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TechnoBaseball: A Brief History of Baseball Video Games

TechnoBuffalo celebrates MLB opening day with a series of articles on where geeks meet jocks: TechnoBaseball!

Baseball gaming has long been a national pastime independent of our national pastime. Youths in the 1950’s playing “baseball cards” gave way to the Strat-O-Matic baseball board game in the 60’s. With the arcade craze sweeping the nation in the 1970’s it was only a matter of time before the strategic part of the baseball took a backseat to the twitch-action provided by video games, replacing stat cards and dice rolls with joysticks and buttons. What started with handheld sports games from toy titans Coleco and Mattel evolved into home console versions so realistic and lifelike that adults over the age of 50 have a hard time discerning a title like MLB: The Show from an actual game broadcast.

To celebrate Opening Day we take a look at some of the monoliths of baseball gaming – titles that were so advanced and revolutionary that neither the passage of time nor the evolution of technology can diminish the impact they’ve had on the baseball gaming landscape. Please note that this is not a “Best of” list. After all, who can argue definitively that OOTP and its robust text-based simulation is better than High Heat with its meticulous representation of the pitcher-batter duel?  Perhaps a more skilled auteur than I would be able to deftly navigate the choppy waters of “PC vs. console”, “sim vs. arcade”, and “text vs. action,” but I’ll leave that to the message boards.

Much like debating the value of baseball players from different eras, comparing baseball games from just five years ago to today’s games can be an exercise in futility thanks to advancements in technology and just the natural evolution of the genre. Baseball games today are built off the blood and sweat of their forefathers, offering unique, innovative features and mechanics refined from earlier franchises to near perfection.

We’re taking a look at some of the games that forever changed the landscape and, frankly, blew my mind. This is a roster of “five-tool” game-changers that evoke fond memories for any hardcore baseball gaming fan. Here are my True Troubadours of Swing, the Super Sultans of Swat:

Game: Earl Weaver Baseball

Platform: Amiga

Developer: Electronic Arts

Year: 1987

Earl Weaver was a hard-boiled, tobacco-chewing son-of-a-gun who led the Baltimore Orioles to a World Series victory, four AL pennants and a boatload of AL East crowns. Arguably, his biggest contribution to the sport may be his eponymous baseball game from a little upstart software company named Electronic Arts.

Released on one of the greatest gaming computers of all time (the Amiga from Commodore) EWB offered unparalleled depth and flexibility, even by today’s standards. From full season play to batter splits, authentic stadiums to digitized play-by-play speech, EWB had it all. The title’s best feature may have been the input from Weaver himself. Never before had an AI manager handled on-field scenarios so adeptly. Virtual Earl was a master at managing the bullpen, putting together lineups based on matchups, calling the hit-and-run, visiting the mound, and all sorts of things you would expect of an opposing manager in the real-world bigs.

EWB also gave players the option to step up to the plate themselves via an arcade mode, or to settle in as armchair managers guiding their teams to victory from the bench. The success of EWB also helped a tiny mom-and-pop software company build a brand so powerful that competitors would tremble and fold in its mere presence. Earl Weaver was truly ahead of its time and a complete baseball experience that was unsurpassed until the arrival of…

Game: High Heat Baseball

Platform: PC

Publisher: 3DO

Year: 1999

Baseball detractors will always point to the lack of action as the main reason why baseball sucks; it could appear this way to the uninitiated who think the action starts when the ball is hit. Die-hard baseball fans can tell you the real action is the chess match between the batter and the pitcher – a mano y mano duel in which the tension builds with each pitch. This is the very essence of baseball and , until 1999, had never been properly represented in a baseball video game. That changed when 3DO and Team .366 brought High Heat to the PC.

HH delivered all the stats, managerial functions and authenticity of the Earl Weaver series but its pitcher-batter interface took baseball gaming to new heights. AI pitchers would work the zone like Greg Maddux, adeptly changing speeds and locations while mixing up pitching patterns. To ensure the greats were great and the scrubs were well, scrubby, HH relied on loads of behind-the-scenes number crunching. In other words, seasoned High Heat players didn’t expect to challenge Ted Williams’.406 single-season batting mark with Steve Balboni. This led to plenty of variability and gave the gameplay a dynamic that had not been seen prior.  Working the count and waiting for your pitch, two fundamentals of the sport, were finally a viable strategy in a baseball game. And for the first time in baseball gaming history you could draw walks on a realistic basis!

The 1999 version lacked some of the licenses expected from a top-tier product but that was rectified in the 2000 version, which saw the series make the leap from cult hit to full-on obsession amongst sports gamers. It also introduced a staple that can be found in almost all sports games today – the tune file (better known today as “sliders”).

It doesn’t get much better than this for baseball gamers. There are still fan sites dedicated to modding the game, updating rosters and keeping the game alive in general. High Heat will always be seen as the gold standard of baseball gaming by many enthusiasts and is a true giant of the genre.

Game: Hardball!

Platform: C64

Publisher: Accolade

Year: 1987

This is a baseball game so famous and revered that it made a cameo appearance in The Princess Bride. A game that made the distinction between “Fastball” and “Fastball!” part of baseball vernacular in the 80’s. And with all due respect to “Tecmo Bo Jackson”, a game that made Tommy Euler one of the greatest digitized athletes in all of sports gaming.

