This year in sports and in video gaming will be remembered for many things, not all of them good. On a personal level, I'll remember it for the battles I had with the greatest rival I've had in any virtual sport, a hitter who, like my pitcher in MLB 14 The Show, is a figment of someone's imagination.
He's Ronald Rubio (pictured above). This guy doesn't exist in real life, though I thought he did. Shortly after my Road to the Show pitcher was called up to the Kansas City Royals, he gave up two home runs to Rubio. I went stalking off to Baseball Reference.com to look up just who the hell this guy was, because he played like a sure-fire A.L. rookie of the year candidate. Ronald Rubio seemed always to be involved in a critical at-bat, or lurking behind one of the Tigers' dangerous hitters with runners already on base.
Turns out Ronald Rubio is a fictitious player that Sony San Diego, makers of The Show, put in the Tigers' minor league system to make things interesting as your Road to the Show career wears on. "Ronald Rubio is the embodiment of raw potential and talent," said Sony San Diego designer Ramone Russell — whose initials also are R and R — via email. "The Show's take on diamonds in the rough who are capable of meteoric rises to superstardom."
MLB 14 The Show didn't just give me a good game. It gave me a relationship with another player.
Ronald Rubio isn't necessarily a world-beater in everyone's copy of MLB 14 The Show. The game's player generation logic creates rare, diamond-in-the-rough prospects who can explode onto the scene with you, but they may be different from one person's career to another. "We leave the thrill of discovering those talents to the players, not unlike how it is for managers and opposing players," Russell said.
Somehow I fell into Rubio's orbit. Tall, left-handed, hitting second as a DH, you can't really miss the guy. I played three Road to the Show seasons in 2014 and I don't think I faced a more disciplined hitter in that span. I dive-bombed left-handers with my slider and the slurve I developed off of that, either slipping by their short-armed swings or inducing easy groundouts. Rubio was the lone hitter who never took the bait, forced me to relocate with a fastball, and sat on it when I threw that high.
I struck Rubio out 11 times, but all of them happened in the first or second at-bat of a game. He also hit six home runs off me. Rubio seems to have a photographic memory of your pitching — what you threw, where you threw it, and if you throw the same pitch in the same location you can go fish it out of Lake Erie.
Rubio won the American League Rookie of the Year in my first major league season of Road to the Show. I developed a genuine admiration for the guy. As members of the same class of players, so to speak, I liked to think that sportscasters of this fictitious universe mentioned us in the same breath, that a Tigers-Royals game meant Owen Good and Ronald Rubio, even in mid-June, were in a honey-come-look-at-this duel on the TV.
For a game built on one-on-one confrontations, baseball seems to have fewer individual rivalries than any other team sport in North America. The most memorable ones are teams versus teams, or an individual versus an entire team (George Brett and the Yankees, memorably) or it's something brimming with violence, like Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson in the 1970s. Amicable batter-pitcher rivalries are exceptionally rare; David Ortiz and David Price definitely lock up in an intense at-bat but few could see either trading good-natured barbs about it down the road.
MLB 14 The Show didn't just give me a good game and a rich superstar athlete fantasy. It gave me a relationship with another wholly made-up player, and I'll aways be grateful for it. Beginning with MLB 15 The Show the series will let you import your game saves into future edition, and it could not have come at a better time. Not only do I want to continue the story of my career, I want to continue Ronald Rubio's. I want us to go to Cooperstown together.
Here now is look back at the rest of sports video gaming in 2014, as seen by me and Samit Sarkar, Polygon's senior sports writer.
Samit Sarkar, Jan. 30.
What was supposed to be a pit stop on a Clint Oldenburg's NFL comeback trail turned into a full-time job in early 2012, a job that became his new career: designing video games.
Matthew Vogt, 29, directs trucks to a loading dock today. He looks very much like a guy who went to high school cutting meat and graduated to a steelyard. But where his classmates ended their days of playing before a large, cheering crowd when they handed in their pads after senior day, Vogt still is in his prime as one of the world's best in his game. And last month he engineered one of the most compelling comebacks I have ever witnessed live.
Ten years later, league-licensed arcade-style sports video games, spinoffs that sometimes arrived when their league's postseason began, have made few appearances themselves. Last year saw nothing from this category on consoles — no NHL Hitz, no MLB Slugfest or The Bigs, and certainly nothing like NBA Ballers. You'd have to go back to the fragmented, very early days of console gaming to find a full year without some league's logo on an arcade-style game.
Sports video games present an idealized portrait of this business, and the scandals that can change much about the game and how its seen will never be mentioned within their virtual representations. Donald Sterling embarrasses basketball with his presence and conduct, but that sense of shame won't be felt by the people who experience the sport through video games.
Absent a serious commitment from sports video game developers to create, support and refine features that use its capabilities, Kinect will remain what it always has been: an optional piece of equipment. On the Xbox One, it's what it should have been all along.
Samit Sarkar, June 5.
Madden NFL 15's first screenshot is an action shot of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the big deal here isn't any improvement in graphics — it's the ink on his arms.
It was 20 years ago this September, in the sports office of the student newspaper, that my department took one of the stranger phone calls of a four-year career that saw plenty of weirdness. The football team wanted to know if we were paying one of their players.
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.
Few also seem to recognize the reality behind NFL 2K's demise. It was sold at a bargain bin price from the start — $19.99 — and while that certainly made the game the people's champion, it did Sega no favors with a league that views itself as a global luxury brand. Sega seemed also not to understand the gravity of the NFL's move toward licensing only a single partner per product.
Samit Sarkar, Aug. 28.
It's a new landscape for the new consoles, and one of the clearest examples of that is The Golf Club. The game is headlined by a course creator that lets players build the golf course of their dreams from scratch. And through discussions with Sony and Microsoft, players on all three platforms can upload and share their creations with each other.
The latter half of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3's lifespan saw significant contraction from the usual cornucopia of arcade titles, spinoffs and head-to-head competition in simulation series. Now I have to wonder if the survivors can even be built in a year.
Madden NFL 15 is — read this in a John Facenda voice — The Greatest Punting and Kicking Madden in NFL History, thanks to the stubbornness of an offensive lineman and the ingenuity of a wide receiver.
The case for NBA Live, the series, is also the case against NBA Live 15, the game hitting stores in 10 days. Sean O'Brien, the game's executive producer, knows this.
It sure sucks when the thing you were promised just shows up broken, doesn't it? You're powerless and taken for granted. You're subordinated to the priorities of some big corporation with its own ideas for how people should use what it makes. Ain't that right, 2K?
There is one game that handles pluralist inclusion so gracefully, within such a marvelous sports experience, that I can't let it pass without comment. Super Mega Baseball isn't some preachy after-school special, either. It is flat-out the most enjoyable sports title of 2014.
Owen S. Good and Samit Sarkar, Dec. 17.
This year, in which all licensed sports series were present on the new console generation for the first time, will be remembered by gamers as a collectively tentative effort at best. Just one console game scored better than 82 on Metacritic the entire year: MLB 14 The Show, which hit 83.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.