I often find myself despairing over the state over sports games. Over the past decade, the entire genre has become a black hole of microtransactions, its developers increasingly catering to the big spenders who prop up each successive entry. More than a few have lost sight of what makes sports games so appealing in the first place.
But every once in a while I'm pleasantly surprised.
MLB 19 The Show is once again here to open baseball season, and in a interesting twist, it's not entirely focused on Diamond Dynasty—its microtransaction-driven version of Ultimate Team. I mean, yes, many of its new modes ultimately tie back to Diamond Dynasty, so it's not like Sony San Diego has entirely lost sight of the bottom line. But this year's version feels like an ode to baseball in the way that it crisscrosses the sport's history, catering heavily to solo players along the way.
One of its key additions is Moments, a throwback to the classic Jordan Challenges that were so popular in NBA 2K10. Playing as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and other icons, you get to relive key moments of their Hall of Fame careers with authentic stadiums and old-timey black and white videos. It's not 100 percent able to replicate the past—it would have been amazing to get some authentic-sounding commentary to go with the black and white filters—but it's a fair sight better than the variants in NHL and Madden, which felt sterile and pointless.
To be honest, I never thought I'd see the day that we'd get a mode like this. I remember standing around a bar in AT&T Park way back in 2011 and asking the development team if they ever planned to replicate the Jordan Challenges, which won acclaim for putting players in the shoes of Michael Jordan through his storied career. They gave me a litany of reasons for not wanting to do it: Babe Ruth wasn't relevant to younger audiences, setting achievable objectives was too hard in an RNG-driven sim like baseball, and so forth. But eight years later, here we are. I, of course, take full credit for this suggestion.
More seriously, Moments mostly seems geared toward grinding awards in Diamond Dynasty, as completing sets earns you special cards, experience, and in-game currency that can be spent on new players. But even if you're not big on Diamond Dynasty, it's still a cool exploration of baseball history. With well-produced videos adding context between each challenge, it feels a little like watching an interactive version of Ken Burns' Baseball, which is right in the wheelhouse of a sports nerd like myself.
March to October is MLB The Show's other big addition, and it's a similarly well-realized mode that caters to solo players. In essence, March to October is a stripped-down Seasons mode that drops you into key moments of your chosen team's 162-game schedule. Completing challenges earns momentum and boosts your chances of going on a prolonged winning streak, while the opposite puts you at risk of going into a tailspin. Simulation odds are also affected by factors like the overall strength of your team, with powerhouses like the Red Sox naturally having more room for error than minnows like the Orioles.
The mode is designed to be replayable, with unlockable rewards being earned after each successive run; but at a solid 10 to 15 hours a run, I can't see myself going through it more than once. What it does provide is an opportunity to enjoy the season with my favorite team in a way that feels organic. Individual challenges can be knocked out in the space of 15 to 20 minutes, and can give rise to some thrilling results, such as when I rallied from down two to the Kansas City Royals to get a walkoff win in extra innings. I hope Madden, NHL, FIFA, and NBA 2K copy the hell out of this mode.
Solo modes like these are crucial to MLB The Show's longevity. They are the gateway through which new players can become long-term fans, increasing the odds that they'll stick around for more in-depth modes like Diamond Dynasty or Franchise. I'm glad to see that Sony San Diego recognizes this, and I hope that it'll pay off for the series over the long-term.
I have to say sweeping updates like these are really great to see. MLB The Show has been laying the foundation for improvements to Road to the Show over the past couple years, but otherwise it's been pretty conservative with its updates, mainly focusing on quality of life improvements and gameplay. Compared to its competition, it has long struck me as a bit staid, its presentation exemplified by the droning commentary of Matt Vasgersian.
This year's version feels brighter and more polished than years past, particularly with the addition of sideline reporter Heidi Watney and added roleplaying opportunities in Road to the Show. In a small but meaningful touch, character creation in Road to the Show takes place in a bedroom themed after your favorite team, the selection process presented through a computer screen. It may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but after years of dealing with utilitarian menus and waves of numbers, little flourishes like these stand out.
A Huge Update for MLB The Show
One of the dilemmas I tend to have when reviewing sports games is how to score an annual release. Should the final score be based on the quality of the update, or the complete package? Maybe the update is weak, but the game is still really great. It can be difficult to determine how to weigh those two factors since different audiences care about different things.
