MLB The Show 16 Review: The Ballad of Will Graham

Will Graham is the hottest prospect in all of baseball. The first round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays, the undersized shortstop has been batting over .500 for the AA Montgomery Biscuits, establishing himself as a reliable line drive hitter with a knack for getting on base in clutch situations. The scouts are confident that the 18-year-old has a promising MLB career ahead of him.

Or at least they would be, if Will Graham was a real person. In truth, Graham is not a baseball player, nor is he an enigmatic profiler of serial killers for the FBI. Graham is the character I created in the Road to the Show career mode in MLB The Show 16, the 2016 iteration of Sony’s big league baseball franchise. Given my general disinterest in baseball, my affection for Will is becoming inconvenient.

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Here’s the thing: it’s been years since I’ve spent any meaningful time with a sports video game, but I have never questioned the appeal of them. As a native son of Massachusetts, I grew up watching the Red Sox and the Patriots and I drained hundreds of game winning jump shots while shooting hoops in my parents’ driveway. Sports were a major aspect of my life when I was younger and I frequently fed that interest through Madden, FIFA, and other video games.

I stopped because I simply ran out of time. Gaming hours became scarcer as I got older, and it didn’t make sense to repeat the same four quarters (or nine innings) when I could use that time to advance the plot in Final Fantasy X or clear a new encounter in Uncharted. I wanted to play games that were in some way unique to the medium, and sports just didn’t fit within that schedule.

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The trend has only become more pronounced in recent years thanks to the prevalence of shorter narrative experiences. It’s no longer necessary to dedicate 60 hours to an RPG to reach the end of a complete story, to say nothing of a full 162 game season of Major League Baseball. Sports games are notorious time sinks, a fact that made me wary about diving into MLB The Show.

The problem – or perhaps the attraction – is that sports games secretly offer some of the best emergent storytelling in interactive entertainment. More than spectacle, sports are about drama, delivering unscripted tales of underdogs and legends that play out in real time to inspire and infuriate in equal measure. With sports video games, the season and the championship serve as brilliant framing devices. Each game is entirely unique, so it’s up to the player to mark the narrative as it evolves. That’s what makes sports video games so seductive. You get to simultaneously create and discover a wholly personal adventure that has all the trappings of a national event.

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All of which is to say that I enjoyed The Show far more than I expected. It’s a great sports game, as well as an exemplary vehicle for emergent narrative. In the days of Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey, Jr. for the N64, I used to daydream about the things Stuart Scott would say about my team on SportsCenter. The Show fills in most of those gaps with actual commentary, offering a level of analysis that feels much closer to an average viewing experience. The Show is authentic baseball, with phenomenal audio-visual presentation that makes you the center of attention and feels seamless even when you’re trying to skip ahead to the next at-bat.

The Road to the Show is particularly excellent. In Road to the Show, you create a player and then shepherd that player throughout his entire career, skipping from at-bat to at-bat with occasional interludes to defense to allow you to make a play in the field. It eliminates everything not directly related to your player, condensing a full baseball game into a span of ten minutes. It is without question the most exciting version of digital baseball I’ve ever played, a sublime game mode that quickly generates a career arc and allows you to become invested in the outcome of every trip to the plate.

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The rest of The Show is more of a slog, and if the game has a drawback, it’s the inevitable focus on baseball. Unfortunately, there’s really not much to be done about that. My critiques of baseball should in no way be misconstrued as critiques of The Show, which does the best it can to streamline the experience. Baseball just happens to be dull and backwards from a game design perspective, at least in the sense that it frequently incentivizes you to play worse. When you’re ahead, you just want the game to be over faster, which means that the later innings are usually a chore.

That point was driven home when I wandered over to the franchise mode for a few full-length games of baseball, which only reminded me why I drifted away from the sport in the first place. The Show has an astonishing degree of fidelity that I find tedious, and while I know that’s probably a selling point for fans, the stats sheets still look more like homework than entertainment.

The Show does have a mind-boggling array of features, tasking players to monitor everything from the batting order to franchise morale. Baseball is tailored for statistical analysis and large sample sizes, which means that much of the actual gameplay takes place off the field as you manage things behind the scenes. I don’t have the patience to pour over all of the information the game provides to make those decisions. If early baseball video games expected players to spend most of their time playing baseball, it’s telling that modern baseball video games make it easier to simulate the games themselves. It’s a much more efficient way to generate a spreadsheet.

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For me, that ultimately limits the long term appeal of The Show. I’m never going to delve into all of the features, nor do I have any plans to finish an entire season. I honestly have no idea how The Show measures up against other baseball video games and I can’t comment on the relative quality of the gameplay. I can tell you that I enjoyed it, and that the game is reasonably intuitive even if I did run into a fair number of smaller frustrations.

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At the same time, I’m as invested in the fate of Will Graham as I am in any other character I’ve created for a video game, making him a charming representative of the enduring appeal of sports and sports video games. MLB The Show 16 reminds me of the daydreamer I used to be when I was younger, and it’s strangely awe-inspiring to see how far sports games have come since my childhood. It captures the same innocence that I used to have before I became a jaded adult, removed from the cynicism of steroids and the realities of my own athletic limitations.

I have to respect that sense of purity. I would have loved MLB The Show as a kid hoping to be a professional athlete, and I only hope the next generation enjoys it as much as I would have after finishing my homework.

 

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