On an unseasonably warm mid-October night in Detroit, Tigers ace Justin Verlander took the mound at Comerica Park for Game 5 of the 2011 ALCS against the Texas Rangers. The previous night, Detroit had suffered a demoralizing loss when Texas’ bats put home four runs in the 11th inning to take a 3-1 lead in the series. And even for a city that had forged a tough-as-nails reputation out of a crippling economic collapse, the tinge of apprehension coursing through each of the 41,908 fans in attendance would have needed bolts to keep down.
Of course the Tigers would go on to lose the series in Game 6, but it was Verlander who got them there in the first place. The rocket-armed right-hander would launch 133 pitches (94 of them strikes) in the Game 5 win, where, save for a Nelson Cruz home run in the bottom of the eighth, he was nearly flawless. It was an inspiring effort amid an uninspiring situation that segued into Verlander being named both the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner and affirmed his status as a pitcher who wouldn’t back down from laying everything on the line.
Therein lays the nutshell of why 2K Sports’ MLB simulation franchise is frustrating to so many gamers. Each yearly installment of the game seems bring in a hailstorm of negative review scores and atrocious sales figures, and the general consensus is that once the developer’s license with the MLB expires after this year, the two will part ways without much of an argument from either side. Yet instead of taking a cue from Verlander and toeing the rubber for one final effort, 2K Sports seems more inspired by the indifference of Roger Dorn in Major League.
It wasn’t always this way.
Back in 2006, when VORP was still thought of as a planet in Star Trek and the Rays were cramming three digits into their loss column, 2K Sports hired Ben Brinkman from EA’s MVP Baseball series as their executive producer/savior for MLB 2K7. One year after signing an exclusive third party licensing contract with Major League Baseball until 2012, the series was already struggling to stay afloat. Brinkman was determined to turn the ship around, however, and had come armed with a “three year plan” to polish up game’s graphics, gameplay, and array of features.
As it turns out, ambition doesn’t always equal fruition. And while 2K7 was praised for making some major visual strides, MLB 2K8 ran into a wall of bugs and glitch-filled gameplay and neither game moved the meter on sales. Afterwards, Brinkman was out as producer, and MLB 2K9 – the culmination of the three-year plan – continued the downward slide by adding new features often more broken than they were innovating or entertaining.
The departure of Brinkman and the ensuing struggles of MLB 2K9 were pivotal moments in the history of 2K’s baseball franchise because that’s when the developer went from viewing the exclusive MLB license the way a baseball GM views a rookie – as promising player who can be molded into a star – to the way he views an aging, over-signed veteran – as a salary cap hogging liability whose contract can’t expire soon enough.
This was not-so-subtly revealed in a 2010 Reuters interview with Strauss Zelnick, chairman of Take-Two Interactive – the parent company of 2K Sports. Speaking about 2K’s license with Major League Baseball, Zelnick stated, “It’s a losing proposition and we don’t have any interest in pursuing losing propositions.”
Zelnick also said that the company would only renew the license if the economics of the situation changed. What are the economics of the situation, you ask? The specifics remain unclear, but analysts have pegged the company as incurring a $40 million dollar loss – annually. In any economy, let alone this one, that’s a one way ticket to discontinuation.
If it’s true that MLB 2K12 will be the last baseball game 2K Sports develops in the foreseeable future (and they’re waving more red flags than the crowd at a Manchester United game), then it stands to reason that gamers have little to look forward to in the way of upcoming improvements.
Look at the decision in 2009 to let Visual Concepts develop the series after Brinkman’s departure. Four more years were left on the license to turn the series into a contender with The Show, but the game as a whole still seems to suggest a company that’s just keeping the lights on in the shop until the last customer leaves. Crippling bugs like broken double play mechanics and the numerous franchise mode crashes weren’t fixed until 2K11 – and a few still remain. Graphics and animations have stagnated with every iteration except 2K10. Computer AI, either on the field or in the front office, has all the brains of an alcoholic centenarian. And the game’s biggest selling point to date has arguably been a $1 million perfect game contest.
For MLB 2K12 to even have a prayer of competing with MLB 12: The Show, it will still need to come up with (a) a rich and engaging single player feature on par with Road to The Show; (b) functional online multiplayer; (c) fresh visuals and realistic ball physics; and (d) for God’s sake, quality control. Visual Concepts has spent three years trying to bring the game to a respectable juncture (no easy task, to be fair), but such milestones can’t help but seem way out of 2K12’s league.
Don’t get me wrong, as a diehard baseball fan and someone who can relate to the plight of MLB: The Show-deprived Xbox owners, I hope I can write a review of MLB 2K12 three months from now and have it be a mea culpa for this article. Its cover certainly looks promising, what with its future Hall of Famer, enveloping smoke puffs, electric jolts and all. But as Justin Verlander himself could probably attest to, success is born through true grit and raw determination. In its last four years of existence, MLB 2K has shown neither.
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