At base, MLB The Show is a really good sports sim. Unlike Madden or FIFA, it doesn't really have a mode that I would consider a "weak link." Even Franchise, which was almost untouched this year, is one of the best management sims around, sporting a huge number of ways to get through a 162-game season. Fans will of course bemoan the lack of online franchise; but sadly, online franchise is nearly exinct these days.
As I mentioned above, Sony San Diego can be notoriously stingy with its updates. This has sometimes made it hard to recommend MLB The Show to those outside of its passionate and slightly crazy base. This year is different though. On top of adding the new modes described above, it seems as if Sony San Diego has gone through a giant checklist and fixed every tiny problem fans have had with the series for five years.
Consider online play, which happens to be the foundation of Diamond Dynasty. Sony San Diego has been grappling with online play for years now, seemingly unable to get to a place where it actually feels good. Even now it can't help feeling just a little bit off owing to how critical timing is to hitting and pitching. But it's not nearly as problematic as last year, when games were failing to record or just straight-up dropping. If you want to play baseball against other people, this is probably the best year to do it.
MLB The Show's other bane, hitting, has similarly made solid gains this year. Sony San Diego has basically tuned down pitching and tuned up hitting, making it hard to locate junk balls while making it easier to club misaimed sliders out of the park. As you might expect, this has made it remarkably easy for top players to rack up massive stats, but it has also made hitting far less annoying. It's especially great for Moments, which are heavily dependent on objectives.
Thanks to these tweaks, MLB The Show is monumentally more accessible than it was last year, when hitting was a pain and every objective was built around an excessive amount of grinding. There's a giant suite of options ranging from unique hitting cameras to Dynamic Difficulty, which automatically adjusts difficulty depending on how well you do as a pitcher and a hitter. Even if you're really bad at baseball, there's probably a mode out there for you to enjoy, even if it's just pitching in Road to the Show, the mode in which you get roleplay the career of a professional baseball player.
There is still work to do, of course. Many of the current complaints center around the inability to use Dynamic Difficulty in March to October, which is due to it being tied directly to Diamond Dynasty rewards. The obvious solution is to disable rewards when using Diamond Dynasty, but I'm sure Sony San Diego is loathe to unwind all of the work it has done to integrate every last mode and system with its Ultimate Team mode. In any case, some sort of compromise is called for.
There's also the problem of March to October's difficulty being slightly out of whack. Some players are finishing with 130 wins, which is obviously an insane win total. But if you make it to Game 7 of the World Series and lose, you will get absolutely nothing for your trouble. Some kind of tiered reward system is called for, as well as another look at the difficulty (a March to October Challenge Mode with special rewards would no doubt play well with hardcore players). Regardless, it's a great debut.
Taken together, it's an extremely impressive update. Road to the Show has a brand new archetype system that ties directly into its dialogue options, allowing you to be a jackass Lightning Rod or The Captain, with corresponding skills being unlocked depending on your choices. Diamond Dynasty has done away with many of the most divisive aspects of last year's update, making it easy to unlock high-level players simply by playing the game across its many modes thanks to universal XP gain and reward tiers. March to October and Moments are both great, and even online play seems less divisive than usual. It's great.
With the PS4 winding down and next-gen looming, it's fair to say that this is the peak of the generation for MLB The Show. Sony San Diego has gone all-out on this version, making sizable improvements to almost every aspect of the game (except, as I already mentioned, poor Franchise mode). I've barely even touched on Diamond Dynasty and Road to the Show, both of which have received rather extensive updates of their own. More importantly, pretty much all of these updates are a step forward rather than a step back, which is a tricky thing to manage in a sports sim.
I have to say, Sony San Diego has set a really high bar with this version. It's going to take a lot to top such a comprehensive overhaul. If I were to suggest an improvement, I would say that the graphics are due for an update, as the character models and hitting animations are starting to look a bit long in the tooth. In the meantime though, MLB The Show 19 is a great game. If you've taken a few years off from the series and want to jump back in, now is the time. You will love what you find.
Sony San Diego overhauls almost every single aspect of MLB The Show with this update, with the outstanding March to October and Moments modes leading the way. At least for right now, it seems destined to go down as the best baseball sim of the generation, and maybe as one of the best sports sims as well.