“The Show” was a game series before some current baseball stars could walk, premiering in 1997 as “MLB 98,” yet more people bought the game last year than ever before. With baseball viewership on TV down and attendance at stadiums generally flat, that doesn’t seem to make sense. And, in a world where a two-minute video can seem unbearably lengthy, the game can be way too long — speeding through, some games go 35 minutes, but I just played one that went 90 minutes.
Yet I keep returning. I’ve spent 27 hours with the game so far. Why?
Many gamers are early adopters of technology, conspicuous consumers who show off their gaming achievements on social media the way rich people did with luxurious things when sociologist Thorsten Veblen wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class” over 100 years ago. Though free time is more precious than ever, gamers still relish their sports offerings. They post GIFs of big plays and favorite athletes. They stream the game live on the PlayStation Network and YouTube in a combination of pride and digital validation. That’s why “MLB The Show” continues to sell.
Still, it can require the most time commitment of any game on the market, over 200 hours. If you choose not to let the console simulate, you can play a lengthy season of 162 games and then proceed to the playoffs and World Series. It seems as if, in Road to the Show, the game’s most fascinating portion, you can play almost infinitely. You create a player, often in your image, and start out with Double A baseball in a small town.
That feels authentic. In my case, as a whippersnapper pitcher with the Hartford Yard Goats, each three-pitch strikeout gave me 21 points to make my character stronger. Since I typed it on the back of my jersey when creating my player, the announcers spoke my name aloud as I stood on the pitcher’s mound. They spewed my name as if it were strange and alien, and I wasn’t sure if that was a computer glitch or some kind of disdain for rookies. Nonetheless, there was an estimable thrill to it.
Online, the experience is generally smooth. I felt palpable nervousness against a real person, sometimes pitching balls far outside of the strike zone. But you can’t play against friends or use the varied rosters the community’s posted for download, some with legendary players, without having a PlayStation Plus account. That costs $50 yearly.
Sadly, the many gaming options are presented in a way that’s jumbled and unclear. Where do you go as a first timer? To practice? To Double A ball? To the full major league schedule? To the World Series? To a complex strategy mode called Conquest? The idea must be to leave the choice up to the player. I’d posit that if you go into the strategy mode without practicing in Road to the Show, you’d be confused. These are the times when an older gamer yearns for the long-extinct instruction booklet and the younger gamer might want to turn to YouTubers like the profanity-laced Goldglove for help.
While there are many small improvements from graphics to crowd reactions, the new feature the publisher has touted with gusto is ShowTime. It’s a version of Bullet Time, a slow-motion effect seen in “The Wild Bunch” film and the “Max Payne” game. In baseball, ShowTime lets you slow down a ball in the field so you can make a grand play. As a pitching tool during a full count situation, I have used it to baffle superstars by pinpointing a place in the corner of an onscreen strike zone grid. Is Bullet Time a marketing gimmick? Absolutely. But very often, the feeling is so satisfying it makes me momentarily feel like a swaggering veteran.
Despite these moments of awe, there are issues facing the series now and in the future. It’s a shame that “The Show” is no longer playable on Sony’s handheld Vita machine, a device that is too neglected by game makers. Worse, the announcers are banal in the old school Curt Gowdy sense and use banter that’s stodgy and repetitive. (This happens year after year and no one sees fit to change it.) They need to search no further than an enthusiastic stadium announcer in the Home Run Derby minigame. He’s peppier. You can almost see him leap to his feet when a homer’s hit nearly 500 feet. He’s the person “The Show” should use to report on every pitch and hit.
There’s little attempt at narrative in the perfect place for it, Road to the Show. Sure, the Spike Lee story in NBA 2K16 wasn’t flawless. But at the very least it was an adventurous attempt to shake things up with drama and generally tight dialog. Here, you rely on those nabob announcers to put your career in a nutshell during brief pre-game blatherings.
Once you deduce how to use the multifarious forms of interactivity, The Show is wonderfully calming when the rhythm of pitching becomes zen-like. As the controller beats like a frantic heart when the bases are loaded, the physiological feeling of vibration sends you inside yourself. But the experience as a whole isn’t completely fulfilling. The immediate challenge that remains is something as old as the hills — tiresome storytellers (the announcers). In an era during which we feel we don’t have the time to sit still on the couch for even an hour, listening to them pontificate is a royal pain.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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