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MLB The Show 18’s big Road to the Show risks don’t quite pay off

Maybe send it down for some more time in the minors

MLB The Show 18 - high front angle view of Aaron Judge hitting a home run
Yeah, that one’s not coming back.
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

MLB The Show 18 represents one of the biggest chances that developer Sony San Diego has taken with the series in ages, and it’s a much-needed one. Road to the Show, the single-player career offering in the studio’s MLB The Show franchise, has long been the game’s most popular mode. But it was at risk of becoming stale, with few meaningful changes in recent years.

If elements of sports games can be examined on a spectrum from “fun” to “realistic,” Sony San Diego seems to be coming down more heavily on the latter side with this year’s long-awaited overhaul of Road to the Show. That’s not inherently a bad decision — especially for a simulation sports title — but it needs to be backed up with a sound internal logic, an ability to expect certain behavior because that’s how things work in real life. Unfortunately, MLB 18’s Road to the Show suffers from a lack of consistency that often makes it a frustrating exercise, despite all the improvements Sony San Diego has delivered this year.

As is now customary in MLB The Show, you can import your Road to the Show player and progress from last year’s game. But I’d recommend starting from scratch for a couple of reasons. First off, MLB 18 features clear improvements to the player creation process: There are more diverse options than ever, in faces and hairstyles, to support a wider variety of ethnicities. And the character models are more lifelike this year, thanks largely to skin that looks much less shiny (unless it’s a hot or rainy game, in which case skin will look appropriately wet from sweat or rain, respectively).

MLB The Show 18 Road to the Show - Matt Harvey on Binghamton Rumble Ponies
Somehow, in my Road to the Show campaign, the New York Mets’ Matt Harvey was demoted to the team’s Double-A affiliate, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. He is understandably not thrilled with this development.
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

The other reason is one of the major changes that Sony San Diego has made to Road to the Show this year. It’s no longer possible to raise each of your athlete’s attributes to 99. When you start out, you must choose what kind of player you want to be, and that “archetype” puts hard caps on certain attributes — sometimes well below that ideal 99 rating. I created a Control Freak starting pitcher: a Greg Maddux-esque hurler who doesn’t have overpowering stuff to blow hitters away with, but can use pinpoint pitch location to limit solid contact.

MLB 18 will apply this system if you bring in a career playthrough from MLB 17. You’ll select an archetype after importing your player, but it won’t immediately change your attributes. So if you come in with 99s in every category, you’ll play that way at the start. But over time, you’ll see your attributes drop to your chosen archetype’s caps — and from that point forward, you’ll only be able to maintain the ratings at those upper bounds. (To its credit, the game explains all this clearly at the outset.)

Whether you import a player or create a new one, the problems with this setup quickly rear their heads: Some of the attribute caps seem entirely arbitrary, and out of line with reality.

A starter in the Plain Filthy mold can put a ton of movement on their pitches, which you’d think would help them notch strikeouts. But that archetype’s K/9 rating — strikeouts per nine innings, a measure of the ability to generate swings and misses — is capped at just 75! And my Control Freak is limited to 70 for pitching clutch — a rating that assesses how well one performs with runners in scoring position — even though I’ve gotten very good at inducing double plays when I need to get out of a jam.

MLB The Show 18 Road to the Show - Plain Filthy archetype for starting pitchers
By the way, knuckleballer Phil Niekro had 3,342 strikeouts over his 24-year career.
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The only way to go beyond attribute caps is to use unlockable equipment items, since their rating boosts aren’t governed by the limits. That’s fine for people who also play Diamond Dynasty, which is where you can buy card packs that include equipment cards. But if you stick to Road to the Show, you won’t get equipment that often, and you probably won’t accrue enough Stubs to regularly buy individual cards from the in-game marketplace.

Diamond Dynasty’s packs of virtual trading cards are mostly based on luck, and that’s also what you have to hope for in Road to the Show’s new progression system. In the past, you’d earn XP called training points based on your on-field performance: The better you did in games and training sessions, the more training points you’d get. You could also spend real money on Stubs and use them to buy training points — paying to bypass the daily grind of the sport of baseball. You simply put the points wherever you wanted, raising only the attributes that you cared about (or had to maintain to avoid regression).

