‘MVP Baseball … 2015’? How the Best Baseball Video Game Ever Has Refused to Retire for 10 Years
Early last month, in an article about players who’d improved their projections the most over the past year, I linked to a report that Cubs rookie Jorge Soler had put on 27 pounds of muscle over the offseason. Most people who read the report probably dismissed it as meaningless bluster from the latest player to brag about being in the best shape of his life; Cubs fans probably daydreamed about Soler’s new power potential; a few fantasy players probably bumped the outfielder up their draft boards. But Kyle Bloyd, an Indians fan and Indianapolis TV producer with no stake in Soler’s performance, minimized his browser and launched a piece of software called MVPedit.
“I read your article, put Jorge Soler down as 225 pounds, and changed his body type to be more muscular,” Bloyd told me weeks later. Having made that minor change, he returned to his reading, satisfied that the always-evolving virtual ecosystem he oversees had come that much closer to mirroring reality.
It’s hard to believe in the era of on-demand media, but there’s only one big-budget baseball video game with an MLB license in 2015, and it’s off limits to much of the market. For most of the last decade, the world’s best baseball series has been MLB: The Show, which welcomed its latest installment, MLB 15: The Show, in March. But The Show is a first-party franchise, which means it’s developed by a company that makes a console — in this case, Sony Computer Entertainment, which publishes The Show as a PlayStation exclusive. Owners of other systems are SOL; even last year’s unlicensed success Super Mega Baseball appeared only on PlayStation.
Computer baseball gamers like Bloyd seem only slightly better off. The PC is long on sophisticated simulators, but short on games that supply the primitive pleasure of putting the polygonal bat on the polygonal ball. There hasn’t been a new, licensed baseball game for PC in the same vein as The Show — the kind in which winning depends on hand-eye coordination as well as planning and player evaluation — since MLB 2K12.
We can trace this limited-supply situation back to two early-aughts megadeals that tied two big-time publishers to two major sports. The football domino fell first. In July 2004, a few weeks before Madden NFL 2005 reached stores, Sega and 2K Sports published ESPN NFL 2K5, the sixth installment of 2K’s rival football franchise. NFL 2K5 looked better, played better, and cost less than half as much as Madden, which “scared the hell out of” Madden developer Electronic Arts. EA fought its fear first by dropping Madden’s price tag and then, in December 2004, by paying the NFL and the NFL Players Association hundreds of millions of dollars for an exclusive license to the NFL’s players, teams, stadiums, and footage. For five years — a term that was later extended — no other company could publish a football game that looked anything like the league’s ultra-popular product.
Shortly after the Madden announcement, IGN asked Brent Nielsen, the producer of EA’s baseball franchise, MVP Baseball, whether an equivalent MLB contract was next on the company’s to-do list. “I personally think that would be good,” Nielsen said, laughing. But EA was about to be blindsided: Take-Two Interactive, which owned 2K Sports and was barred from releasing NFL 2K6 by EA’s exclusivity end run, retaliated in January 2005 by signing its own exclusive contract, a seven-year deal with the MLB Players Association that made 2K the lone MLB-licensed third-party developer. The next month, EA released MVP Baseball 2005, the third and final MLB edition of its MVP franchise. The series was stillborn, but the game was full of life.
MVP ’05 was the product of almost a decade of baseball development by EA, beginning with the Triple Play series from 1997 to 2002 and continuing with the first two MVP titles from 2003 to 2004. “From a gameplay standpoint, from a tuning standpoint, from really getting rid of any critical bugs and then really rounding out the game in terms of depth and breadth of modes, 2005 was the perfect storm for us,” Nielsen says now. “It’s a culmination of many, many years of trying to deliver the perfect baseball game that balances elements of sim, but [is] also a fun, engaging, challenging game to play.” MVP 2005 got glowing reviews to go with strong sales following its February 2005 release, and the years haven’t hurt its reputation: The game finished fourth on ESPN’s 2013 ranking of the best sports video games of all time.
