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MLB The Show 21’s custom stadiums and new loadouts await players next month

Plus Pinpoint Pitching, for the ultimate in stick skills mastery

Another prodigious bat flip from MLB The Show 21 cover star Fernando Tatis Jr.
Fernando Tatis Jr., of Sony San Diego’s hometown Padres, is the cover star for MLB The Show 21.
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.

For years I’ve maintained two different characters in MLB The Show’s Road to the Show career mode: Sam Wade, my stringbean from Maryland, handles the pitching, and Country Breakfast Vaughn, a cut of country-fried steak from Arkansas, is the hitter. Sony San Diego’s Ramone Russell tells me that many players do the same thing, jotting back and forth between save files that don’t exist in the same timeline.

That will change with MLB The Show 21, launching April 20. Now players will be blessed with true two-way potential: They will both pitch and hit in their careers, and will get the opportunity to develop one — or even both — skill sets as they work their way through baseball’s minor leagues.

I get the idea, and I like the convenience, but I worry about the potential for breaking narrative realism in a mode that, among all the vicarious fantasies sports video games offer, has presented the most true-to-life length and expectations of a young player’s development. No matter what kind of stud I’ve built at the beginning of RTTS, he’s always spent at least a full season in the minor leagues, and frequently, it’s two.

But Russell reassures me that MLB The Show 21’s new approach will fit with reality, and not just because people can point to the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani as a bona fide double threat in the major leagues today. Russell says that this year’s two-way story will find support with podcast-style cutscenes discussing the player’s unique potential and remarking on his progression, should the user wind up specializing in a single branch anyway.

“If you don’t want to be a two-way player, you can just say no, like, ‘I just want to hit.’ You can still do that,” Russell said. For the “visual podcast,” said Russell, former players Sean Casey and Cliff Floyd will make regular appearances, accompanied by MLB Network studio host Robert Flores and numerous other guest stars. “The second piece of feedback we received for Road to the Show was, ‘I’m hitting home runs like crazy, I’m striking guys out, and it’s like MLB doesn’t notice. Nobody notices,’” Russell said.

For all of the depth in its modes and fidelity in on-the-field gameplay, MLB The Show’s presentation has been its weakest component year over year, and single-player career modes, overall, leave it to their users to fill out their stories with their imaginations. It’s good to hear that Road to the Show will get some specific support, understanding that other sports series have tried social-media mimicry in their career modes, and the novelty wears off if the commentary delivered is one size fits all.

Russell said Road to the Show in MLB 21 will also strip out the goal of grinding to the top overall rating in a player’s core attributes, and being limited only to that set. This will largely be accomplished by a perk-and-loadout system, which will be day-to-day swappable to allow players to develop multiple talent areas. In RTTSes past, players picked from several archetypes, but were then locked to attribute caps for the remainder of that career. (A pure power hitter, for example, may have little in the way of speed or defensive range.)

From what I’ve seen in Sony’s promotional materials, “perk” might be a little bit of a misnomer; it looks more like players can swap from the old RTTS archetypes (with new ones thrown in) game to game. As a first-year minor leaguer, they still may have power or contact hitting ratings in the 40s. Equipping a power-hitting loadout doesn’t guarantee home runs; it allows players to develop a power game. Whereas previous RTTS archetypes were somewhat limited by position, this approach seems to give more latitude to developing a big-hitting middle infielder, like Francisco Lindor or Oriole killer Gleyber Torres.

“No longer are you trying to get this guy to be a 99 in every category,” Russell said. “You can create whatever player archetype you want to create for any situation. […] And then you can interchange these parts and pieces to create multiple loadouts.”

Though Road to the Show remains MLB The Show’s most played mode, by no means is it the only one getting improvements and new features this year, particularly as the game is making its debut on the PlayStation 5 (and Xbox Series X). Two additions sound like they can add a ton of depth to multiple modes of play, but I’ll need hands-on time with both to really assess their impact.

The first seems somewhat self-explanatory — a stadium creation toolkit, which fans have begged to have for years. In the past, The Show has sort of thrown players into its open-ended customization toolkits (the uniforms in Diamond Dynasty several years ago, for example) with little in the way of a starting point. Not so with the park creator, Russell said.

“Michael Compton, the principal designer, he created 30 amazing stadiums that are shipped with the game,” Russell said. “So you can go into any of those 30 and change them to your heart’s content, and share them, and plan them out. But, if you want to build something from the ground up, you can, and we have templates where it’s nothing but flat grass.”

Customization options and architectural features abound in the stadium creator, with “thousands of props” ready for players to trick out their grounds. Russell said Show players have asked for this kind of modding suite for at least a decade, and delivering it required locking graphics programmer Jonathan Ramsey “in a cave for a little over two years, working on nothing but stadium creation. And I’m not exaggerating at all.”

Then there’s something I’ve wondered about for a while — at least since the closure of 2K Sports’ MLB 2K series: a gesture-based pitching system. It was one of the few things that MLB 2K did with distinction, and Sony San Diego has never tried anything like it, even in the seven years since MLB 2K was last published. But now pitching mavens will get a more deterministic delivery system. Russell said that Pinpoint Pitching, as the new control is called, will provide the greatest pitching accuracy yet, but that it takes the longest for players to adjust to and master.

The three other pitching systems are still available; Sony San Diego always preserves legacy systems whenever the studio introduces new gameplay options. Russell said developers rebalanced those other control sets — the old meter, the right stick-based Pure Analog option introduced in 2011, and Pulse Pitching the year after — to make sure none of them offers a specific advantage over another. “We’re trying to make sure we never have a meta[-game] there, like, you can be effective with all of them, but one doesn’t stand above the rest.”

Still, I asked why San Diego Studio would go to the trouble of developing, then balancing, a new command set when the game already has three. Players also have strong preferences for one of these options.

“We wanted to give people a mechanic that had a lot of depth, where, if you did everything right, you could be very, very accurate,” Russell said. This somewhat aligns with a new, three-columned approach to the game’s difficulty settings, with one prioritizing stick skills to the exclusion of player ratings, mainly for online competitive play.

MLB The Show 21 launches April 20 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and, in a world-class unusual first, Xbox One and Xbox Series X — although the stadium creator and certain other new features will only be on the newer consoles. Major League Baseball, Sony, and Microsoft reached an agreement at the end of 2019 to develop MLB’s signature simulation video game for multiple platforms, with a Nintendo Switch version possibly coming in the future.

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