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MLB The Show going to other consoles could be 2021’s biggest story, two years early

Someone went to a lot of trouble to break an embarrassing impasse, and it probably wasn’t Sony

MLB The Show 19 - view from inside the Brewers dugout
MLB The Show 19
Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Over the years, as sports fans tried to skull out some hypothetical, any hypothetical, that could deliver a simulation baseball game on Xbox One, inevitably someone would wonder why Sony wouldn’t just make MLB The Show for Xbox anyway, if there was no competing product over there. “Wouldn’t they sell more and make more money?” was the armchair logic.

Sure, I always thought, and occasionally replied. Why doesn’t Chevy make parts for Ford, too? Wouldn’t they sell more and make more money, too?

That’s what makes last week’s news so forehead-smacking. The exact thing I disparaged as an idle or uninformed forum argument actually came true. Shows you what the hell I know!

To recap: On Monday, Major League Baseball, its players’ union, and Sony Interactive Entertainment announced that, in their agreement to continue their licensing deal delivering MLB The Show each year, that series will be coming to other console platforms. While neither Xbox nor Nintendo was mentioned, the social media accounts for both companies retweeted the news (with Xbox dryly noting, “No more away games.”)

Considering Sony had to be frog-marched, by developers large and small, into cross-platform play, we could be seeing video gaming’s biggest business story of 2021 two years early. I suppose it depends on who gave up what to get to this point. But it does illustrate just how extraordinarily limiting an exclusive licensing agreement ended up being for the league that sold it, rather than the publishers and developers — or in this case, console owners — frozen out by it.

By now, we have sports video gamers enrolled in college who heard the bedtime story about 2K Sports and the Great Rebound Hookup of 2005. That’s when, to get back at EA Sports and its exclusive pact with the NFL, Take-Two Interactive negotiated the exclusive-but-not-really deal that created 2K Sports (2K Games, really) and the MLB 2K series. As Madden NFL rooked NFL 2K5 (published, actually, by Sega), so did Take-Two take EA Sports’ knight, the beloved MVP Baseball series.

Except this deal was a third-party-only construction, meaning console makers were free to develop their own MLB games — and Sony continued to do so. Meanwhile, Take-Two’s plans for MLB 2K can best be described as having more money than brains.

News accounts at the time estimated the MLB/Take-Two pact was worth $200 million in all. It would later be blamed for a $30 million annual drag on 2K Games’ bottom line. Take-Two shuttered original MLB 2K developer Kush Games and stuck Visual Concepts with the bag on a nine-month production schedule. MLB 2K9 was a mess and the series, even as the only thing you could buy on an Xbox 360, never fully recovered. MLB 2K13, best described as MLB 2K12 warmed under a heat lamp, was the last game in the series.

The real loser in all of this: Major League Baseball. Sure, it got paid, but now, it had no dancing partner on Xbox right as the Xbox One was launching. Electronic Arts’ MVP engine was more than a generation old; maybe Konami (with the engine driving Pro Yakyuu Spirits) had a means of making an MLB game. But no one wanted to pay the freight MLB was expecting, or so I’d heard. In any event, no one could get an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 sports video game ready from scratch in a year. EA Sports tried that with NBA Live 14 the same year, but at least it had current assets to work with.

MLB sat out all of the Xbox One’s life span, serving up the Fyre Fest meal of R.B.I. Baseball as a placeholder. It was plain to see who had leverage in any potential deal to create a fully featured game on Xbox, and it wasn’t MLB. And with so little changing over the past five years, I have to wonder what the league gave up to get this deal done. It doesn’t make any sense that Sony would be the one either to take less money or put more in to create this deal. But, as I noted above, I’m not a rapper.

And to be clear, this is about MLB The Show, that franchise, coming to other platforms. Someone’s got to port that, or pay to have it ported. If Sony San Diego is doing the porting itself, I imagine the studio commanded a nice price. Otherwise, it’s easy to think that Microsoft and Nintendo are fronting some costs for an approved third party to do the job while Sony San Diego devotes itself to the lead platform.

But again — if having a simulation baseball video game was ever important to Microsoft or Nintendo, they could have done it for themselves all this time, just like Sony. Why pay anything now? My guess is, MLB brokered this deal and likely funded it in some way, just to break an embarrassing impasse and get back into a market it had locked itself out of.

Now we understand the real damage an exclusive license can do, and it’s not to the customers or to the developers. In 2005, Take-Two came stumbling into the club like a drunk and made Major League Baseball feel like the hottest one there by spending so profligately. But there is always the regret of the morning after, and in MLB’s case, that morning lasted 15 years.

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

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