Computers are the real stars at ESPN Zone Fun: Technology makes sports bar more than a play to watch a game and drink beer.

July 20, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

In a typical sports bar, the most advanced piece of technology is the popcorn popper. Not so at ESPN Zone. This is a sports bar on silicon steroids.

A high-tech control center looms above the first-floor entrance like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. From here, staffers monitor 211 flickering television screens, 105 state-of-the-art electronic games, TV and radio broadcast booths, and eight touch-screen Internet stations that give sports junkies an up-to-the-minute statistical fix.

"Sports is about immediacy of information - people really care about what's going on right now," said Bill Freeman, a vice president of ESPN Zone in Burbank, Calif. "The only way we can provide immediate information is through technology."

The eye-popping technology is also a magnet for customers, drawing crowds to the one-of-a-kind, $30 million sports entertainment complex since it opened inside the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor July 12.

The technology "gives you a lot more to do when you're watching a game than just sitting there and drinking a beer," said Matt Vernon, a 27-year-old NationsBank employee, as he surfed the Web on his lunch hour.

Although it's hard to measure such things, the ESPN Zone may be the most technologically advanced bar-cum-restaurant outside of Las Vegas. This was evident during the 48-hour countdown before the glitzy grand opening, when technicians scrambled to stamp out last-minute bugs in the sophisticated computer network that runs the Zone.

It's been crazy," said Robert Erhardt, whose team of computer gurus from the Walt Disney Co., which owns ESPN, flew to Baltimore from California to oversee the operation.

In the theater-like Screening Room, TV monitors cover an entire wall, offering customers a chance to watch as many as 16 sporting events simultaneously - an experience most Baltimoreans probably haven't had since their last visit to Circuit City.

Meanwhile, control room staffers keep a watchful eye on even more games on their own monitors. When the action on another channel gets hot, they can switch the broadcast to Screening Room TVs in a fraction of a second so sports fanatics never miss a big play.

"Show me a sports bar that can do that!" said Freeman. In fact, he says, that's why ESPN Zone bills itself not as a bar, but as an "entertainment center."

The Sports Arena on the second floor offers next-generation, interactive video games that you won't find in most shopping mall arcades. Here golfers need a real club and ball to hack their way around a computer-generated course. Snow lovers negotiate a bitmapped mountain on faux snowboards. To score a goal in the soccer game, players boot a real ball tethered to the game machine cabinet.

"This isn't just point and click, like the kind of games you play in your living room at home," Freeman said.

There's technology to handle VIPs. If, for example, someone with the clout of Cal Ripken Jr. wants to dodge the masses at the main entrance, he can swing around back and run a swipe card through a device at the rear door. When he does, a video camera transmits his picture to a computer at the front reception desk. The receptionist calls up a stored mug shot to confirm the ID - along with a list of the VIP's favorite food and drink.

But it's the technology customers don't see that really makes the Zone tick.

Deep within inside the 35,000-square-foot complex are five humming Windows NT servers whose tentacle-like cables snake through floors, ceilings and walls. Each computer handles a different part of the zone's operation - running the interactive video games, delivering a customer's burger order to the kitchen, even making the giant flame flicker over the ESPN marquee.

Using computers this way not only draws customers, but also increase profits, Disney officials say.

The arcade games, for for example, use magnetic debit cards instead of coins. When someone slips a card into a game, the machine chats with a central computer, exchanging information such as the player's ID and how how much money is left on his or her card. But the computer also keeps track of which games are most popular, so staffers can move money makers close to the front and bench the digital dogs.

So, does the ESPN Zone herald the next generation of sports bar?

"I don't know that the local sports bar is going to need Internet access to sell a Budweiser," said Freeman. "What we are is ESPN. What the fans expect is what we're trying to deliver."

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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