Hot foots, farts and fights — but no bites — in sports video games

It can be an agonizing wait, but if you hold the ball on the mound in MLB 14 The Show, with the game unpaused, eventually you will see baseball's most cherished dugout prank: the Hot Foot.

The Hot Foot is one of a series of humorous delayed-game scenes The Show serves up whenever the user is in in the field and holds the ball on the mound, without the game paused, for longer than 30 seconds. The Dodgers busted it out in real life on reserve outfielder Scott Van Slyke on Sunday, to the delight of announcer Vin Scully, who narrated the whole thing like a kindly grandfather diverting mom's attention from the kids' mischief. It was a perfect moment for a team leading a game 6-0, having won 10 of the last 13 to catch first place in the standings.

On another continent six days earlier, Luis Suarez committed a signature act of less benign violence. The Uruguayan striker, well known for two biting incidents in the European domestic leagues, committed a third against Italy in the World Cup. You can try the Konami code, but you'll never see this kind of thing in Pro Evolution Soccer.

Those who play sports video games are well accustomed to the kind of cocktail party hypothetical question that non-sports video gamers asked after Suarez went al dente on the Italian defender: Hey, how come this kind of real-world misbehavior doesn't happen in video games? It's in the game, right?

Sideshows in The Show

Next time you take a phone call and your pitcher is on the mound in MLB The Show, don't pause the game. Let him stand there with the ball. The game will cycle through several scenes of players acting bored through a delay in the game, and some are rather funny.

The most demonstrative scenes are the ones involving the umpire, catcher and batter, and the batting team's dugout. Some have been in for at least seven years. Here are a few:

AT HOME PLATE:

  • The umpire walks up between the batter and catcher and checks his watch. The batter is suddenly startled and waves his hand across his nose, as if someone has farted.
  • The catcher and batter appear to be discussing checked swings when the umpire strolls up, takes the bat, and shows the batter how to pimp a home run, with a huge, Korean baseball-worthy bat flip at the end.
  • The batter air guitars with the bat; the catcher pumps up the crowd, which responds with loud cheering.
  • The batter imitates a golf swing; the umpire corrects his stance and shows him a better golf swing.

IN THE DUGOUT:

  • Two players play rock, paper, scissors. The standing player always loses.
  • Seven players do The Wave, with one in the middle refusing to participate.
  • A player falls asleep on a teammate's shoulder, gratuitously snuggling up.
  • Two players on the bench frighten a sleeping teammate.

Finally,

  • The entire bench conspires to distract one player while another crawls up and gives him a Hot Foot. He jumps and stomps around as everyone laughs, but no flames or smoke are visible.

The simplest answer is, the leagues that license this stuff won't allow it. These are vanity pieces and enormous PR for them, and the rare environment over which a league can exert total control. But the broader and more truthful answer is video game developers don't want to introduce biting to a soccer match any more than FIFA does. It's fundamentally disruptive to the game they're both trying to deliver.

Giving players the ability to chow down on an opponent in action could break a game, particularly online. You can get yourself sent off if you're dead set on it: just pull out a blindside slide tackle when an opposing ballhandler isn't even advancing on the goal. In local multiplayer, I don't think a studio wants to make a product that forces moms and dads to shut off the console when big brother won't stop biting little brother. Madden NFL, up through the end of its original PlayStation run, featured late hits that could result in injuries (and always in penalties) and I can remember playing games where that's all we did to each other. (Well, that and run the halfback toss-pass every down.)

Things changed around the turn of the century. Leagues started taking greater notice of what was going into these increasingly sophisticated video games and how that reflected on them. MVP Baseball 2004 would actually show dugouts emptying if one pitcher beaned too many opposing batters. Today, even though hit batsmen are a part of the game, and deliberately plunking one is definitely an option, it is practically impossible to purposefully hit another batter in the head in MLB The Show. Furthermore, the same pitcher needs to hit three batters — or hit the same batter three different times — to initiate the game's sanitized ejection sequence. It'll get heated in the dugout, with the manager screaming at the umpire, but you never see any physical confrontation. That's not an omission.

So then, why does The Show feature the Hot Foot? Precisely because it doesn't disrupt the game. It's a cutscene that disappears as soon as the player touches the controller — and he has to leave it idle for a good long time even to bring it up. Major League Baseball Advanced Media may not even be aware of it (or the scene where a batter appears to smell an umpire's fart). There's no dialogue over the sequence, which is important, too; sports video games submit their scripts to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which help it make sure that, yep, this one's rated E. Calling out teammates setting one another on fire might rate a "comic mischief" content descriptor, where most sports titles have none. But the bottom line is, Sony San Diego takes extra steps to present the scenes of a pastime and these, which aren't disruptive (and which end as soon as you touch the controller) have an appropriate home.

The National Hockey League remains a very peculiar exception to all of this: There is fighting — for which North American professional hockey is notorious — in this league-sanctioned simulation. It's supported by something that has been openly marketed as the "Enforcer Engine," which is technology adapted from EA Sports' boxing simulation. When NHL 10 introduced the first-person fighting mode, EA Sports brought in Zack Stortini — a goon who led the NHL with 25 fights in the preceding season — to consult on its implementation. The league had full knowledge the whole way. The NHL series is one of the few games not rated a flat E (it's E10+), and fighting is the reason.

How come it doesn't break the game? Because in human-vs.-human play, one player may initiate a fight by pressing a button, but the other player must accept that fight. Otherwise play continues. When I wrote about the introduction of first-person fighting in NHL 10, its existence was justified on two grounds: first, that it helped to manage the tempers in the game by releasing pent-up aggression, and it provided players with a means of self-policing bad behavior. And secondly, frankly, because it is a fundamental part of the professional game on this continent.

That's why I was, to be honest, surprised that a lawsuit brought by former players against the league mentioned DVDs, highlight reels and websites devoted to hockey fighting, but nothing about the NHL video game series (possibly because the Players' Association licenses the title, too). Their complaint alleges the league openly tolerates and even promotes the violent culture that has contributed to long-term, concussion-related head trauma. One would think straight up sanctioning a video game in which the players fight constitutes, if not an endorsement or promotion of fighting, a basic acceptance of its role in the sport.

Even then, it gets to the larger point: Game developers and the leagues who license their creation have a common goal: Prohibit or sanction that which fundamentally disrupts the competition. The NHL's clearly comfortable with fighting as a mainstream feature of its sport, where the NBA has steadfastly refused the inclusion of technical fouls in its games, and I cannot remember the last time I saw unsportsmanlike conduct or illegal hands to the face in Madden (though I did see, of all things, illegal touching recently).

So the next time you're asked this question — or you yourself ask it — here's the short answer: What's in the game is actually what the leagues want in the game. And if FIFA is going to suspend one of the world's best players for four months for biting someone, why on Earth would it approve of biting in a video game it controls?

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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