Under Further Review: Out of the Park Baseball 16

I don’t ever play video games, really. I haven’t consistently played a console game since I had a Playstation 2. I don’t see the appeal of most games, and that might have to do with my conception of gamers themselves. I use Reddit as much as the next guy, and any time video games come up, the people who comment come off almost exclusively as people I wouldn’t get along with. They ascribe an overblown importance to their gaming hobby, for reasons I can’t ascertain.

Of course, an ardent gamer could say the following: “Well, you write for a sports blog, which means you’re really into sports. So you don’t really have that much room to talk, because sports are an equally empty thing to get really excited about. You clearly don’t play. You’re clearly not in charge of a team. Hell, you clearly project your failed athletic ambitions onto the athletes when you yell at them on TV. Face it, you hate yourself.” To which I’d respond, “Watch it there, gamer guy, you don’t know me like that, and you were only supposed to be a minor character in this hypothetical situation, so stop punching above your weight.”

As it were, I kind of wish I were in charge of a team. In my wildest dreams, I’m the GM of some analytics-minded sports franchise, and my innovative new metrics are revolutionizing the way talent is evaluated. A pipe dream, sure, but maybe this generic gamer dude was right.

Honestly, when the idea of me, out of all of the good people here at Crooked Scoreboard, being the one to review Out of the Park Baseball 16 arose, I kind of felt like I wasn’t the right person to do it, since I don’t play video games. A good counterargument to that is that OOTP is a completely text-based game (no coordination required!) in which one can play the role I’ve idealized in my head: baseball general manager. My counter-counterargument was this: when I’m not earning billions as a blogger, I work as a data analyst, where I play text-based games called “Microsoft Excel” and “Writing Statistical Programming Code” (not very highly respected titles in the gaming community) for dozens of hours a week. I felt like looking at a screen with numbers all over it might not be a good enough departure from my workday, like, say, Netflix proves to be. But then, I started playing the game.

The first thing I noticed about OOTP 16 is that I was able to download and play it on my tire fire of a laptop from 2010. They get props for not deeming themselves too good for my meager tech specifications. It ran like a charm, at that. The lack of graphical bells and whistles is a welcome treat for me. Nothing about running a baseball team requires a virtual-reality helmet or James Cameron levels of CGI. It’s clear that the vast majority of the effort that went into the game had to do with its impeccable attention to detail, like its true-to-life rosters (down to the minors and foreign leagues). Owner temperaments and incentives-based contrasts are examples of the many things that a game where you actually bat and pitch using a controller would almost certainly be missing. A lack of authenticity would have made me click out of the game incredibly quickly, but OOTP 16 is more authentic than ever. Its new official MLB license means that real-life logos and ballparks are part of the experience for the first time.

Then came the structure of the game itself: the setup puts the player in control of a dizzying array of customizable options. The Cuban baseball league exists in this game, with the names of real teams and players, somehow. If, in some world, you dream about being at the helm of the Isla de la Juventud Toronjeros or the Cienfuegos Elefantes, you can do this to your heart’s content. Seriously, how do they have the Cuban league? I can imagine this having been a heavy point of contention in the recent US/Cuba talks. Obama probably said something like, “Fine, we’ll relinquish the right to import your cigars, but you HAVE TO put your guys in the new OOTP.” Needless to say, when I got to select which leagues I wanted to exist in the world I created for my game, I picked only two: MLB and Cuba. That is, even though I could have picked any of several very good options, including the Japanese and Korean pro leagues, or several impressively obscure options, such as stateside independent leagues. This, the very first choice I had to make, was overwhelming. I already felt that the amount of options available to me far outstripped the time I could possibly spend on the game, which is an incredible feat, once you take into account that I hadn’t even played anything yet.

Then came the actual gameplay: I set up a game in which, as I said, only Major League Baseball and the Cuban league existed. Then, because I’m a masochist, I chose to control my hometown team: the Miami Marlins. I figured, at worst, I would get to benefit from the schadenfreude of screwing over the team’s awful lizard-man owner, Jeffrey Loria, in a video game. At best, I would legitimize my personal sense of sports savvy by telling myself that I made all of the most sound statistical decisions en route to a (fake) pennant and a (fake) ring. Before I even managed a game, I fell really, really deep into minute transactions that happen at the lowest levels of any baseball organization. I haggled with Rookie League pitching coaches over whether they would make $50,000 or $60,000 in a season. I went into deep thought about whether I should keep my AAA bench coach, who graded out as “unproven” in the system. I toyed around with the pitching rotation and the batting order in all potential opposing pitching situations. I considered how often I would sit my starters, and who I should bring up to pinch hit, and on and on and on. I started playing at 10 PM, maybe, and the next time I looked up, it was 1 AM. I’d spent three hours messing around with things that would cause, at most, an imperceptible shift in the performance of my team. It then dawned on me: this game could ruin my life, if I gave it the chance.

Mind you, I mean that in the best possible way: this game is so layered that anyone who’s a big enough fan of any baseball team can spend hours on one small aspect of the experience. This is pretty well evidenced by the fact I’ve gone on about this game for this long, and haven’t even made it to the part where I MANAGED A GAME yet. According to my more experienced sources, managing games was supposed to be the best part of the whole deal. Lo and behold, managing games gave me a glimpse into why MLB managers are stereotyped as curmudgeonly and dour-looking men. I GRUNTED at my screen when my second baseman, Dee Gordon, committed his second error in as many innings on Opening Day. GRUNTED! Like some sort of Australopithecine found perfectly preserved and encased in ice several thousand years after the fact in some desolate Himalayan gulch. This completely text-based game was doing the improbable: driving real reactions from me when a simulated Atlanta Brave stole second on my catcher (who I acquired for his arm), and when I had my guys playing in in anticipation of a bunt, but the pitcher still laid one down and got the men to second and third with only one out. THAT, and this is coming from a man who is no expert, must be the cornerstone of any pleasurable gaming experience: having a strong reaction to a game for reasons that have nothing to do with its limitations.

In fact, the game’s Carl Sagan-esque limitlessness makes you feel like it’s smarter than you, and you’re dumb because your team is losing, so you have to be better. This is a very real and highly motivating reason to do anything! If I ever win a World Series in this game, it’s going to feel like I solved some complex puzzle, and I am worthy of some accolade. For now, I’m third in the NL East and trying to appease the owner, who only wants me to play about .500 ball and not lose money gambling in free agency. These are goals that mirror real life, where you yourself probably just want to go symbolically .500 and not do anything too crazy in your day-to-day grind. This game makes going .500 fun. This game makes that SO fun, in fact, that it can chip away at your free time until there’s none left. This is completely hypothetical, of course, but it might keep you up making roster moves at 2 AM when you have to get to work at 8:30.