Like Baseball Itself, 'MLB The Show 21' Is Looking for a New Audience

You can finally build it on Xbox, but what comes after?
March 25, 2021, 1:00pm
MLB21 PR PS5 Tatis 006

Baseball was an early casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The onset of lockdown came right in the middle of Spring Training, ultimately canceling Opening Day. I mourned the lost season in my review of MLB The Show 20, calling it “a baseball fan’s balm for a painful spring” (which became a painful summer… then fall… then winter). We were all feeling a little poetic around this time, when the pandemic was fresh and horrifying, and not the never-ending grind that it became as 2020 turned into 2021.

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But if Sony San Diego struggled during the pandemic, Ramone Russell isn’t saying. Now a “Product Development Communications and Brand Strategist” for the studio, Russell has been the game’s public face for most of the decade while also serving in various producer roles. He’s his typical on-message self as I pepper him with questions.

Sony San Diego’s handling of the pandemic? “You know, it’s been difficult, but we’ve pivoted and we’re happy to launch MLB The Show 21 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and Xbox on April 20.

The franchise’s surprising move to Xbox Series X? “Well, you know, most sports games are multi-platform, and we have great partners at Major League Baseball and the player’s association, and now we have great partners with Xbox.”

Russell’s resolutely on-brand persona is typical of a series that has adopted a low-key persona over the past console generation. Where major competitors like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K have attempted grand strokes like Longshot - a narrative story mode - MLB The Show has methodically iterated on the features that have worked for more than a decade now. The results haven’t always been exciting, but they have been consistent, and they’ve in turn allowed Sony San Diego to gradually introduce more ambitious storytelling, better presentation, and other noticeable improvements.

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Still, one gets the sense that Sony San Diego wants more than just consistency. Russell won’t say why exactly the series is moving to Xbox Series X and Xbox One despite being a subsidiary of Sony Interactive Entertainment, but he does make multiple references to the influx of new players that the Xbox will bring, which may offer a hint of the studio’s thinking. Russell doesn’t say it outright, but MLB The Show’s finite audience has to be much on the studio’s mind.Baseball may not exactly be in crisis, but its fans are definitely getting older and whiter, which is a challenge when you’re trying to grow the audience for your baseball video game. And if Sony San Diego is indeed looking for new blood, it could hardly do better than the Xbox, which has lacked a high-end baseball sim ever since the death of MLB 2K

As an example of how much Sony San Diego is thinking about new players on Xbox Series X, Russell specifically calls out the need to integrate new Xbox players when talking about gameplay styles, a new feature that modifies the balance of the gameplay between casual, competitive, and simulation. “We always do a lot of user research and listen to a lot of feedback and we're on Xbox for the first time ever. So we know we need to make sure that the Xbox crowd can understand what’s going on so we can onboard them the best way we can. So to be able to do all of those things, casual mode made so much sense.”

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This is on top of crossplay and cross-progression, features that will allow players to hop on one console or another without feeling like they’re missing much. The mandate is clear: integrate Xbox players into the broader MLB The Show community as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It’s worth reiterating just how momentous a move this is for the series. MLB The Show has been a showcase for PlayStation platforms going back to the days of the PlayStation 2. When Sony needed a series that could showcase the PlayStation 3’s high-definition graphics amid a drought of first-party titles, MLB The Show was there. When Sony needed a series to push 3D television, Vita, VR, or whatever other initiative was the flavor of the month at PlayStation, MLB The Show dutifully obliged. The series has been a major part of PlayStation’s portfolio since before Uncharted, so it’s more than a little surprising that Sony is allowing it to migrate to Xbox at the same time that it’s trying to push its first-party exclusives as a major advantage. 

But then, for all the money the series is purportedly making off Diamond Dynasty - its version of the FIFA Ultimate Team loot box mode - it’s still a video game based on a declining sport. With apologies to the fervent defenders of America’s pastime, it’s not like Sony is giving up its exclusivity over Spider-Man. And at the end of the day, the move to Xbox means that more people will be ripping packs and funneling money straight back to Sony.

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In the meantime, Sony San Diego appears to be looking for other ways to expand the scope of the series. Lost amid some of the bigger additions to MLB The Show 21 are the changes being made to the player-created character from Road to the Show, which will now be crossing over to Diamond Dynasty. It’s part of what Russell describes as Year 1 of the franchise’s next-gen revamp of Road to the Show, which has undergone plenty of changes of late.

“We are laying the groundwork with Nick Livingston, who's the creative director of the game.” Russell says. “We really want to shake up Road to the Show and really expand it and take it in this new direction. This is the first year people are seeing that with the centralized ballplayer, the narrative element, and with you being able to play as a two-way player while altering your character on the fly.”

As usual, Russell is coy about what exactly that vision for the future entails, but it’s hard not to draw parallels between the evolution of Road to the Show and NBA 2K’s extremely popular (and profitable) MyCareer, in which player-created avatars go through a story mode, play pickup basketball online, and wear team-branded gear. No, I don’t think MLB The Show is introducing anything like NBA 2K’s Neighborhood, but I do wonder if Sony San Diego is finally laying the groundwork for a proper Online Team Play mode. If so, it would be a major step forward for the series, though Sony San Diego would have to take care to avoid alienating fans with the sort of microtransaction-driven stat growth that bedevils NBA 2K.

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Speaking of which, another item worth noting is MLB The Show 21’s Stadium Creation, which according to Russell is only possible on next-generation consoles (it’s not available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One). Asked why this is the case when stadium creation has been a part of many other sports sims over the years, Russell says, “The unique thing about baseball as a sport is every stadium has different dimensions. The outfield wall does not look the same in any major league park or any minor league park. And when we did research on the stadium creation, the number one thing we heard was that players needed to be able to take foul poles and move them around and create different dimensions. And creating that while making it so that the stadium seats fit right and looked right was a humongous task.”

The Stadium Creator tool is emblematic of Sony San Diego’s methodical approach to the development of the series. The feature has been in development in one way or another for at least five years now, with the completed version featuring more than a thousand props, as well as shareability features and compatibility with Franchise Mode and Diamond Dynasty. Not only that, customizable stadiums are a natural fit for Online Team Play, adding to the preponderance of circumstantial evidence that Sony San Diego is moving in that general direction.

Regardless, MLB The Show is a good place headed into the next console generation, blessed as it is by a strong suite of core modes and a dedicated fanbase that will only grow as the series heads to Xbox. It’s well-positioned to chase some of the emerging trends in the sports gaming genre, particularly the increasing shift toward customizable characters and cosmetics.

Whatever direction Sony San Diego ultimately decides to take, it will undoubtedly take its time implementing it. MLB The Show has a marked preference for being iterative rather than big and ambitious, preferring to ensure that each mode is in a good place before moving on to the next one. The team is composed in large part by veteran developers, some of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years. As befits one of America’s oldest sports, Sony San Diego is more than happy to keep playing the long game.

“I've been here for 12, 13 years, and a lot of the members on the team have been here longer than that. We approach every single game the exact same way,” Russell says. “Slow and steady wins the race.”