MLB The Show’s development team talked about bringing Negro Leagues history into the Sony-published video game for years. Ramone Russell, product development communications and brand strategist for Sony Interactive Entertainment, said he’s been mulling the concept for more than a decade.
A little less than two years ago, they got the green light.
“Once we did,” Russell said, “things became immensely harder, because we realized all of the hurdles that we needed to jump over.”
Given the reception for the mode, which launched alongside MLB The Show 23 late last month, the team better start working on a follow-up. The in-game challenges have earned rave reviews, convinced gamers to buy the entire title, and shown that the way forward for sports video games may require a look back into the past.
Back in 2021, developers quickly connected with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to learn more about the players who marked the sport’s golden age from the 1920s until the 1950s while staffers chased down likeness rights for greats such as Satchel Paige. “Licensing was a nightmare,” Russell said.
Others focused on reconstructing historical stadiums from the scant photographs available. Jerseys provided a similar challenge. Even figuring out what color some teams wore could be hard to track down.
“Everything was difficult,” Russell said. “Every night after the project got greenlit was a stressful night.”
Not until January did the pieces come together for the mini-games to be fully testable. The mode walks through the legends of a half-dozen Negro League stars, using archival footage, narration from NLBM president Bob Kendrick and—of course—gameplay. It’s that last element, the ability to step into Buck O’Neil’s or Hank Thompson’s shoes, and then step onto the diamond, that elevates the offering to a plane only video games can reach.
Games are having a moment. Mario is dominating the box office. HBO’s The Last of Us took over TV. But before viewers were introduced to the Boston QZ, The Last of Us proved to the games industry that complex topics and dramatic heft could be built into AAA games.
“The Last of Us and God of War in 2018 are definitely the two games that gave us the confidence that we could tell impactful, emotionally resonant stories,” Russell said.
Sports games have the extra challenge of doing that without losing their E-for-everyone rating—and while putting out titles every year (The Last of Us Part II, on the other hand, dropped seven years after the series’ debut). But MLB The Show’s Storylines mode proves it’s possible.
Visual Concepts Entertainment has also leaned into the past with its NBA 2K franchise. For 2K23, the team rolled out a Jordan Challenge mode that transported players throughout MJ’s career. 2K filtered the presentation to look like an old-school broadcast, and even brought in NBC’s Mike Fratello. Interviews with teammates and opponents punctuate the Jordan games.
“I didn’t want to compromise on anything,” Visual Concepts VP of NBA development Erick Boenisch said. “It’s kind of like a magic act. If any part of it is not believable, then the whole act is deemed unbelievable.”
The work that went into that game mode, including updating various sponsor logos to be era-appropriate, also contributed to a new historical offering that let fans rewrite history (including preventing franchise relocations). Polygon called the title, “the most inspired sports game in years.” In both the baseball and basketball games, the resulting product is something like an experiential museum exhibit, if not a whole time machine.
“There’s so much growth potential,” Boenisch said. “There’s so many different stories and narratives that can be told.”
Soon, the MLB The Show team will begin its next nine-month sprint. It has a five-year deal with the NLBM and already many more ideas for additional Negro Leagues stars to highlight. But its rookie campaign has already made an impact.
At the Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City, Kendrick is seeing the results in terms of new visitors and emotional emails sent to him.
“For the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, this is all about creating relevancy,” Kendrick said in March. “How do I establish a relevant connection with an ever-changing generation of young people? I can’t sit back and wait for them to come to me at the doors of the museum. I have to go to them in the mode of which they are getting information. If it’s a video game, then so be it.”
WHAT ELSE I’M WATCHING
Netflix’s continued evolution into live streaming—a prerequisite if it ever intends to air sporting events—stumbled Sunday, as the service failed to deliver a Love is Blind reunion.
Meanwhile, Apple TV has continued its development of sports streaming-related features, most recently publicly testing a new multiview option for its MLS and MLB games. Yet that service also faced technical difficulties over the weekend, with users reporting an inability to watch certain matches on Apple devices.
These hiccups will work themselves out over time, but the era of universally smooth streaming experiences clearly remains a ways off.