Accolade’s Hardball! series was always a bit shallow as compared to the baseball games of its day, let alone against contemporary standards. There was no MLB license, no real-life players, no season mode, no stat tracking and the gameplay itself was pretty straightforward and bare bones. The physics were laughable at times (it took 30 seconds for a throw from right field to reach third base!) and the AI was brain dead, but that’s not what the series was all about.

What Hardball! did bring to the table was eye candy, and plenty of it. Most notable was the broadcast camera, a standard in baseball games today but practically unheard of in 1987. Hardball! captured the aesthetics of the pitcher-batter duel better than any game of its day. Pitchers sported arsenals that would have made Felix Hernandez jealous, from the legendary “Fastball!” to the unhittable “Screwball.”

On the surface Hardball! seems out of place in the esteemed company of this list of baseball’s digitized history. Maybe the passage of time has clouded my memory of this title’s import on the baseball gaming landscape. But baseball gamers will undoubtedly smile at the memory of Tommy Euler throwing a no-hitter and blasting three home runs in the same game against your best friend. That’ll teach him to hog all the Fun Dip.

Game: MVP Baseball

Platform: PS2; Xbox; PC

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Year: 2003

EA’s Triple Play series got off to a rocking start on the PlayStation, providing high-octane, action-packed baseball gaming to an audience that was just discovering Sony’s omnipotent entry into the console wars. Triple Play offered up plenty of homers and eye candy but by the time the PS2 and Xbox arrived, the gaming audience had matured. No longer confined to pimply teenagers in dank basements, growing legions of sophisticated gamers were expecting more and more for their buck.

Triple Play was just a facsimile of the sport and by the early 21st century, gamers were voting NO on facsimiles with their wallets. The series was an ugly stain on EA Sports’ portfolio and one that needed to be rectified, and quick.

In 2003 EA Sports decided to shelve the Triple Play brand and MVP Baseball was born. Learning from their past failures, EA crammed MVP Baseball chock full of innovations galore. Offset batting cameras simulated the lefty vs. lefty (or righty vs. righty) matchup. Throwing meters and super-responsive fielding controls made gamers feel like virtual Ozzie Smiths. And perhaps the greatest innovation from MVP would be the pitching meter.

We take it for granted in today’s baseball games,but prior to MVP pitching was just something to do until you got up to bat again. Pitching usually went like this: picking pitch type, pick location, press button, hope and pray … rinse and repeat. Borrowing the meter concept often seen in golf games, MVP turned pitching into a true gameplay feature. For the first time the execution of a pitch was placed in the user’s hands. It’s like Bradley Cooper in “Limitless” where he takes the pill that unlocks the full potential of the human brain. Thanks, EA for unlocking the full potential of pitching in a baseball game.

Game: MLB: The Show

Platform: PS3

Publisher: SCEA

Year: 2006

As groundbreaking as Earl Weaver Baseball, as robust as High Heat, as pretty as Hardball!, and as interactive as MVP, Sony’s MLB: The Show series benefits from advancements made by all of the titles above. The Show seems like an easy pick – it’s the newest series on the most advanced home console around. But dismissing MLB: The Show as merely “new car smell” would be a disservice. This is a serious homage to America’s pastime that is as exhaustively authentic to its muse as any sports game that’s come before it. MLB boasts what is arguably the most realistic on-the-field gameplay of any sports game ever played on any console. With tons of stats, scouting reports, hot/cold zones, and a plethora of game modes to choose from, MLB: The Show is a baseball fan’s dream.

Graphically, The Show is a marvel. The latest iteration features full day/night cycles, dynamic weather, working scoreboards and Jumbotrons – you name it, it’s there. Player detail is no less impressive with incredible facial modeling and the best animation yet in a baseball game. You’ll see signature batting stances and swings for almost all the players in the sport and some of the best looking baseball stadiums ever to grace your HDTV.

Where The Show leaves other games in the dust is in the presentation. Borrowing heavily from 2K’s work on their NFL and NBA series, The Show features an enormous library of cutscenes, stat overlays and other staples of real-life, and broadcast, baseball games. Foul a ball down the line and watch the woman reach over the railing and land on the field of play. Watch fans get bored and volley a beach ball around the bleachers to pass the time. Hell, players will even shoot snot rockets in between pitches. The level of detail here is staggering, and it creates a level of immersion that very few sports games of any genre can match.

New for 2011 are analog controls that have been part of the genre for some time in titles such as MLB 2K and EA’s NCAA Baseball series. The Show 11 introduces series fans to this control scheme in a delicate and graceful way, eschewing some of the thumb gymnastics demanded by 2K’s offering.

If you’re not a franchise mode kinda guy The Show offers a manage-only option. For those of you who like to get your hands dirty, the Road to the Show mode is an entire game unto itself. Here you’ll play the role of a minor leaguer working your way up from AA to the big show. Performing well in practice and games will allow you to accrue experience points to allocate on a variety of skills. After a full 15 year career and thousands of games you may be lucky enough to win a couple of World Series rings, some MVPs, break a few records and maybe … just maybe .,..  make the Hall of Fame.

If you’re a baseball fan with a PS3 look no further for your baseball fix.

Play ball!


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