Fifteen years ago Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Randy Johnson accidentally obliterated a dove with a fastball. According to a Deadspin commenter, given an approximate numbers of pitches thrown in Major League Baseball since 1988, the odds of such a thing happening are roughly 0.000135%. Point being, baseball is always unpredictable.
You cannot hit a bird in the new MLB: The Show, released in March, but that is likely the singular lacking detail. Note previous editions of The Show did have a bird diving through the outfield, although said fowl was not a target.
Sports video games are not built for happenstance. They’re rigorously controlled simulations of real world events. Early NBA 2K entries created invisible force fields around players—defenders moved like magnets connected to the ball handler. Madden cheats. There are faux open holes in offensive lines and lineman are barely part of the play. A quarterback zips a 60-yard bomb and the ball moves as if on a string.
Attempting to create a natural-feeling sports game, even with today’s accomplished video game physics, can mean disaster. Ask EA: Glitch compilations for their physics-based FIFA series are popular YouTube attractions. There are entire (vulgar) channels dedicated to the studio’s hilariously sketchy UFC games.
Baseball’s lucky. Much of the sport is a duel between two static players—a pitcher and batter. Not as much can go wrong. But the retro instruction, “Press X to swing,” has been replaced with location spotting, timing, and contact algorithms. These are changes that, if not quite drastic, have allowed for chaos.
Baseball’s chaos is beautiful. The Show captures the human nuance of the game—things go wrong, plays go bust, and it all feels legitimate.
DO THE BARTMAN
The Steve Bartman incident haunts the Chicago Cubs. In 2003, die-hard Cubs fan Bartman reached for a pop foul, robbing Cubs outfielder Moises Alou of an easy eighth inning out. Chicago then burned out, giving up eight runs in the inning and losing their chance at a World Series bid. MLB: The Show is full of Bartman incidents—actual Bartman incidents. Fans can snag a foul from in the field of play. Some of them even fall from the stands trying to catch a grounder near the lower deck.
Bats break and can hit players. Hard foul balls ricochet off home plate, catching the umpire in the face. Baseline coaches dodge line drives sent in their direction. Dugouts scatter when a shot nears the area. Routine plays are routinely fudged. Umpires stretch and shrink the strike zone at their leisure. Bare hand grabs are slickly made, and the ball legitimately lands in their grasp; no visual cheating.
The Show 16 introduces player composure and attitudes. Spoiled primadonnas play like fools if they fail to get their way between games. Matt Vasgesian leads a natural commentary booth where they make their own errors when calling plays.
Sony’s San Diego Studio has been working on The Show since 2006; they’ve spent years building up these details. Their organic approach to sports simulations is unparalleled, enough to oust their rival 2K Sports from the world baseball games entirely as of 2013. San Diego Studio’s baseball has matured into an unpredictable, dicey, and irregular sim. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be baseball. 2K couldn’t catch up, so they dropped out.
Dedication to reality must be boring after creating a decade of baseball. The Show 16 does bungle the veil of realism. Players gain nonsensical stat bonuses by wearing suits between games. A new species of optional gameplay modes turn The Show into a territory attack, as if baseball has become a form of the board game Risk.
Ignore that sometimes banal feature set. They’re meant to puff up pre-release marketing by trumpeting “new” features, and they hold limited value. The heart of The Show is what it can represent through its systems, those wild plays and frustrating errors. In the center is not only a simulated sport but simulated emotion: players visibly react to their mistakes, pitchers hang their heads after leaving a pitch high in the zone, infielders cringe and gesture with their hands when they miss an easy out. With confidence systems in play this year, those frustrations go beyond animated detail. Now, long term implications to each failed play are involved.
Video game baseball used to be served on cartridges that represented steroid-era ball—high run counts and frequently exploited homerun systems. Those great retro sims, such as early entries in EA’s Triple Play series on Sega Genesis, had cute moments. A fan may have caught a foul ball and batters had stances, but this happened because coding told it to. Foul balls to left would land precisely where the game needed it for that specific fan to reach out.
The Show has been freed from these constraints. Hits go anywhere. It’s dangerous and unpredictable and randomized. All fans are targets, just like the dove Randy Johnson blasted, and oddly, that’s as baseball should be.
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