It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the developers of sports games to offer transformative new experiences in annual releases. With budgets soaring, deadlines looming, and a demand for live service support all season long, franchises like MLB The Show 23 feel like they’ve been caught flatfooted. But San Diego Studio’s baseball sim has an ace under its pinstriped sleeve this year, and it’s called the Negro Leagues.
Presented like a Netflix documentary, this is the first instalment in a multiyear commitment, which will see the stories of some of baseball’s lesser known heroes brought to the forefront. Anchored by the amiably enthusiastic Bob Kendrick – president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum – each chapter includes a series of interactive moments, each focused on a different player. You’ll learn about Satchel Paige’s imaginative pitch names, Rube Foster’s rise from star pitcher to front office, and Jackie Robinson’s socially seismic transition to the MLB.
The presentation packages that the developer’s put together are utterly outstanding, with original artwork paired with archival footage and photographs. And the commitment to quality doesn’t dip in-game either: San Diego Studio has modelled six entirely new, period authentic stadiums, complete with accurate uniforms, crowds, and even pitching animations. It truly feels like you’re playing an entirely different era of The Show, which is the highest praise we can attribute to it.
Brilliantly, the developer retains the commentary services of Jon ‘Boog’ Sciambi and Chris Singleton for the Negro Leagues, but uses them to add flavour to some of the stories setup by Kendrick. So, instead of them delivering traditional play-by-plays, it’s structured like they’re watching old clips, and commenting on the defining characteristics of the players featured. There are eight different chapters in total to complete, with some pretty desirable Diamond Dynasty rewards doubling as an additional carrot on a stick.
Speaking of which, San Diego Studio’s card collecting mode is also enjoying some pretty major structural changes this year. Rather than drip-feeding higher rated players right throughout the year, the developer’s kicking off with 99s from day one, with a new seasonal format encouraging you to rebuild your team every couple of months. This means new 99s will rotate in over time, but in order to participate in certain events, you’ll need to ensure your team subscribes to the requirements of the current season. The addition of a wild card slot – any player from any season – aims to widen the scope of the team building possibilities, without being restricted to the turgid power curve that’s defined the series in the past.
Obviously, the jury’s still out on the balancing here, but we at least enjoy the idea in principle. It helps that The Show is comfortably the most generous card collecting game on the market, so while microtransactions are very much present and correct, you can build a pretty competent and competitive team just through natural gameplay. And the addition of Captains, which boost ratings based on specific sets, only further add to the depth on offer. It’s life consuming, yes – but it’s all pretty engaging.
Credit must also go to the sheer number of single player options available in Diamond Dynasty, with fan favourites like Conquest and Mini Seasons making a return. In fact, the latter has been given a complete overhaul, further testing your team building abilities. For example, the game currently has a Lefties League, which requires you to build a squad and compete using only left-handed players. It forces you to look a little deeper into your collection and use players you maybe wouldn’t normally, which adds purpose to some of the fodder you accumulate over time.
It’s out on the field where the changes feel less meaningful. San Diego Studio’s been iterating on its digital approach to baseball for decades, and if we’re honest, the series has been in a pretty strong place for a while. Consequently, the changes are minimal this year, with fielding given a little bit of a facelift to make those clutch double plays feel like they need to be earned. The developer’s mixed up the accuracy throwing mechanic so you can no longer rely on muscle memory, and the battle between pitcher and batter is tenser than ever.
It all feels excellent, and the addition of new animations and audio effects only enhances the authenticity, but unless you put hundreds of hours into MLB The Show 22, you’re going to find it harder to appreciate the differences. Most disappointingly of all, the visuals – once at the pinnacle of the genre – are in dire need of an overhaul, with the same rotten dirt textures and drab lighting rolled out on new-gen consoles for another year. There have been some tweaks to the interface to better communicate key information, like swing feedback, but the graphics are getting stale at this stage.
The same can probably be said for Road to the Show, the release’s flagship role-playing single player mode, which has been practically left untouched. San Diego Studio has redesigned the Ballplayer menu, which is where you create your character and attach perks to determine their playstyle, but everything else is virtually identical to last year. You can now participate in training drills on the field to improve your attributes, and you can apparently upload a Face Scan to enable a better in-game likeness – but we’ve been unable to test it due to an issue on iPhones specifically.
Franchise mode has at least been given a little more TLC, with a much deeper scouting system and a revamped draft experience, which does add decent depth to the management experience. Moreover, a slew of real-world MLB rule changes have been implemented to add to the overall authenticity, which baseball diehards will appreciate. Many of these tweaks also transition to the more accelerated March to October mode as well, which returns to give players a more bitesized MLB season experience.
The excellently executed Negro Leagues are the MVP of MLB The Show 23, adding an educational and entertaining interactive documentary to an already strong sports game. Diamond Dynasty sees some of its biggest structural changes yet, and has strengthened its respectable single player slate with some smart additions to Mini Seasons. Meanwhile, rebalanced fielding and batter/pitcher matchups add more tension to the gameplay, but the graphics are starting to look stale and Road to the Show feels like it’s almost been abandoned at this point.