Under the caps: The inner workings of the Hat Shuffle
By Kevin Cook
Besides an Adrian Gonzalez home run or the mere mention of Vin Scully, what else gets Dodger fans excited when they visit Dodger Stadium? The Hat Shuffle, of course.
Maybe I’m biased. I’m the senior motion graphics designer for the Dodgers, and I’ve designed the Hat Shuffle for the past seven seasons. I also might just be the Hat Shuffle’s biggest fan.
It didn’t start out that way. When I first joined the Dodgers in August 2009, I didn’t quite get the allure of the game, I think mainly because most Hat Shuffle games I’d seen at other sports stadiums were either too easy or impossibly difficult.
But done right, the Hat Shuffle is a really fun game, and when you visit Dodger Stadium, you should expect to have fun regardless of the score. Realizing that fun is the main priority of what we do here was a good first lesson in my new job and one that I haven’t forgotten.
So I didn’t just want to do the same old Hat Shuffle that I’d seen elsewhere. Our in-house creative team here is constantly pushing itself to do something different every season and better than the previous season. That same effort goes into the Hat Shuffle. There’s been an evolution of complexity to the game every season, and that isn’t by coincidence.
When I arrived, we had the typical three caps with one ball. The next season, we had three caps, but we introduced cap flips and spins. We then went to four caps/one ball, played around with that for a season or two, and then last season, we tried out six caps. Which … seems more difficult at first, but in some ways was a little easier because with less empty space around the caps, it was more difficult to move the caps really fast because the path distance for each cap was shorter. You live and learn when you’re trying to do new things.
This season, we’ve added a new twist: We’ve gone back to four caps, but we’ve added a second ball. If this sounds difficult, it’s because it is. But after you’ve done it a few times, it gets easier. And because I’m a nice guy, I’ll give you a clue.
I’ve found that the best thing to do is not to try and track both balls at the same time but to pick a spot on the board and just sort of stare at that spot while watching the caps fly around (and don’t blink for about 30 seconds). It’s amazing how your brain can visually multitask and keep track of where the two balls are if you don’t freak out and just let the game happen in front of your eyes. (Let’s keep that between you and me, OK? The bearded hipster guy seated next to you who is half your age and already outearns you from designing an app that helps you keep your shoes arranged in your closet … you don’t want him to beat you at the Hat Shuffle too, right?)
Before I go any further … I need to address something. Yes, I know that we are using baseball “caps” and yet it’s called the “Hat” Shuffle. I get it. I hear you. But I’m a traditionalist. I like my Dodger Dogs grilled, I wouldn’t mind seeing the bullpen cart make a comeback and since it was called the Hat Shuffle when I got here, it will be called the Hat Shuffle for as long as I’m here. I have no intention of angering the Hat Shuffle gods.
Speaking of the gods: Historically, the Hat Shuffle game can be traced back to ancient Greece. It was called the shell game, and if you replace the baseball caps with walnut shells and the baseball with a pea, you’ve got the same game, minus the gambling. It became very popular in the 19th century with “shell men” traveling from town to town, swindling people out of their money. It even continues to this day — last summer, I was lucky enough to visit Paris, and there were shell men scamming people right in front of the Eiffel Tower. The con is not necessarily in the game itself, it’s the pickpocket who, in tandem with the shell man, steals people’s money out of their pockets while they’re focused on the game at hand. Here at Dodger Stadium, the worst that can happen is that you lose, and the best is you could win a new cap from the gift store.
So, how do we create the game here at Dodger Stadium? We typically start working on the next season’s in-stadium graphic look and content as soon as the current season comes to a close — or even earlier. And then we work feverishly right up to the next Opening Day. But the first thing I work on is almost always the Hat Shuffle.
A lot of thought goes into the game. I do a lot of testing and eventually try out new ideas on my co-workers, who let me know if it’s too easy or too difficult. Getting the balance right between making the games challenging and yet not impossible is what makes it fun for me and hopefully for you too.
We use 3D software to create the games, and we try to take advantage of that 3D space as much as we can. We use the 3D camera to spin around the environment to try to disorient you enough to make it difficult but not so much that we intentionally try to trick you. It’s a fine line. If the ball ever disappears or goes off screen for a second, it always comes back. There’s no point in making it impossible, because that’s not fun at all.
Every season, I always start out thinking that I might have made it too difficult, and by June, I invariably have to go back and make a couple more games that are more challenging, because you Dodger fans are always better at the game than I expect you to be.
We normally start out with six different games with six different outcomes at the beginning of the season. One or two are usually designed to be “kid-friendly,” two or three are meant to be a little more challenging and then one or two are very difficult (so difficult that even I can’t get it right every time — and I know the outcome).
When I design the games, I always keep in mind that although I’d love to stump you every time, I have to remember that all age ranges are playing the game and if I don’t throw a couple in there for the kids, I’m neglecting a core part of our audience. So if you’ve ever played our game and thought, “That was too easy,” you probably got one of the games geared toward the kids. Or, you’re amazing. Each version basically plays once per homestand. Come back again, and you may not think it’s so easy.
Based on the response the Hat Shuffle gets every game at Dodger Stadium, I think it’s fair to say that Dodger fans enjoy playing it as much as I enjoy designing it. I’ve got more tricks up my sleeve, so if you somehow master the game this season, just wait until next year …