MLB: The Show Needs Change

Ways MLB: The Show can be innovative again.

The big test for The Show is just a couple weeks away when it makes it’s current-gen debut on May 6th, and developers have promised an uptick in visual realism. But while this will almost certainly be the most beautiful baseball sim of all time, aesthetics aren’t everything. Just like winning in these games, you need a balanced approach, not merely one trick.

This is the lesson that MLB: The Show’s only actual competition this year has learned the hard way. Returned — in name only as a download, not a disc — to the stage, the R.B.I. Baseball name can make some nostalgia drunk, but its simplified graphics and gameplay aren’t likely going to appeal to sim fans who relish the control and realism that the game seems to eschew. Especially since one of MLB: The Show’s biggest new features is their Quick Counts mode, which allows you to zip through a game in 30 minutes. While that may appeal to some fans, it almost feels as if the developers are apologizing for the immersive qualities of both this game and the so-called “source material.”

Baseball, and the very best baseball games, take time. I think I’ve embarrassingly let on that I’m okay with that, and I’m not alone. Every year, a large community of video game baseball super fans rise up to help smooth out some of the most glaring absences in the MLB: The Show series — the lack of full, accurate minor league rosters and players from baseball’s past, which these fans upload via downloadable rosters all through the season.

My great ache as a baseball fan and baseball sim addict for more than two and a half decades is that the players that I grew up watching — Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, Darryl Strawberry, Steve Sax, and Willie McGee will never appear in a game with pristine graphics that are the ultimate in realism. Some games, like All-Pro Football 2K8 played on this type of nostalgia (not just for the things we played, but for the chance to relive watching the heroes that we worshipped), but baseball has been remarkably left behind by modern games.

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Yes, there are text based sims like Baseball Mogul on the PC, but it’s just not the same, and while the community often goes above and beyond to create whole teams of players that look a lot like the players of old, they can’t go all the way. A game like MLB: The Show could mimick what the NBA 2K series has done, making nearly 20 full retro teams available for play.

While we’re talking about baseball history, how about more historical stadiums? This year, MLB: The Show includes the same 10 retro stadiums that it’s had in past years: The Metrodome, the old (but not the classic) Yankee Stadium, Shea, The Polo Grounds, Crosley Field and a handful of others. What about the old Tiger Stadium, What about Riverfront, Veterans, Municipal Stadium, The Astrodome, Tiger Stadium, the classic Yankee Stadium, and The Kingdome? Rendering accurate versions of these stadiums would be tremendous treats for baseball history buffs, like the heady collection of retro uniforms that are already available.

Even if these experiences are DLC, well… “they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. […] People will come… Ray.” Anyway, you get the picture.

I’m aware that licensing fees may be at the heart of why things like this can’t be widely implemented, but there has to be some kind of happy medium. Baseball is a game with a reverence for history. Fandom is passed on from generation to generation. My grandfather taught me how to be a baseball fan. When I was a kid, we would spend hours trying to run out of players to name — him drawing from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, while I named practically every player from the late 80s and early 90s. Video Games were not something he cared about, but for me, playing a virtual game in classic Yankee Stadium as Joe DiMaggio would feel like a connection to something he loved.

Video game baseball’s RPG elements are one of its most endearing traits, but sadly, some of the most intoxicating ones have been absent from these games for quite a while.

Where is the full franchise control like we saw in the MVP series? Maybe I want to control my revenue stream and negotiate a new cable TV contract (the honey pot in real life). Maybe I’m playing as the Oakland A’s and I want to move my team to Montreal or some other baseball-deprived city? Where are those options?

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Though I usually hang around franchise mode, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of the Road to the Show mode (which has reportedly been refined this year) that lets you step into the shoes of a prospect as he works his way to the majors, working through various training tasks to improve your attributes. This year, the MLB: The Show team has expanded that experience, allowing gamers to play as individual major leaguers as they work through a season for a unique experience. My RPG fix doesn’t come from that mode, so much as it comes from in-season and in-game maneuvers and strategy, though.

I’m a team builder.

I didn’t spend hundred’s of hours on MLB 13: The Show (I have a problem) trying to deposit sliders over the left field wall. A lot of that time was spent refining my rosters, looking to bring in prospects (which were properly named thanks to those downloadable community rosters) and sign key free agents.In the off-season, I did more of the same, enjoying the intricacies of the arbitration system while also bidding for a player’s services. Firing and hiring coaches and scouts. But while it’s nice to now be able to make those changes in mid-season, the list of available coaches and managers still tends to be primarily generic, not real coaches and future managers.

While the player transactions are a delight, the AI is still somewhat lacking, allowing hardcore baseball fans to scoff at some of the trades that the computer makes throughout a season. It’s also a bit ridiculous that player salaries are so far out of whack with reality and that players can never be coaxed out of retirement, or signed to a slightly below market extension in the years before they become a free agent.

As for on the field, it would be lovely if a game would recognize that bench clearing brawls, charging the mound, ejections, and arguing with the umpire can be a big part of the game. Yes, as we saw on the PS3 version of MLB 14: The Show, the animations from within the dugout and along the baselines are a bit more animated, but I plunked about 12 straight batters in an exhibition and while I had a handful of pitchers ejected, my manager stayed put and no player pushed past an intervening catcher. These dustups, while far from baseball’s finest face, can be unifying events in a real season, and if we’re trying to simulate that, it would be very cool to let gamers decide if it’s worth sending their manager out to kick dirt on an umpire and lose him for a game (or more) if it gives the team some momentum. I’d love a chance to make that decision in a game.

I’d also like to navigate through a rain enduced double header. In reality, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m technically playing through (or siming through) two games on one day, but it would be interesting to have to juggle a pitching staff to account for them and deal with an exasperated roster on the days that follow.

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If MLB: The Show aims to take advantage of this moment before other companies rush back in to fill the void left by the absence of Visual Concepts and their exclusive deal (though, there is no hard evidence that such a rush is on the immediate horizon, sorry MVP fans) they need to not rest on their laurels.

In a recent advertisement for the new game, designer and community manager Ramone Russell said that, “Moving onto the PlayStation 4 — it’s like handcuffs and restraints are coming off. All the things that we wanted to do on the PlayStation 3 we can now do on the PlayStation 4, and so much more.”

Let’s not just see what that freedom looks like, lets feel it, too. Let’s find out what “and more” means in the near future.

MLB 14: The Show is already set in stone. Some of the changes look interesting, and this game will likely be another positive entry, but video game baseball fans have been fed a diet of incremental and safe changes for a long time, and it would be nice to see a franchise aim higher.

Hopefully MLB: The Show will do that as they settle into the PS4 over these next few years, delivering unto fans the full potential that many have been dreaming about since they slid Bases Loaded or R.B.I. into their NES tray 25 years ago or played MVP Baseball 2005 on PS2. Change the game, don’t just make it a little bit better.

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