Baseball Video Games: A Retrospective of Simulations

Let's take a look back at America's pastime on consoles, from RBI Baseball to MLB: The Show.

Every April when baseball season starts, I get a familiar itch to walk past my cobweb encased glove and my dusty Louisville Slugger, sit down, and play baseball video games.

As a PlayStation 3 owner, I had the privilege of spinning the 2013 iteration of MLB: The Show for more than 300 hours over the last year. Despite that commitment, MLB 13: The Show is not the perfect baseball sim, just as I’m sure that MLB 14: The Show won’t be. Could they be better? Absolutely, and I have a few ideas that I’ll get to that in the future but for a few moments, let’s look back at how far these games have come over the last three decades.

Released in 1988, R.B.I. Baseball deserves the honor of being called the first console sim thanks to its license with the MLBPA that allowed them to use real player names, but other games like Bases Loaded and Major League Baseball also had a hand in bringing about video game baseball’s first golden age. While the latter didn’t have real player names, it did have an MLB license, which meant that players could play as the Yankees or the Cardinals, with jersey numbers, positions, and skills matched up to let you know when you were playing as Willie McGee, even though Willie McGee wasn’t getting a cent. Poor Willie McGee.

The players in the Bases Loaded games weren’t modeled after real players, but the game (specifically Bases Loaded 2) was graphically ahead of the competition with a small selection of varied stances and a presentation that mimicked a real baseball broadcast with its centerfield view.

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Despite all of that and what I subjectively viewed as a fun deficit between R.B.I. Baseball and Bases Loaded, the former is probably the game that most think of when they think back to the baseball sims in the late 80s.

But it’s a game I didn’t play that may actually be the most advanced of its era — SMK’s Baseball Stars. Way back in 1989, featuring customizable teams, rosters, and save features, SMK’s it apparently recognized the burning desire of baseball fans to control everything on an off the field .

In hindsight, it’s amazing that any of these games really stood out. Between 1988 and 1991, Baseball Stars, R.B.I. Baseball, Bases Loaded, Major League Baseball, Tecmo Baseball, Bo Jackson Baseball, and Roger Clemens MVP Baseball were all available on NES, cannibalizing the marketplace. Over the next 15 years, this would be a continuing problem and one that likely stymied innovation as developers were spread too thin across a myriad of titles.

While the late 80s blitz gives me a sense of the retro tingles, the early 90s feels like a hangover as developers transitioned to the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo with unimpressive results. I honestly have no fond memories of any of the games from this era, many of which eschewed innovation while trading on celebrity endorsements. Does anyone warmly recall Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball and Nolan Ryan’s Baseball? Even Bases Loaded got in on the action, pasting Ryne Sandberg’s face onto their box.

The best of the Genesis/SNES era were Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball and Ken Griffey Jr’s Winning Run for the SNES; games that featured a ton of real stadiums in the game. Sadly, both games lacked an MLBPA license (in case you’re wondering, Willie McGee’s name in Griffey was M. Webb) and the graphics were terrible when compared to Sega’s World Series Baseball.

As the SNES and Genesis faded away in the late 90s, Acclaim’s All-Star Baseball sim and Winning Run’s descendants, Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. and Ken Griffey Jr’s Slugfest, emerged as winners for the Nintendo 64 thanks to their smooth 3D player models. While still archaic when weighed against the current standard, these were far less blocky and awkward than the ones used in Sony’s early MLB titles, VR Baseball, Sega Saturn’s World Series Baseball (which did have great gameplay), and the early Triple Play games.

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In hindsight, the turn of the millennium really does feel like an evolutionary midpoint for baseball sims. Graphically, developers were still limited by the technology of the time, but detailed stadiums were commonplace and the presentation of these games looked more and more realistic with pre-at-bat animations.

By 2005, franchise modes with controllable minor league teams had become commonplace and the industry would spend the next decade tweaking and building on what had been done as the field shrunk down to only two games thanks to one company.

In the mid-2000s, Electronic Arts was making one of the best-selling baseball sims with the MVP series, the successor to the Triple Play franchise. EA aimed to make the best baseball game on the market with MVP through innovation, and it changed the nature of baseball sims. Besides offering tremendous gameplay and graphics on the PS2 and Xbox, the game also gave fans the ability to manage a team’s finances over decades, their minor leaguers, play as baseball legends (a common feature in baseball games by that time), and edit stadiums.

For all the quality and attention to detail that it possessed within, the MVP series is the forefather of modern console baseball simming, but with the stroke of a pen, it was snuffed out in 2005 by Take Two Interactive’s exclusive deal with Major League Baseball and the player’s association. The deal, which came on the heels of EA’s own exclusive deal with the NFL that nullified Take Two’s NFL2K series, put a stop to all third-party competition in the console baseball video game market, leaving only the MLB2K series and whatever games console makers chose to develop in-house.

Following this development, EA decided against churning out a baseball title sans player and team names, opting to instead continue the MVP name with two well-received but under-sold NCAA baseball games (without real players names). Meanwhile, Sony’s MLB franchise turned into The Show, a game that would build on and eventually surpass MVP.

As an Xbox 360 owner in the late aughts, I chose to stick with my PS2 and The Show, but by 2009, I had switched to MLB2K and I was not impressed. I played through several installments, and while the games provided an adequate experience in terms of control, the gameplay was inconsistent, and the title failed to show much advancement from year-to-year. In 2011, I traded in my Xbox 360 and got a PS3 specifically to get The Show, and I haven’t looked back.

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I’m also not surprised that the MLB2K franchise (and it’s exclusive licensing agreement, which expired in 2012) is no longer, succumbing to poor sales and the perception that it had become little more than a roster update; a charge that has plagued the Madden series during its reign of exclusivity.

With MLB2K buried and only the seemingly unambitious R.B.I. Baseball reboot — with its 16-player deep rosters, absent franchise mode, near lack of player model variation, and the hope that baseball sim fans have longed for a game with minimal choices — as an alternative, we are now unquestionably in the era of MLB: The Show. But while that’s thrilling to those who have watched The Show blossom over the years, it’s also horrifying as someone who has been dedicated to console baseball sims for decades because, as we saw in the late 80s and during the late 90s and early aughts, competition breeds innovation.

I hate to keep picking on the Madden franchise, but when EA saw someone start to move in on their territory, they put a stop to it and then turned around and gave us a decade’s worth of games that have only inched forward every year. Why? Because you can afford to be risk averse when your competition is absent.

This is the first year MLB: The Show will lack any competition, and while its polish, “immersive” franchise mode, online gaming options, advanced in-game and off-season AI, sheer prettiness, and fantastic gameplay are a boon to video game baseball fans, they can surely do better. The question is, are the people at SCEA dedicated to that pursuit now that the roadway is clear, or should we expect them to talk a good game while putting fans in a situation where they are forced to endure Madden-like complacency until someone steps up to challenge them?

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