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Dodger Mookie Betts jumps at the Dodger Stadium warning track for a fly ball in MLB The Show 21 Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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MLB The Show 21’s career changes drive players to its microtransaction mode

Developers insist Diamond Dynasty is optional, but it’s still faster than RTTS progression alone

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

MLB The Show’s most-played mode, going on 15 years now, is Road to the Show. By far. Each year, developer SIE San Diego Studio had better come up with something new for its single-player career, or it’s going to hear about it from fans.

So what’s the big new feature in Road to the Show this year? Diamond Dynasty. The game’s other most-played mode.

This integration — the first time that Road to the Show’s created players can be used in other modes — does have its virtues, like seeing your superstar in a custom uniform, with all-time greats on his team. But there’s no mistaking that this new crossover benefits Diamond Dynasty more than it does Road to the Show, which now faces limitations that many longtime players don’t like.

Sony San Diego insisted in a blog post on Monday night, hours before MLB The Show 21’s public launch, that Diamond Dynasty is, or should be, only an optional advancement path for created players — a statement that at least acknowledges fans’ suspicions that the studio intended to drive Road to the Show’s audience toward the game’s microtransaction-based, Ultimate Team-style card collection mode.

But after getting a handle on how progression currently works in Road to the Show, it’s clear that grinding to improve my created star’s perks is faster, more efficient, and simply more interesting in Diamond Dynasty than it is in Road to the Show.

This is because of MLB The Show 21’s new loadout-and-perk system, and progression specific to it. Loadouts and perks give an immediate benefit to (and moderation of) certain areas of a created athlete’s base skill ratings. Players improve the loadout program and perk chips they have installed along a path that will be familiar to first-person shooter fans: Complete “missions” — a series of tasks like getting a number of hits or strikeouts — and collect tiered rewards on the way to an ultimate boosted tool.

A side-by-side comparison of the missions for Diamond Dynasty and RTTS illustrates that progression is faster in Diamond Dynasty. Sluggers get 20 progression points for 20 extra-base hits in Road to the Show; just eight hits are required in Diamond Dynasty to earn the same amount of points. Pitchers ranking up the “Filthy” loadout get 7 progression points for 80 strikeouts in Road to the Show; in Diamond Dynasty, they need only 30 strikeouts.

In its blog post, Sony San Diego said it is “looking into ways of making it clearer that playing [Diamond Dynasty] should be completely optional to progressing your Ballplayer or RTTS advancement.”

“If there is one thing to take away from all of this, it is that a RTTS player should feel like they can freely progress by playing RTTS and only RTTS,” the studio wrote. “Any participation in DD is purely optional and at no point should anyone feel like they need to monetize to progress their RTTS career.”

That may be, but there’s an even bigger signal, to longtime players, that Road to the Show is now subordinate — or, at best, supplementary — to Diamond Dynasty. Using custom difficulty slider settings in Road to the Show renders the player ineligible for loadout and perk progression. If you so much as alter the CPU’s player-trading frequency — an off-the-field setting — in your sliders, perk progression becomes unavailable in Road to the Show. (Difficulty sliders are not available in Diamond Dynasty.)

Custom sliders are not some edge feature for technical obsessives; they’re a category in the game’s Vaults of shared, user-generated content, which recognizes that many, if not most, players expect to tweak the game’s base performance here or there to produce overall statistical results that look more like real life. Experienced players can dominate even the upper end of the game’s base difficulty spectrum, skewing the season’s stats accordingly. I’ve used custom sliders for the past three years to keep my rookies from performing like MVP candidates, while still sanding off some of the rougher aspects of my CPU opposition.

RTTS now defers to Diamond Dynasty

Jack Flaherty of the St. Louis Cardinals throws a pitch in MLB The Show 21 Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

I get why Sony San Diego would be strict about custom sliders. In a Road to the Show mode that’s now oriented toward reward-based progression, a player could use custom sliders to nerf the CPU into oblivion, and rack up strikeouts and extra-base hits to get the goodies faster. But you can already play Road to the Show on rookie difficulty and bash homers all day long, without messing with sliders. Making custom sliders ineligible for Road to the Show doesn’t do anything except, again, show players that this mode now defers to Diamond Dynasty.

Road to the Show players can, of course, still improve their attributes normally — which means incrementally, and much more slowly than perks will advance them — with good play and decision-making in the career games. If they want to speed that up, they must use their created character in Diamond Dynasty.

OK, fine. But the game itself doesn’t even tell the player how to put their Road to the Show star in a Diamond Dynasty game. It took me forever to figure out how to do so, because while my player has technically been part of my Diamond Dynasty collection from day one, he starts out at such a low rating (65) that he’s not visible in the lineup you begin with, or any auto-generated lineup (which many users employ). It’s frustrating to be steered toward Diamond Dynasty but not told how, exactly, to use your player in the mode.

Still, I do enjoy playing with my created ballplayer over in Diamond Dynasty. The mode’s Valhalla of Hall-of-Famers and current stars is a better context for my player’s exceptional two-way talent, which, narratively speaking, Road to the Show supports mainly with fictitious podcasting commentary between games. The real-life broadcasters in these scenes seem only generally aware of his doings, which dulls any sense of excitement.

One last, big, limitation for pitchers

Finally, inveterate restarters of careers like me (and I doubt I am the only one) will be displeased to find that Road to the Show now places an extreme limitation on building a pitcher. When you pick three pitches for him in his first minor league training visit, you had better be happy with them — because your player will be locked to that repertoire for that playthrough and all future playthroughs.

I gave my big country-fried redneck first baseman the junkballer’s arsenal I’d been using with a completely different wily stringbean of a character for the past three years: two-seam fastball, screwball, and slider. I figured I’d start over Road to the Show and change these pitches later if necessary. Nope. Now my character’s fastest pitch tops out at 86 mph for the foreseeable future. His delivery felt so aesthetically unsuited to his body type that I slimmed him down and took muscle mass off. See for yourself:

A player batting lefthanded in a brown-and-orange uniform waits on a pitch along with the game’s catcher and home plate umpire in MLB The Show 21
A repertoire of soft pitches means RTTS veteran Carl-Billy “Country Breakfast” Vaughan (batting here for Diamond Dynasty’s fictional San Jose Seals) had to be slimmed down, to look the part of a crafty junkball thrower.
Image: SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

And with twisting deliveries more complex and harder to pull off in MLB The Show 21’s new Pinpoint Pitching system, I can forget about using that with him until I can change my pitch repertoire.

Even considering all of the above, I don’t think the developers at Sony San Diego are necessarily twirling their mustaches and hiding diabolical plans to wipe out Road to the Show, or to shake down its players for Diamond Dynasty cash. They just don’t explain themselves very well, for both the good and bad features.

But it’s undeniable that Road to the Show lifers face new restrictions. It’s not enough to kill my interest in playing MLB The Show 21; I admit that I have played Diamond Dynasty more than ever, and have had a good time doing it with my avatar. But it takes more adjustment than previous changes, and without a game explaining more completely how and why such things have been done, Sony San Diego can expect grumbling from its fans.