Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: MVP Baseball and Revisionist History

For most of video game history, any ol’ company could make a baseball game. (The same was true for most sports, but we’ll concentrate on America’s pastime here.) At first, these games rarely attempted to use real players or even real teams, except for those cases in which one player lent his face to said game.

(This is where I would link to the (in)famous Sammy Sosa High Heat baseball ad, but the video has been removed from the interwebs. Killjoys.)

This was perfectly acceptable by the standards of the day. Technology did not yet allow video games to remotely resemble The Real Thing, so it was okay to play as teams like the Los Angeles Swervers and the Chicago Bear-Children. Verisimilitude was not even a desired trait in sports video games–NBA Jam was a smash hit in the early 90s, but it’s llikely the young’uns of today would not accept a hoops game where basketballs burst into flames.

Then, two things happened: Graphics improved, and the post-strike collective bargaining agreement allowed for all teams and players to share in formerly nebulous revenue streams like video games. In football, the Madden franchise emerged, set the standard for realism in sports games, and raised it with each subsequent edition. Baseball tried to follow suit, but by the late 90s/early 00s, when there were a plethora of baseball games for every platform, of varying degrees of quality.

mvp05.gifEventually, one titan emerged: EA Sports’ MVP Baseball series. I own several incarnations of this game, and remember thoroughly enjoying the realistic gameplay and graphics, and all the extras. The 2005 edition allowed you to accumulate MVP “points”, which you could cash in to “buy” retro uniforms, old ballparks, and legendary players. I used to love playing games at the Polo Grounds or Forbes Field, which were either shown in sepiatone or at dusk, because I’m a dork like that.

It had a fun Owner’s Mode, which allowed you to create your own stadium and even control the minutiae of a franchise like setting concession prices and scheduling promotion dates. It was also one of the first (if not the first) game to allow you to not only call up players from the minors (many of whom were real prospects), but actually play games for your minor league franchise.

Unfortunately, the 2005 edition was the last one EA Sports produced. Beginning in 2006, MLB awarded the exclusive cross-platform rights to 2K Sports. The hardware companies themselves (Sony, Nintendo, etc.) could make their own games for their own systems, but only 2K could make a game for all consoles. It was neither the first nor last time MLB made a dumb, shortsighted decision.

So while every other sport gets an annual game from EA, the top sports game producer by far, baseball gets a rarely-well-received treatment from 2K. Scour gaming sites, and reviews are rarely more enthusiastic than “it’s decent”. By all accounts, last year’s edition was full of problems.

I say “by all accounts” because I haven’t played too many of these games. I have a Playstation, and they produced a pretty good alternative of their own, MLB:The Show. I bought these for a couple of years until the rigors of fatherhood left a lot less time to waste in getting good at video games (because the modern video game involves an enormous time investment to attain competence).

The Show was pretty good, and the newer versions for Playstation 3 border on amazing. The 2009 edition allowed you record your own cheers and taunts and customize them on a player-by-player basis, an option that has a world of mean-spirited possibilities. But I always felt like baseball games hadn’t advanced beyond the last installment of MVP. I was not alone in this opinion, if interweb grumbling is any indication (for instance, see the shout out MVP receives in this sneak peek of the impending release of MLB 2K10 at IGN).

So this past weekend, I blew the dust off my copy of MVP Baseball 2005 and gave it a spin. I expected to be blown away, or at least get the same twinge of nostalgia I receive when I play old Nintendo games. Sadly, I was disappointed on both fronts.

It turns out, video games had progressed in the 5 years since (weird, I know). Load screen times that were once acceptable seemed painfully drawn out to me. The game had only about 9 songs on it, only a few of which were any good, and repeated themselves with annoying frequency. Once upon a time, a game with 9 real songs would have been mind blowing, but the rules have changed.

“Annoying frequency” could also describe the broadcast announcements, voiced by Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow. They call games for the San Francisco Giants, and not every well. But even a great broadcast team would be affected by the limited number of announcements they could actually make in this game. Again, the mere fact that such announcements were sort-of customized for game situation was once a wonder. No longer.

I also found the gameplay a bit clunky, particularly throwing and fielding. Catching a routine fly ball in the outfield was far too risky. The batting and pitching interactions were decent, but that was about as much as I could say about it.

I looked forward to enjoying the retro uniforms and stadiums, but since I had deleted my profile from on overloaded memory card a long time ago, I couldn’t access any of them. And the thought of putting in all the time to acquire them, just so I could play the Nationals in powder-blue Expos uniforms, was too frightening to contemplate.

Granted, I think what most people really lamented (at least initially) was that EA Sports was no longer allowed to make a baseball game. Obviously, if they’d been allowed to do so, they would have progressed just as the other video game firms did. But over time, I think the wish for EA Sports to reenter the field devolved into a fetishization for the last game they did make.

Ironically, it is this relatively new desire for a REAL sports video game that dates MVP 2005 so much. That was as real as it got back then, but now it’s aged in dog years. If the game was more fantastical or wacky (a la the aforementioned NBA Jam), it would probably have aged better. But it didn’t.

The moral of this story? Sometimes, the passing of time, and less than ideal modern conditions, can lead you to romanticize the past. But chances are, either things are not as good as you remember, or the present isn’t as hideous as you think, either.