Whew. I’ve done it.
I’ve finally pulled myself out of the pit of despair that was the end of the Indians season. Most of the time I have a few weeks (or a few months) to prepare myself for the vapid, empty wasteland that is the baseball offseason, but this season didn’t let me down so easily. So, while I’ve been selectively ignoring the real MLB Playoffs (not that I don’t have a few comments on them… skip down a couple paragraphs), I’ve also been attempting to finish a real, honest-to-god 162-game season in a baseball video game. I’ve tried this feat at least a few dozen times over the past decade, but I’ve never made it past August. I’m almost to June, but I doubt I’ll make it this time, either.
In any case, my time-wasting adventure with the MLB 2k series over the past couple weeks has gotten me thinking about how to build a better baseball video game. I realize that video games aren’t really in the purview of this blog, but it’s the offseason, so I figured I’d give this column a go. If you’re a person who doesn’t play video games or doesn’t play baseball video games, I will do my best to make this interesting for you. I promise, at the very least, that I have some really crazy ideas that could be fun to think about, even if you’ll never actually pick up a controller yourself.
But first, let’s have some actual thoughts on actual baseball that’s actually going on:
-From my perspective, the remaining four teams are basically a worst-case scenario. I don’t know why, but I have an irrational distaste of the St. Louis Cardinals… it probably has something to do with Carlos Beltran scorning Cleveland a year ago and the fact that I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how that team continues to win year in and year out. I really hope one of these years they have the type of season the Giants had in 2013 that makes everyone stop and go ‘Oh, I guess… uh… that team wasn’t that good, after all.” If they win another championship in St. Louis, I might start losing my hair.
-I don’t need to explain why I cannot root for Boston… but it’s not just the fact they have OBNOXIOUS fans, or an OBNOXIOUS superiority complex, or that the media has an OBNOXIOUS love affair with anything Boston-related, or that they OBNOXIOUSLY beat us in 2007… no, it’s a combination of all of the above. I root for them to bring back Bobby V every day.
-I don’t have the same sort of vitriolic hate for the Dodgers, but I can’t root for any team that could legitimately have a payroll over $200 million and barely care.
-So that leaves… the Tigers? As much as it pains me, I’m actually rooting for the Tigers by default. I guess I lost a lot of my hate for them because we both technically made the playoffs. I despise Jim Leyland, but I legitimately hope this Tigers team wins a World Series at some point. Please note that these feelings evaporate when pitchers and catchers report.
So… having said all of that, you can tell that I’m thrilled we’re basically headed for a Cardinals/Red Sox World Series. If only Jim Leyland knew how to manage, right? (Seriously, folks, they undershot their Pythagorean Expectation by SIX wins, most in the league. And why… why is Leyland batting Miggy 2nd? If there was a prototypical #2 hitter, Miguel Cabrera would be the polar opposite of that).
Anyway, as I was saying above, I’ve been playing a lot of MLB 2K12 recently (with 2013 custom rosters), and I started to really realize why baseball video games always run a distant fourth to Madden, NBA2K, and FIFA… MLB simulation is just not conducive to a fun experience for most sports video game fans. Speaking as someone who has logged countless hours in Madden and NBA2K over the years in addition to my baseball game-playing, here’s a list of the MOST FUN parts of a video game sports franchise:
1) Playing General Manager — swinging trades and building a roster to your individual vision
2) Developing Talent — Drafting a big, sexy rookie and making it your pet responsibility to make him the best player in the league
3) Playoffs — I don’t care how bored you get as you slog through another regular season, the game becomes fresh when the playoffs hit
4) Customization — Be it designing a scheme, or a stadium, or a custom team, or a create-a-player, being able to put your own stamp on a game is extremely fun
5) Difficulty — How quickly can I get to the point where I’m playing this game on the hardest difficulty setting?
Now, as we go through each of these points, we will see how badly baseball fails to translate to the video game audience:
1) Playing GM largely doesn’t matter and is mostly cosmetic. Free agents come about pretty rarely, and most teams in the league can’t afford to drop $30 million dollar contracts on the regular (hey! just like real life!). In-season trades mean very little, because very few players will have any drastic impact on how your team operates. Individual players just don’t have the same kind of WOW effect that they do in basketball or football. You can’t hand the ball to Bryce Harper the way you can hand it to Aaron Rodgers or LeBron James, so there’s very little incentive to go out and get a superstar player (because all it really does, at the end of the day, is make your job playing the game a little easier).
I have to say, this factor is the reason NBA2K might be the best sports game on the market right now (in my opinion): Scheme and personnel matters, even the low-ranked roster fillers matter. Put Kyrie Irving on a team of slow-footed non-shooters who don’t have the agility to run a pick and roll and you’re going to have a difficult time. Put him with some athletic bigs and some shooters… or, if you can afford it, someone who can run the offense alongside him? It makes a huge difference on the game that you play. I say without any shame that putting LeBron and Kyrie on the same team was the most fun I’ve ever had in a sports video game ever. Half the time I ran a pick and roll with James as the roll man, which resulted in an easy dunk or an easier kick out every time… or I let James work in isolation, where a kick to a slashing Kyrie was always a threat. I put up 125 points every night. You will never get this sort of dramatic experience in baseball simulation.