Sony San Diego has excised those microtransactions from Road to the Show, which is perhaps the most welcome change in the entire mode. The studio also doubled down on the idea of making players earn every bit of their athlete’s progress, by eliminating training points as we knew them. In MLB 18, the specific things you do in games determine which of your attributes go up and which ones go down — you have no direct control over raising your ratings.

If you drive in a runner with a single off a lefty, you should see increases in your contact versus left-handers and batting clutch ratings. But if you strike out later in the same situation, expect to lose some progress in those areas. If you make a throwing error, you can be assured that your arm accuracy and fielding ratings will suffer. And if you get a slugger to hit a weak infield pop-up, it might improve your HR/9 attribute.

MLB The Show 18 Road to the Show - Samit Sarkar pitching for the Sacramento River Cats
Does the name refer to animals called river cats in Sacramento? Or cats who live by the Sacramento River?
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

It appears that action on the field can adjust up to three attributes at once — at least, the notification that pops up after each play never displays more than that. Sometimes, your performance won’t produce the attribute progression you’d expect, which I find endlessly annoying. I lost track of the number of times that I struck out a hitter but didn’t get a K/9 rating boost (and no, it’s not tied to swinging strikeouts — I occasionally got a K/9 improvement when I struck somebody out looking).

MLB 18 seems to favor awarding progression of other attributes, which ensured that I ran up against those caps more quickly while my K/9 rating lagged. Now, this may be a result of picking the Control Freak archetype, which doesn’t emphasize strikeouts. But the inconsistent progression remained frustrating nonetheless. Worse still, it doesn’t appear that you make any progress if you simulate appearances; at least, there’s no easy way to check, since you can’t go back and see the postgame progression screen for previous games.

Sony San Diego theoretically accounted for this issue with the other piece of Road to the Show progression, training sessions. You’ll get about one per week, which you can use to improve certain attributes or train with a teammate to lift your caps for particular ratings. (In addition to the max cap, most ratings have soft caps that you have to raise over time.)

But this approach also falls prey to the luck of the draw: Sometimes, you simply won’t have useful training available. I endured a stretch of multiple weeks during which my hits-per-nine-innings rating had reached its limit, but the game’s randomized training options kept offering me anything but the ability to raise that cap. Plus, each pitch has its own separate velocity, control and break ratings, but as far as I can tell, on-field performance only affects your primary pitch — which means you have to rely on training sessions to improve the others. (Update: This was apparently a bug; see below.) My four-seam fastball’s control and break attributes are above 70, while the same ratings for my two-seamer and changeup are stuck below 60.

MLB The Show 18 Road to the Show - Samit Sarkar pondering training choices
I really could’ve used an opportunity to raise my H/9 cap ...
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

It’s possible that all of this is intended behavior on Sony San Diego’s part. The third key change in Road to the Show this year is that your created player will be a mid- to late-round draft pick, not a top prospect with Hall of Fame potential. I was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 28th round. Indeed, the progression ramp is much slower — and therefore, more realistic — in MLB 18. I finished my first season in Double A with a 14-1 record and a 1.61 ERA over 162 innings, but I didn’t get called up to Triple A until the offseason. In MLB 17, I blew through the minor leagues and was playing with the New York Yankees less than three months into my first season.

I’m fine with toiling in the minors for a more reasonable length of time; I’m not actually jonesing for a call-up to The Show right now. I’m enjoying my first season with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, and I still love the leisurely but steady pace of Road to the Show. But however admirable the goal of realism is, something feels off about the way that Sony San Diego accomplishes it in MLB 18.

If you’re going to take control out of players’ hands — especially when players have grown accustomed over years to a complete free-for-all — you have to focus particularly strongly on being faithful to real life. Road to the Show falters in that respect, and it undercuts the very real improvements that Sony San Diego made to the mode in MLB 18. At the same time, I still find myself drawn to the game, and indeed, I don’t dislike the larger structural changes to Road to the Show. I just think the developers’ execution needs some refinement.

Update: The issue I ran into with in-game progression only affecting my primary pitch was apparently a bug, and it has since been fixed. Sony San Diego updated MLB 18 to version 1.05 today, and the patch notes include the following:

“Road to the Show training attribute adjustments to assure pitchers are gaining training points and distributing correctly to secondary pitch types.”