Forget the chirping of the birds and the buzzing of the bees. The only sounds of spring we like to hear are the dulcet tones of balls hitting bats, the leathery slapping of hands in gloves, and the spitting of tobacco on infield dirt. Major League Baseball spring training has arrived and, as teams report for training camps during the next week, our thoughts turn to a baseball video game landscape that is due for some serious changes over the next year or so.
After suffering a major blow due to EA's scooping up of the NFL-exclusive license, Take-Two fought back early this year, grabbing a semi-exclusive deal with Major League Baseball that left the company as the only remaining third-party publisher of MLB titles. Under the terms of the deal, first-party companies, such as Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, will not be excluded from publishing baseball titles of their own, which means that retail shelves will still be full of hardball titles in 2006.
Here, we take a look at this year's crop of upcoming baseball video games for a quick peek under the hood at which features we think are coolest, each game's biggest question mark, and our take on the future of all the franchises. So grab a pack of peanuts and a beverage and read on as we hit the base paths for a full rundown of this year's diamond titles.
Major League Baseball 2K5
Developer: 2K Sports
Cover Boy: Derek Jeter
The Rundown: Take-Two's MLB title will be the new flagship for third-party baseball titles beginning next year, as the company has secured exclusive third-party publishing rights for baseball games for the next seven years. Of course, this doesn't eliminate the competition altogether, as the first-party console manufacturers will all be releasing MLB titles of their own. This will also be the last year for 2K5's ESPN-style presentation now that EA has secured the ESPN license for its line of sports games.
Coolest Feature: A tie between the improved pitching meter and the on-command baserunning. On the mound, pitching accuracy is now tied to a strike-zone reticule that will judge your aim both horizontally and vertically. On-command baserunning allows you to play offense from the role of a base runner, leaving batting up to the CPU and allowing you to manually swipe an extra bag or two.
Franchise Outlook: We can't call the Take-Two/MLB deal a home run from a business standpoint, simply because it doesn't eradicate the competition in the same manner as EA's NFL-exclusive license. Still, by eliminating its strongest third-party competitor, the newly remonikered 2K Sports is in a position to bring more prominence to MLB 2K5, and any subsequent hardball titles, over the next few years. The company has claimed that it is looking to make its line of baseball titles a year-round affair. Whether this will mean more arcade baseball games or a line of hardcore PC management sims, or both, remains to be seen.
Check out our latest hands-on preview of Major League Baseball 2K5 here.
MVP Baseball 2005
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Sports
Cover Boy: Manny Ramirez
The Rundown: Call it EA Sports' last stand, in baseball at least. As the bidding war for pro sports licenses rages on, the two major players have chosen sides. EA won big in the football market and Take-Two's wheeling and dealing managed to take baseball away from no one but EA. Thus, for the series' legions of fans, this will be the last season for MVP Baseball, at least in its current form.
Coolest Feature: Remember your Little League days when you'd back off a pitch and your coach would yell "Good eye! Good eye!"? Spotting pitches has always been one of the most intricate "games within the game" found in baseball, and one of the most difficult things to model in baseball video games. MVP Baseball 2005's "Hitter's Eye" feature gives you a distinct advantage over the pitcher by upping your ability to spot pitches even before a toss has been released. By color coding the ball, eagle-eyed players will be able to quickly tell the difference between a breaking ball, off-speed pitch, or a heater, even before the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Even more compelling is the added import this feature puts on each pitcher's windup routine. Hurlers who hide their release effectively in real life will be just as effective in the game, adding yet another level of complexity.
Biggest Question Mark: Where does EA go next? Not only will EA have nominal competition on the GameCube this year, thanks to Nintendo's recently announced Pennant Chase Baseball, but also the fact remains that unless EA goes the college or fictional route, its baseball developing days are, at least temporarily, over.
Franchise Outlook: Considering there won't be an MVP Baseball 2006 (at least one with an MLB license), grim indeed.
Check out our latest hands-on preview of MVP Baseball 2005 here.
Developer: 989 Sports
Cover Boy: Vladimir Guerrero
The Rundown: 989 Sports' baseball series has been a dark horse contender for the past few years, yet it has consistently outshone the rest of the development team's sports lineup by a wide margin.
Biggest Question Mark: MLB 2006 will find plenty of competition on store shelves this year. As one of the two currently announced first-party baseball games, MLB 2006 needs to build upon the relative success of last year's game to gain some momentum for future releases in the series.
Franchise Outlook: Assuming it can build a stronger word of mouth, similar to the buzz last year's 989 MLB game generated, we feel pretty good about the MLB series. That the series will be making an appearance on Sony's hotly anticipated PSP certainly won't count against it. In fact, the handheld version of MLB--recently announced to have online capabilities out of the box--may be even more important to the future of 989 baseball (especially if the inaugural version is as feature-rich and well-executed as this latest generation of console baseball titles has been).
Check out our latest hands-on preview of MLB 2006 here.
Pennant Chase Baseball
Developer: Exile Interactive
Cover Boy: David Ortiz
The Rundown: Nintendo didn't wait long to take advantage of the first-party provision of Take-Two's baseball licensing deal, announcing in January the upcoming Pennant Chase Baseball, the cover athlete, and little else.
Biggest Question Mark: Since so little information has been released about PCB, the game itself is the biggest question mark. Pennant Chase Baseball is slated for an early April release and will be going up against its direct GameCube competitor, MVP Baseball 2005, which will benefit from a month head start as well as a mature development cycle. Because of this, PCB will need a strong debut to make its mark in a crowded baseball field.
Franchise Outlook: Assuming Take-Two doesn't storm the GameCube or next-gen Nintendo console market with its MLB 2K series, the future looks good for PCB. Though MVP Baseball 2005 will cause sales trouble in 2005, Nintendo should have the GC baseball market all to itself next year, meaning a solid debut is imperative. Of course, there is also the small matter of Mario Baseball, a game that was initially announced for release in Japan back in November. Will Nintendo be willing to put marketing muscle behind two baseball titles when only one features its signature line of mascots? We hope so. After all, if Nintendo's current and next-gen consoles are going to move beyond their reputation as a sports-simulation wasteland, Pennant Chase Baseball represents an ideal place to start.
Which of these games do you think has the best chance for championship gold? Which National League player deserved an MLB game cover appearance this year? Talk about everything MLB-related in our sports gaming forum!