None of which makes it sound like a solution to the PC’s “no new games” problem. Like any sports title well past its publication date, the original MVP 2005 is a portal to the past — a living league encased in amber and preserved until today. In MVP’s case, the time capsule was sealed on December 13, 2005, the day rosters were locked in preparation for the final patch put out by EA. If you dig up a disc — at last check, used copies were going for around $60 on Amazon, although there are pirated versions in the usual places — and load the game, you’ll be greeted by familiar faces wearing caps that don’t look quite right: the Astros’ Brad Lidge or Lance Berkman, or the Rockies’ Clint Hurdle or Todd Helton, each of whom endorses EA before giving way to a highlight reel of blocky former players being put through their paces. Cover model Manny Ramirez is everywhere.
The rosters look quaint to anyone who’s watched baseball since 2005. There’s CC Sabathia starting for the Indians against the Yankees. There’s Randy Johnson, a recent inductee to the Hall of Fame, sharing a rotation with Mike Mussina, a recent Cooperstown snub. There’s Bubba Crosby listed as the Yankees’ starting center fielder — where GM Brian Cashman memorably suggested he might actually start — forever on the verge of being displaced by January 2006 free-agent addition Johnny Damon.
But the static rosters of the original game aren’t what make MVP amazing. I showed you those videos so you’d be sufficiently nonplussed when you saw these:
Under the hood, that’s the same game: same engine, same animations, same announcers (Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper), same pitching mechanic. But “new coat of paint” doesn’t begin to cover the cosmetic upgrades. The Dodgers and Rockies have switched Triple-A affiliates, just as they did last September. The rosters are populated with the latest players, all of whom have up-to-date portraits in the menu screens and look like themselves in action, even though many of them hadn’t been drafted or signed when the game was released. The menu and walk-up songs are recent. The stadium is a decent facsimile of Marlins Park,1 which opened in 2012, and the Marlins’ uniforms look like this, not like this. Kuiper pronounces “Clayton Kershaw” as if English is his fourth language, but still, he says it — no mean feat, given that Kershaw was a high school junior when the broadcasters were recording their lines.
EA hasn’t touched the series since 2005, so none of the game’s new content comes from MVP’s maker. It comes from a collective of people like Bloyd: a loosely affiliated community of modders who devote their free time to keeping MVP current, coordinating their efforts via forum posts and private messages at a virtual clubhouse called MVP Mods.
MVP’s long afterlife is a testament both to the quality of the original game and to the lack of PC competition. Take-Two’s exclusive baseball license didn’t pay off the way EA’s football deal did: The 2K series was plagued by bugs throughout its run, and while the graphics got better, the gameplay peaked at competence. “If they would’ve made a good game, they would’ve had a lot of converts from MVP 2005,” said MVP Mods administrator and lifetime post count leader (21,388 and counting) Yankee4Life, who asked to be identified only by his screenname. “You can only get a handful that say, ‘Yeah, I like 2K a lot better.’ Mostly people just said, ‘I tried it, and that’s it. I gave it up.’”
Another factor in MVP’s favor: The game allows greater access to its innards than most titles. “You are very, very limited in what you can mod in the 2K games,” says Dennis James, a psychologist by training whose interest in historical accuracy fuels his MVP passion. “What we like about the MVP version is that you can mod essentially everything.” According to Nielsen, this was more of a happy accident than an intentional choice. “I wouldn’t say it was a core focus and one of our objectives going in, but that it ended up being a nice thing that was able to happen after the fact,” he says.
That malleability, coupled with 2K’s failure to match MVP’s approval rating despite several years of running unopposed on the PC market, made MVP the go-to game for modders even as it lost its looks relative to 2K and The Show. The community’s support peaked from 2005 through the first PC edition of 2K in 2009, tailed off for a time, and then ramped up again once Take-Two abandoned the PC market in 2013 and canceled 2K entirely last year. A decade of EA development made MVP the best baseball game on the PC market in 2005, and a decade of amateur development has helped it keep that title in 2015.
