As Tampa Bay took the field Sunday, the best team in baseball this season knew that just one more win would give them a World Series sweep. The Rays, who absolutely dominated the league in both the regular and post seasons, were staring the history books in the face. The face was that of the White Sox, who earned the sixth seed in the championship round after a 6-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds, backed by a strong starting performance by Dallas Keuchel.
A first inning lead-off home run by Willy Adames in game 1 set the tone for the 2020 World Series. Bolstered by two more homers from Zunino and Meadows, the Rays soared to a 5-1 victory. Game 2 again saw the Rays come out aggressive in the first inning with three runs, two of them from a monster 445-foot bomb by Ji-Man Choi. The White Sox attempted a rally, including a solo homer from Edwin Encarnacion in the third, but fell short, losing 3-2. That third inning shot by Encarnacion would turn out to be Chicago’s last run of the Series, as the Rays went in for the kill with a 6-0 shutout in game 3, and a historic 2020 World Series championship.
The above is not the fever dream product of a quarantine-induced, sensory-deprived Tampa Bay Rays fan, but rather the actual breakdown of the World Series of the 2020 MLB The Show League, which was put together by Major League Baseball along with the MLB Players Association. Players from all 30 teams competed against each other in a 29-game season, followed by an eight-team playoff tournament using the Playstation 4 video game MLB The Show 20. The Rays and White Sox were puppeteered by pitchers Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito respectively and featured their commentary along with that of MLB Network’s Robert Flores. The entire endeavor was a hit, scoring 28 million streaming views of the games and related content, not counting the select games that were broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, and MLB Network. Snell’s $30,000 prize money was donated to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast. And that’s as close to a baseball season as Americans have enjoyed so far this year.
Americans need sports. With so little to root for these days, the elation of victory and the absorbing journey through both the micro of individual games and the macro of entire seasons provides a type of addictive escapism into the realm of the “good guys” versus the “bad guys” where people can always feel comfortable that they are on the side of good (aside, perhaps, for 2017-2018 Astros fans). Professional sports have been serving as a yardstick of normalcy in America for more than a century: MLB held games during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 with spectators and even players wearing masks on the field, but was forced to shorten the season due to American participation in WWI (nearly 40% of players went to war). Baseball was also played regularly throughout WWII with the support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and 67% of the American public.
A casual look at the screen from across the room would make a simulated baseball game extremely hard to distinguish from a broadcast of a real one.
For many Americans, the watershed moment in the coronavirus crisis was the cancellation and delay of professional sports leagues and tournaments. The NBA was the first to announce a suspension of play on March 11 after players had tested positive for the virus. They were followed closely by the NHL on March 12—the same day the MLB announced the delay of their 2020 season. NCAA March Madness was officially canceled on March 17, and the NFL is reportedly considering a delayed start to a potentially shortened season as well. On top of the current deeply toxic and polarized political landscape, the coronavirus has added additional layers of uncertainty, partisanship, and self-interest to the discussion of data interpretation, mitigation measures, and assigning blame. Add to that the general lack of positive stimuli in the absence of social and communal interactions—another need that is often satisfied by sports—and the return of sports has become a key emotional marker for some large fraction of America.
Which brings us back to MLB The Show—both the league and the game itself. While the former provided a blessed respite from the monotony of quarantine life and a chance to get to know some of the players better, it is the latter that shines in a whole new light on the precipice of a brave new post-pandemic world. Sports simulators, which have been a staple of video games since their very genesis, suddenly have the potential to not only attempt to mimic the experience of playing sports, but also the experience of watching them.
While the MLB The Show League featured running commentary from players and broadcasters, the game itself features in-game play-by-play, recorded by Matt Vasgersian, Mark DeRosa, and Dan Plesac, that is remarkably complex—with full scouting reports, breakdowns of players’ seasons, accurate commentary on plays in the game, and an all-around natural feel. Simulators, by virtue of their name, strive for immersion, and sports games have been working hard on improving this aspect of gameplay for decades. Especially in a game like baseball, the need to switch quickly between a variety of different players and move sets in real time can sometimes lead to control schemes that feel less immersive in a tactile sense than a game that has a single move set that requires mostly moving and shooting (video game controllers all have “triggers” now, for instance). Creating an immersive game atmosphere can go a long way toward compensating for the occasional lack of natural-feeling controls.
As a result, games like MLB The Show have become increasingly spectator-oriented—a desirable goal dating back to the old days of going to your friend’s house after school only to end up spending your afternoon bored on the couch as he plays his brand-new video game. A lot of work goes into player appearances and mannerisms. Innings are even divided by commercial-break-style fade-ins and outs.
Immersion in the gaming and viewing experience breaks very rarely. A casual look at the screen from across the room would make a simulated baseball game extremely hard to distinguish from a broadcast of a real one. The idea of putting together a league with actual MLB players at the helm, adding bespoke commentary and banter to the games, provided a dash of good, real-world spice to a dish that might otherwise have tasted bland, especially over the span of a 29-game season.
Naturally, games like MLB The Show will always lack certain unsimulatable elements of sports fandom, like human-interest stories, the trials and triumphs of players throughout the season, historical milestones, strange rare events, and so on. But the ability to pick the game up yourself, or watch a Twitch streamer play one at virtually any time of day or night, can actually scratch the sports itch in a surprisingly satisfying way.
Here’s a peek into the future, then: It seems entirely possible, if not desirable, that if the coronavirus continues to disrupt human social behavior for at least the next 18-24 months, virtual versions of real sporting events and even entire seasons, whether played by athletes or gamers—or by hybrid versions of the two—may emerge as a pale-but-necessary digital ersatz solution to the diamond-shaped hole in our lives, in the same way that software like Zoom has become a platform for work meetings, dating, religious ceremonies, and so on.
What will work look like? What will Judaism look like? What will dating look like? Parts of it may well look like the 2020 baseball season on MLB The Show.
Noam Blum is Chief Technology Officer at Tablet Magazine. Find him on Twitter @neontaster