2) Drafting in baseball games is a joke. I’ve never actually done a draft in any baseball game because they are just players you throw in the minor leagues and hope to see in two or three seasons… and even then, you don’t know their names. It’s a huge fail on baseball games’ part. If you’ve ever played Madden or NBA2K, you know how fun the drafting process can be. Baseball is missing this entirely.
3) If you want to make the playoffs regularly, you need to play a good portion of your team’s games. In Madden, I could crank through a 16-game season in a couple days in my college days. In NBA2K, you can get by playing 20 or so games, but I’ve also actually managed to play all 81 games. You know why? You can shorten the games and it still feels right. Madden allows you to take the play clock out of the game (essentially) so 5 minute quarters feel right. NBA2K isn’t quite the same, but 5-7 minute quarters feel okay, and a full 48-minute game isn’t so onerous as to be out of the question. If you shorten a baseball game, though… you’re taking the soul out of the game. Why even have a bullpen? Why even have a bench? It’s just depressing.
So in baseball you can either simulate your whole season (or a large chunk of it) and hope to make the postseason… and have no connection to your team when you get there (because you haven’t played with them all season)… or you can try to play through a whole season. Ugh. It’s a bad choice either way. You could spend 200 hours playing a game and never get to the offseason (which should be fun in its own right).
4) Remember what I said about building a scheme that fits your players in NBA2K? The same thing applies to Madden; I could theoretically build a ferocious defense, get a stable of running backs and Tim Tebow with some cheap but blazing fast receivers, and boom, it’s a totally different game experience than playing with the 2013 Packers or Saints. It’s legitimately a different play style and everything. You just don’t get that with baseball (where every team is essentially trying to do the same things the same way).
But beyond team customization, everything feels so set in stone with baseball because it’s such a process to build a custom team. You can do it seamlessly in Madden (or at least you could back in the day — I’m a little behind on the franchise these days) by relocating your team. You can do it in NBA2K by just creating a new team and finding 12 guys to fill out your roster. Try doing that in MLB… 25 guys on your main roster plus 75 more for your minor leagues? UGH. I tried to do a fantasy draft a few weeks ago. I got to round 8 of 100 before I just got hopelessly bored with the idea.
5) Doing the same thing over and over again is not conducive to a good learning curve. I usually hit the highest difficulty in a baseball game by mid-season. I play Madden at All-Madden difficulty, but I can at least run fun styles that make the game more challenging (like the Tim Tebow offense)… and I’ve put 300 hours into NBA2K12 and I just recently moved up to All-Star difficulty, and I routinely get torched on defense.
So… how do we fix all these problems with baseball games?
I say we ditch the MLB-simulation and the MLB license. Stop trying to have 30 teams and 162-game seasons. Stop trying to reproduce every MLB ballpark in meticulous detail. Stop with the depth of minor league systems. I’m sure there is a market for all of that, but I think it’s time video game fans got something different.
What if there was a 12-team league with each team having a fully-automated minor league team for stashing deeper prospects and depth options? How about a 48-game season where the top four teams made the playoffs (a best of five and a best of seven playoff structure?) What if there was an option to install a create-a-team (a below average team where you get the option to name the entire roster and pick a team name/color scheme and replace one of the 12 teams with your custom team)? What if each draft was only two rounds, where all first-round talent could cut it on your team immediately as a rookie?
To clarify that last point a bit, your minor league team would be consistently restocked every year with randomly-generated replacement-level players, for if/when injuries happen. You could store draft picks there (especially second-rounders), but you would have to decide whether to keep them on the big league roster or cut them loose the next season. I refuse to believe that there’s not a way to do this in a way that isn’t needlessly time consuming and boring.
Think of the ways that this kind of an independent approach to baseball could be awesome. An inspired team of designers could go wild with stadium designs, from big impersonal stadiums to imposing cathedrals of baseball, to intimate small-market venues. In my vision, there would be 15 or more stadiums, with a handful being only used by custom teams and for online play. As a baseball fan, I’d love to play a game in a place that harkened back to League Park, then go on the road to a modern-day Yankee stadium clone, and then continue on to a park with a unique set up like the old Polo Grounds. The possibilities for customization are endless!
This is all just the simple musings of a baseball fan and a video game fanatic. I will continue to look for and play the next great baseball simulation, but I will always lament the fact that it could be so much better, with just a little bit of creativity and outside-the-box thinking.
Thanks for sticking with me for 2100+ words. And… uh… go Tigers?