Bloyd, who helped kick-start the community when he started modding seriously in 2011, is spearheading its efforts to finalize MVP15, the 2015 total conversion mod (and the source of the last two video clips) that’s scheduled for release later this month. It’s a Stantonian task, which Bloyd knows from experience, having served in the same unofficial project-manager role on MVP12 and MVP13. Bloyd began working on rosters in December and estimates he’s spent at least an hour a day on the mod since then. Turning Soler into Swoler was one of hundreds of changes in player appearance he made this spring in preparation for the release — so many, he says, that it would be “way too much work to keep an actual list of things done.”
But Bloyd isn’t only a hands-on modder. He’s also the Danny Ocean of MVP Mods, charged with recruiting and motivating a team of specialists to pull off one last job to commemorate MVP’s 10th anniversary and walk away with a working game. There’s James, who’s created most of the major league uniforms and ballparks in Photoshop using a painstaking research process that re-creates each park down to the ads on the outfield fences, and “bctrackboi11,” who handles the minor league unis. There’s “Kccitystar,” who creates the loading and menu screens. There’s Gordon Wells (screenname “daflyboys”), a Pennsylvanian who uses advanced stats to build on previous mods and tweak the array of roughly 25 player attributes that determine each player’s overall rating — a vital task, given that MVP starts out not knowing Yasiel Puig from Pete Kozma. Once he’s massaged the statistical ratings to his satisfaction, Wells believes that MVP can be used to simulate the season with fairly accurate results. “I knew I was getting things pretty close because I had one Orioles fan come on here and he seemed pretty pissed off by the way the team ended up being rated overall in various categories,” he told me via private message on the MVP Mods forum.2
And then there are the Joey Bishops and Peter Lawfords of the pack, who help with comparatively minor but still indispensable tasks: maintaining player ID lists, packaging everything into a clean installation package, assorted troubleshooting. Complicating matters is that almost no one on MVP Mods has met in person or communicated through non-electronic methods, which means there’s little recourse when someone disappears. As a result, Bloyd has to learn on the fly how to manipulate the files that contain Krukow’s and Kuiper’s words to make them sound like the names of new players. “These guys found a way to transcode those audio files and break them down,” Bloyd says. “So now there are players in the last 10 years, and their names weren’t in the game. And people have found ways to chop up the files and make these names happen, and then they put them back into the game.”
Not every mod is present-oriented, though. Even more effort is devoted to the “Total Classics” historical immersion mods, which replace all the stock settings with rosters, uniforms, stadiums, and sounds from specific seasons. One of the most popular versions, with more than 13,000 downloads, is “Total Classics Phase 10,” which incorporates 120 classic teams. Here’s a clip from Phase 10 featuring the 1933 Giants facing the 1994 Expos (you’re welcome, Jonah Keri) in Three Rivers Stadium.
TCP’s intro is redone with classic clips, and the length of the credits conveys how much work went into the mod. There’s also a Negro Leagues mod, and maybe most impressive, “Legends From the Booth,” a three-year project that replaces Krukow and Kuiper with scavenged commentary by Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, and Mel Allen. An admiring “This is insane!” is the appropriate reaction to the 2,000-word description of the way the mod was made.
Many Total Classics mods are collaborations between James and Jim Urso, a software test engineer. “He’s a real artist when it comes to stadiums,” Urso says of James. “He’s like me, where I tend to be a perfectionist and I may see something in something I do, and I’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s quite right yet,’ so I may do things three or four times until it’s just right.”
MVP’s international modders are equally attentive to detail. One of the forum’s most active contributors is Yukihiro Sato, a 51-year-old from Shizuoka, Japan who posts under the screenname “Rising Son.” Sato, who built a Windows computer just to play MVP (the first computer game he bought), spends much more time customizing the game than he does playing it. “To play the game with [my] own made pictures or to play with the best players [and] teams of yesteryear is the most ‘ultimate’ play,” he told me via private message. Sato specializes in “cyber faces,” one of the modding community’s most technically demanding tasks. When a new player needs to be added to the game — joining the hundreds already online — Sato molds his face, as he did this spring with Yasmany Tomas and Mookie Betts:
Sato also scours the Internet, TV, and magazines and releases updates when someone uses a new glove or bat or grows a mustache, or when, as he puts it, a player’s “hairstyle turned big” (which has happened a lot lately). Finally, he fulfills requests for new faces, both current and classic, in accordance with the community’s do-unto-others ethos.
