The sports game ghetto
OMG, girls in trouble!

What it means to be "in the game"


In my previous post I lamented the lack of critical writing about sports games. While it's easy to find review-oriented coverage of sports games (ratings, evaluations of features, comparisons to previous editions, etc), genuine criticism of sports titles is hard to find. Perhaps these games don't lend themselves to such analysis, but I think they do. Here's my shot at proving it, focusing on the narrative role-playing dimension of MLB 09 The Show.

05/08/09 1:45 AM ET

CHICAGO -- With a 2-run lead in 9th inning, the Cubs thought they would avoid a three-game sweep against the Cardinals late Thursday night. Albert Pujols had other ideas. With two outs and two men on, Pujols strode to the plate to face rookie ace reliever Michael Abbott, recently called up from Iowa. In 6 previous appearances, Abbott had proven himself virtually unhittable, mowing down batters with a devastating slider and posting a league-leading 0.43 ERA.

Pujols was 0-4 when he assumed his trademark wide stance, elbows high, bat looming quietly above his head. Spoiling one good pitch after another, he worked the count full. Finally, on the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Abbott hung a slider and baseball's best player made him pay for it, blasting a shot high over the left-field wall onto Waveland Avenue. The stunned Cubs never recovered, and the Cardinals completed the sweep, 6-5.

Welcome to the majors, Mr. Abbott.

The most overlooked aspect of sports video games - and the single most compelling element of MLB 09's design - is their capacity for melding the virtual and real-world into an experience that resonates in both domains. The scene described above occured only hours after a similar real-world incident in which a late-inning home run by Ryan Braun lifted the Brewers over the same hapless Cubs, 3-2. Having watched that "real" game earlier in the same evening and having experienced that disappointment (yes, I'm a long-suffering Cubs there any other kind?), the Pujols moment took on added significance and drama. "I will not let this happen again," I swore to myself, and I chose to face Pujols with first base open.

If you're not a baseball fan, you may not appreciate the folly of this decision. I challenged the best hitter in baseball when I could have avoided that situation altogether. I should have intentionally walked Pujols and faced a much weaker hitter instead. Why didn't I? Because Ryan Braun clouded my judgment. Because I wanted to make things right. Because striking out virtual Albert Pujols in MLB 09 The Show would have helped remove the sting of losing to real Ryan Braun in the MLB. Because two worlds collided.

But it's more complicated than that. When Pujols came to the plate in the top of the 9th, the announcers warned me that he rarely goes hitless in a game. They said he was due. They told me he thrives in these pressure situations. As I stood there on the mound and watched him perform his pre-at-bat ritual, I had an uneasy feeling. I was eager to face him and nervous about his power to beat me, his sagacity as a hitter, and his capacity for heroics. I had worked hard to reach this point in the game, so much was at stake. This was a boss battle better than any I've faced in a long time.

I briefly considered walking Pujols, but when he assumed that signature crouch at the plate, something happened which sealed my fate: my controller began to vibrate like a heartbeat. Once again, the real and the virtual worlds converged as I realized I was nervous both inside and outside the game. At that moment I resolved that I would not be driven by fear. I would face Pujols, partly because of Braun earlier, but mostly because the exhilaration was simply too seductive to bypass. By the fifth pitch, the pauses between the hearbeats were gone, and my controller was rumbling in a steady continuous hum. No way was I going to walk away from that.

Yet another layer of complexity exists here, and it has to do with the pivotal "I". The pitcher facing Mr. Pujols is an avatar with my name on his back. The game's commentators and public address announcer say my name, and my avatar looks enough like me to give my wife the shivers. MLB 09's "Road to the Show" mode enabled me to create "Michael Abbott" and shepherd him through a minor-league career that eventually led to a call-up in the Bigs. RTTS functions as a surprisingly deep and sophisticated skill-based RPG, and by the time you've earned your way onto a major league team, your investment in that character is likely to be strong and rather personal. 

RTTS isn't perfect. It prioritizes your personal performance over the success of your team, and it fails to provide an adequate sense of actually playing games. Moving from one achievement challenge to the next can be fun, but it often doesn't feel like baseball. Nevertheless, if you want to create a player modeled after yourself (or Micky Mantle or your next-door neighbor), you can do so and track that player's career, season after season, all the way to retirement. Few games convey what it's like to deal with slowly diminishing skills. This game gives you a taste of it.

From where I sit, there's a story in all this. The convergence of two worlds - one real, one virtual - provokes a fairly sophisticated narrative role-playing experience unique to sports games. Other types of games like The Sims (which, unlike sports games, has received plenty of critical and scholarly attention) offer life-simulation gameplay that encourages role-playing and imaginative "what-if" scenarios, but their "game" elements function very differently.

MLB 09 (and FIFA 09 too) fuses deep on-field and off-field strategy, customizable role-playing, franchise-level simulation, on-field skill-based gameplay...all wrapped in a package that retains a lively and persistent responsiveness to its real-world counterpart. In my view, that's a pretty fancy trick with important implications about sports games and the players who play them.