ESPN AVATARS GIVE VOICE TO ONLINE CHAT

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ESPN populated its Voice of the Fan chat area with avatars-animated characters that can be customized by Web visitors as their online alter egos-in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. The results were so good that ESPN plans to use the avatar technique for coming mega-events such as the NCAA playoffs and the Indy 500.

Likening live chat to sports talk radio, John Papanek, senior VP-editorial director, ESPN new media, said the avatars are a new technique to take advantage of fan passion around big games like the Super Bowl. Young men in particular flock to the Internet in the weeks and days before big sports happenings to checks team statistics and news, play fantasy games and gab and spar with other fans. Traffic on sports sites spikes big around these events, and sports sites such as ESPN want to keep their fans enthralled, tied to ESPN and seeing more ads. Toyota Trucks is the sponsor.

"If you're a sports fan, after you've found out everything that's happening around the big event the next thing you want to do is talk about it," Mr. Papanek explained. "Avatars are a good way to distinguish our site from others."

Visitors to the chat section of ESPN's Sports Nation create the animated characters by choosing eye and hair color, clothing and accessories. They record a message in their own voice via a toll-free phone number or a microphone hooked to their computer. Then, when someone clicks on their avatar, it blurts their rant.

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