The most ambitious mod of all — so sprawling that it has a separate site — is MVP Caribe, a collaboration among three native Spanish speakers — Omar Hernandez (Dominican Republic), Héctor Rivera (Mexico), and Francisco De La Cruz (Venezuela), who met online at MVP Mods many year ago but haven’t met in person because of prohibitive travel costs. MVP Caribe is a total conversion of the Caribbean Series, the tournament featuring the champions of the Cuban, Dominican, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Venezuelan leagues. The trio released the first edition in 2007 and updates it every November, while also releasing periodic mods for the World Baseball Classic.
De La Cruz, a TV engineer and aspiring broadcaster, takes pride in not bending any roster rules. “We add the players when they play in real life,” he tells me from Barquisimeto. “One of our rules is that a player appears in MVP Caribe only if he plays in the Winter Leagues. For example, we don’t include Felix Hernandez, because he doesn’t play here. We make this because we want to make a game according to our reality. We don’t make mods from fantasy with Felix Hernandez, Johan Santana, Manny Ramirez — no. we make the team with the players who play here.”
The MVP Caribe crew faces challenges that domestic modders don’t deal with. The winter leagues begin in October, but the game comes out in November, which leaves little turnaround time — especially since uniforms change every year, Puerto Rico starts later than the other teams, and there’s more roster fluidity than there is in the majors. There’s also the constant threat of piracy from people who sell MVP Caribe, even though it’s free through the site, where the latest edition has been downloaded more than 61,000 times. And there’s the language barrier: Oscar Soria does some dubbing for the game, but there are too many English lines to replace.
For Hernandez, Rivera, De La Cruz, and their collaborators, modding MVP isn’t merely a matter of avoiding the hassle or expense of paying for a PlayStation. It’s personal. The only way they can play a game featuring their favorite teams and players is to make it themselves.
“MVP Caribe begins with a dream,” De La Cruz says. “When I had my first baseball game in the PC, I played with the Yankees, with Boston. But I had the curiosity to make the game with the Venezuelan teams, the Dominican teams. We had the idea, and this is the solution for us. Make a mod, and improve our techniques for making the mod, and try to make MVP Caribe better than last year’s version.”
“We made the mod from fans to fans,” Hernandez says. De La Cruz adds: “This is our passion. This is our hobby, and this is the way we have to feel our baseball in our PC.”
When IGN’s MVP 2005 reviewer joked, “You may be playing this game until EA gets its 3rd party license back,” he underestimated the modders. MVP isn’t the only sports game with an active modding community — NHL 2004 and recent editions of NBA 2K, among others, have received similar upgrades — but it’s the one a community counts on the most.
“Sometimes you go back and play games you were fond of, and considering where things are now in terms of the level of complexity and stability, in terms of visuals and AI and what we can drive from a physics and animation standpoint, you’re like, wow, games now are so far beyond that,” Nielsen says. “I go back and I’ll pop in MVP and it’s one of those ones that even for me, I’m proud to say, holds up.” The MVP producer still belongs to a fantasy league full of former MVP developers. “We’re still joined by creating that amazing game and that amazing experience that it was creating that game,” he says. “To hear the lengths the community has gone to, that’s really cool to hear.”
According to EA Sports spokesman Brad Hilderbrand, EA CEO Andrew Wilson’s comments to Polygon almost two years ago are still “the most accurate reflection” of the company’s position on getting back into baseball: Maybe later, but not now. After carrying the torch for 10 years, though, only a sequel could convince the modders to retire.
“I’m really mixed,” Bloyd says. “I’ve been playing this game a lot over the past 10 or 11 years. At the same time, it’s a lot of work. If there was actually a game out there that really fulfilled what we’re looking for — all of us — I think we’d all be pretty happy to just sit down and play.”
Note: Because of a misunderstanding, this post originally mistakenly referred to Francisco De La Cruz as Francisco De La Cruz Véliz.