a virtual salary cap. The daily lineups are then stored in the owner's set-top box, with players competing against either another person in the same home or an expert chosen by OpenTV.

As real athletes compete on the field, fantasy owners automatically collect points for their accomplishments, such as hits and RBIs in baseball or touchdowns and interceptions in football. The set-top box declares a winner after all the real athletes are finished, although players can keep their eyes on a running tally of statistics during the game.

Next year the company hopes to enable people to compete on a national basis with lineups chosen each week, said Scott Higgins, vice president of content development for OpenTV. Higgins also is chairman of the Fantasy Sports Players Assn., which might explain OpenTV's interest in this topic.

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Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology.

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