I've been reluctant to jump in on the conversation about diversity and inclusion in video games because so many reactions to it are stridently belligerent, if not ugly. It's also troublesome to my favorite genre, sports, and opens uncomfortable, bottom-line dialogues about equal opportunity when publishers pay zillions for the license of male-only pro leagues and vow to deliver real-life immersion in their marketing promises.
Yet there is one game, arriving Tuesday on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, that handles pluralist inclusion so gracefully, within such a marvelous sports experience, that I can't let it pass without comment. Super Mega Baseball, from Metalhead Software of Victoria, B.C., isn't some preachy after-school special, either. It is flat-out the most enjoyable sports title of 2014.
Last night my team, the, uh, Wideloads (mascot: a smug-looking hippo), had been punching away at the Crocodons with nothing to show for it, and trailed 1-0 in the top of the seventh. Ella Roids, far and away the best hitter on the team, pounded a two-strike slider for a three-run bomb, to at last break the game wide open and secure the win. Watch and enjoy.
Next game, we were down to our last two outs against the Herbisaurs. Our catcher, Harmony Strauss, ambushed a 1-0 mistake pitch and dumped the body in the right field bleachers to send the game to extra innings, reminiscent of Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia chloroforming the New York Mets in 1988. I stood up winging punches in the air. We finished off the Herbisaurs in the 10th when Olaf Beerson drove home Hack Liner from second to get the Wideloads to 4-0 in the division. Let's go to the tape!
I don't know that I had a two-game sequence that exciting in four seasons of MLB 14 The Show this year, which is a very good game in its own right. Luck caught up to us in the next game and we lost, 4-1, but this is a united team that beats ass galore the Earl Weaver way: nine-inning starting pitchers, smothering infield defense, and timely three-run homers.
And, in a 21st Century twist, women who can hit the green goddamn out of a baseball.
Super Mega Baseball is endlessly customizable, so you can put all your friends in there, your family, anyone, woman or man. The standard Wideloads roster isn't 50-50; of 18 players, 5 are women. But two are in the starting lineup and my best pinch hitter (60 contact rating and 100 "mojo," both best on the team) also is a woman, which practically guarantees I'll see one in a clutch situation.
Working without a license, Metalhead didn't have to face the obligation of faithfully representing the oldest professional sports league in the world, which has seen midgets, one-armed outfielders , a 54-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy log major league service but never a woman. But there is security in leaning upon such a structure; Metalhead faced a greater risk, because having women in the lineup doesn't mean a bucket of tobacco juice if Super Mega Baseball, in its gameplay, doesn't stand apart from the major packaged goods. And it does.
Putting women in the batting order wouldn't mean a bucket of tobacco juice if this wasn't a good game.
Its pitching system is the best I have ever used in any baseball video game, all-time. I'll have plenty more to say about it later, but Super Mega Baseball's genius is how it involves you in the act of pitching — of finding a release point — rather than dialing up the pitch type and location, making a timed button press or gesture, and passively watching it all unfold.
The presentation just charms the pants off you, too. The home plate umpiring rotation includes a sleazy-voiced guy who might be, like, an actual child molester. He even mumbles close calls. The scoreboard features an advertisement for a "foot-wide hotdog," that is "only $39.84." A hitter in a slump has a squiggle-line cloud over his or her head. Steam pours from their ears when they're down in the count two strikes. Harmony gushed tears when she struck out with a runner on against the Herbisaurs (yes, I pronounce that with a silent H), making her bottom-of-the-ninth tater all the more glorious. The training you provide for your team includes giving them a ridiculous hair care product that is a clear homage to Keith Hernandez shilling Just For Men.
Licensed sports titles have done some admirable things regarding gender diversity, allowing for the obligations of simulation quality and interpreting a real-life league. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 provided a dramatic and entirely plausible way for a woman to play in The Masters (win the U.S. Amateur, which is not a gender-restricted tournament.) Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 developed an LPGA Tour, which included its signature event, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, on its home course at Mission Hills. The series went on hiatus this year, but I fully expect that to return with the next game in 2015. The marketing director for EA Sports' golf franchises once told me that more than half of the created golfers in the career mode (far and away its most played feature) were women — and 80 percent of the installation base is male.
EA Sports' NHL series has, since 2012, allowed for the creation of women players in the Be a Pro mode, reflecting the fact that women have played professional hockey alongside men, though none have yet skated with them in a regular-season NHL game. Still, it's fundamentally different when playing as a different gender is an option, and not a mandate. For example there are only two women in EA Sports' UFC roster, and you cannot create one in its career mode.
Mixed martial arts and ice hockey also, in no way, come close to the number of participants in women's soccer among college/amateur, professional and national teams. I worry that next year, with the Women's World Cup in session, we'll be getting excuses from the FIFA series about licensing, physics and motion capture instead of a proper video game presentation of a mainstream championship. That will rip open this argument in a new and harsh way, and there will be no defense for the exclusion.
No other sports video game of 2014 approached its subject with this much imagination.
I'm on a well-listened-to sports gaming podcast with a woman more dedicated to her team, the Twins, than I am to any in either league. An editor at an old job is a wear-it-on-her-sleeve Cincinnati Reds fan and venerates Barry Larkin. I doubt either had even the bittersweet, rite-of-passage reckoning that I and my teammates in high school did, when you're raking the right-field clover with your spikes and finally realize you'll never make any professional nine. They had to accept that in tee-ball.
Now 41, beyond even the most hopeless pro sports fantasy, I can still come home and make myself into a flame throwing stud for the Kansas City Royals, shackle the American League's best hitters and win the Cy Young Award in MLB 14 The Show. Eileen and Kat, you get to be dudes.
In Super Mega Baseball, everyone plays. Everyone gets to enjoy the most rollicking, challenging and inspired video game depiction of the National Pastime that I've seen. No other sports video game of 2014 approached its subject with this much imagination, and the fun it offers can be personal and affirming for all.
We've had a tense and very angry year in video gaming on the subjects of race, gender, diversity and inclusion, and sports, one of the biggest selling and most-played video game genres, showed no leadership in any of it. Then Super Mega Baseball stepped up, in the bottom of the 12th month, and hit a bat-flip walk-off home run.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.