It was six years ago that Visual Concepts first put Michael Jordan on the cover of NBA 2K, inaugurating its rise into the top ranks of sports gaming. Now MLB The Show 17 may be hoping to capture a bit of that magic for itself.
Sony San Diego revealed today that Ken Griffey Jr. will grace the cover of MLB The Show 17—an intriguing move for the generally conservative series. Will MLB The Show 17 have something akin to the Jordan Challenges, highlighting great moments like the 1995 ALDS win against the Yankees that effectively kept the Mariners in Seattle? Or is it just an excuse to stick him back in Diamond Dynasty? It feels like pretty much everything is in play.
If they go with the former option, it will be an interesting new direction for the series, which has traditionally been quite conservative with its modes. While Road to the Show and Franchise Mode are solid, MLB The Show has needed an update for a while now, particularly with competitors like FIFA rolling out story modes and other ambitious features. Ken Griffey Challenges, or perhaps a story mode built around his career, would be just what MLB The Show was looking for.
Granted, it's a stretch to say that Ken Griffey Jr. will have the kind of galvanizing effect Michael Jordan had on NBA 2K. Jordan is almost universally regarded as the best basketball player ever, and many took his addition to NBA 2K11 as a statement of intent by the series. At that time, NBA 2K was seen as a strong sports sim, but it was embroiled in a close rivalry with EA's NBA Live. Following a year in which both games did very well, Visual Concepts responded by upping their game with Jordan, while EA tried to reinvent themselves with the infamous NBA Elite. Elite was never released, effectively ceding the market to NBA 2K in a year in which it was able to draw in a ton of new fans with Jordan. There is no way that MLB The Show can hit that kind of jackpot.
That said, MLB The Show is similar to NBA 2K in that it's already well-respected by fans of the sport, and Ken Griffey's inclusion can also be seen as Sony San Diego saying they want to make this year's version extra special. Like the sport itself, MLB The Show has struggled to garner notice outside of its fanbase, in part because it's released in March and is thus usually out of sight and out of mind by the time the rest of the sports games hit. If MLB The Show wants to get noticed, it could do worse than to put one of the most beloved baseball stars ever on its cover—a '90s star who managed to remain untainted by the steroid scandals of that era.
I will say that I'm legitimately curious about what MLB The Show has in store. It was about five years ago that I stood at a bar in AT&T Park with The Show's development team and asked why they didn't cash in on baseball's history with something similar to the Jordan cover. They responded by pointing out the disconnect between the game's younger audience and historical stars (do 12-year-olds really care about Ruth or DiMaggio?), and how hard it is to make repeatable challenges like the ones featured in NBA 2K. After all, even a player like Griffey only gets to hit three or four times per game.
If I were to guess, Sony San Diego is angling for something akin to FIFA's The Journey, but with Ken Griffey serving as the star instead of a generic character like Alex Hunter. If that's the case, then they could leverage existing systems while adding in story cutscenes and "great moments," which would make for a great spin on Road to the Show. I know I'd be excited to play that.
Or, like I said, it may just be a nice menu theme and a new Diamond Dynasty card.
I don't think so, though. With sports sims featuring more and more ambitious storytelling, The Show will have to work hard to keep up. Trotting out Ken Griffey Jr. seems like a great way to leverage baseball's recent history while also responding to the competition. Consider my appropriately hyped.