Bats and Balls. That’s where the similarities end.
I grew up on a healthy diet of cricket. Sport is so entrenched in Australian culture that it’s kind of hard to escape, with backyard cricket an afternoon and family gathering staple, and television programming and ratings being quite literally dictated by what sports are on the telly. From the two different versions of the Footy Show shown on primetime thursday nights – depending on if you’re a Rugby or an AFL city – to the five days of lounging about watching the beauty of a cricket test match play out, Australia is sports mad. But of all those sports nothing gets me more excited than the sound of leather on willow cricket season brings.
Strangely though, until very recently with the release of Don Bradman Cricket 14, there hadn’t been a ‘must-have’ cricket game since Shane Warne Cricket ’99. EA sports had a few cracks – and decent ones at that – but for cricket fans across the world we were left languishing with a few half-baked sequels to that classic Playstation game that is probably still the best way to spend an afternoon with a few mates and a couple of beers. Basically, cricket as a sport is severely underdone in the video game sphere, and for tragics of the sport like me it has always felt like an enormous void in my yearly gaming rituals.
So I turned to the next closest thing in baseball, which while enjoying mild successes downunder, is tenth in line to the venerable cornucopia of sports we aussies follow with cult-like vigour. But boy I have played a hell of a lot of baseball games over the years. I was a Hardball tragic back in the Amiga 500 days and more recently played more hours of the recent The Bigs and The Bigs 2 than I care to admit. And on the back of that thirst for video game representations of America’s favourite pastime, I entered the world of Sony’s baseballs series, MLB: The Show. And the early signs were good . It has bats and balls, it has catches, it has balls flying over the boundary, and it has runs. The terminology had me feeling right at home from the get go. But as I dug into these games, I realised that despite some superficial similarities, baseball and cricket are absolutely nothing alike. And so the learning curve began and I realised that I understand absolutely nothing about THAT American sport.
Despite that, since 2012 I have bought MLB: The Show every year, hoping that it will click one day, and the game of baseball will suddenly make sense to me. But the Picking up MLB: The Show for the first time in 2012 was a bit like being bowled a wrong’un. Not because I didn’t understand the mechanics of the game – after all it’s not a terribly complex sport – but because the flow of the game was foreign to me. After the first game, which I seem to recall having a final scoreline of 3-2 against me, I scratched my head confused at what had just happened. What seemed like an hour had passed and I had only managed to hit a handful of balls to the effect of scoring a handful less runs. And my pitching was even worse. What sorcery was this, “this would never happen in cricket”, I thought to myself.
And it wouldn’t happen in cricket. It’s not unusual to see a batsman score upwards of 150 in the modern five-day version of the game or have run chases of upwards of 400 runs per innings. In a recent four-game test series between Australia and India, two batsman alone put on far in excess of 1000 runs, something that while perhaps unusual isn’t necessarily atypical. Your average decent test player has an average of around 50 runs per innings, at a strike rate of somewhere around the same number. Cricket like baseball is a game of statistics, but while victory in both is based around some of the same metrics, numerically they almost couldn’t be any further apart.
All of these stats have a tangible impact on the game, because it changes my approach to the game, in much the same way it would a player out on the field. Strategies win and lose games in both codes and pacing is a key to implementing those strategies. I know that in cricket if you’re looking to speed up the over rate or slow down the run rate of the batsmen, I know to bring a leg spinner into the mix at one end of the pitch and bring in the field to make him play defensively from his crease. And guess what in a good cricket game the same logic holds. So if my fast bowlers are getting smashed to the boundary too often and going for 15 runs an over, it’s time to rotate the bowlers and change the field. It’s all in recognising where the game statistically is on average and changing your game plan accordingly.
But what is average in baseball? If I’m scoring three runs a match with a batting average of 0.2 is that normal? If my pitcher is pitching an average of two balls per five pitches is that average. What about fouls, they seem to happen all the time, but that doesn’t seem quite right. How many runs are scored in an average game? And so as I continue my yearly baseball journey through the lens of video games, the questions go on and on, and what I thought was a decent understanding of the sport crumbles, something that is reflected in my incredibly poor record in the games. My pitchers are shithouse and my batsman left swinging at air most of the time. And after all that what I’m left with is a feeling of betrayal and hopelessness, that The Bigs series is a mere shadow of the game it represents, and that i’ll never truly understand what has Americans excitedly drinking that terrible Budweiser beer by the litre while sitting staring at their television.
But I persist and still play MLB: The Show every year, hoping that it will click one day, and the game of baseball will suddenly make sense to me. And I enjoy it a hell of a lot, even if most of the time it’s like trying to read heavily faded elvish while wearing 3D glasses. And because I never quite feel I’m playing it right, the stats pages fly over my head, and my game plans are largely stochastic selections from the batting and pitching roster. But while the nuance is lost, the magnificence of the game remains, and I still get giddy when I see the ball hit for six over the boundary. Or is that a Home Run? I’ve forgotten already.
For a better – and AMERICAN – take on the sport of baseball in video games, and sports gamers in general, I highly recommend THE SPORTING GAMER from our friend over at MURF VS. Follow him on twitter @CTMurfy.