For as long as I've been playing MLB: The Show, online play has been problematic at best, awful at worst. It's a problem that Sony San Diego has consistently designated as a top priority; but thus far, progress has eluded them. This year, it's more pressing than ever.
Much of that is to do with the importance of Diamond Dynasty — The Show's card-collecting mode that is meant to compete with the ultra-popular Ultimate Team modes that have lately come to dominate sports games. MLB 15: The Show brings with it some pretty major improvements to Diamond Dynasty, trimming much of the excess fat from the mode and bringing it more in line with other Ultimate Team modes.
"We're trying to boil it down to its core systems," designer Nick Livingston told me during our chat earlier this week.
For MLB, that means slimming down the menu system, cutting out extraneous features like contract cards and budgets, and making setting lineups more intuitive. It's also possible to create a character and make them a two-way player, setting them as both a pitcher and a hitter. They can be upgraded by feeding them excess cards, leading to the hilarious image of your captain devouring lowly scrubs like Trevor Plouffe to become stronger (the prompt is, "Feed Cards." Yummy).
These are much-needed changes, and they should go a long way toward bringing Diamond Dynasty to parity with other Ultimate Team modes. But here's the rub: Diamond Dynasty, like all other Ultimate Team modes, is an online-only mode. And to be brutally honest, The Show hasn't been all that much fun to play online over the years. Games have long been choppy and unstable, and the input lag has been unbearable. Some fans have managed to soldier through, but there plenty more who have just given up and turned toward The Show's various offline modes. I'm in the latter group.
In introducing gear, MLB: The Show is utilizing many of the general principles shared by RPGs. When you win games, you will essentially receive loot that helps to make your character even better. Items are even ranked by a color system in much the same way as gear in in games like World of WarCraft. As I've always said, sports games are just RPGs by another name. This is just more proof in that regard.
Sony San Diego, of course, is well aware of the challenges facing them. Last year, they threw out the The Show's old netcode and started over, junking the old system and "changing the paradigm." Livingston's explanation of the updated system is densely technical, but the upshot is that Sony San Diego has done their best to mitigate input lag — a major issue for the series in the past owing to the timing heavy nature of hitting. The new system paid some dividends in MLB 14: The Show — it was at least playable to some extent — but it was still far from perfect. The hope, as always, is that matters will continue to improve with this year's version.
Getting the online play stabilized would mean a lot for the series, the biggest being that it would make Diamond Dynasty much more viable, which would in turn mean a rather large financial windfall. More generally, it would improve The Show's shelf life outside of Road to the Show, which has carried the series for as long as I can remember. I would love to get a league going with some friends, play a few rounds online, and maybe even dabble in Diamond Dynasty, where a Harmon Killebrew card awaits (collect enough cards from one team and you can unlock a legendary player). Online play is what carries a sports sim long after the A.I. ceases to be interesting.
To be sure, MLB 15: The Show has plenty going for it outside of online play. Its Road to the Show and franchise modes remain rock solid; and out of all the sims currently on the market, The Show probably does the best job of simulating its particular sport. Saves from Road to the Show will carry over from both the PS3 and PS4 versions of MLB 14 this year, so I'll get to continue building on the legacy of Catfish Bailey. And there are a plethora of mechanical tweaks, animation improvements, and graphical upgrades that help MLB 15 look and play better than ever.
But at this point, the single biggest improvement Sony San Diego can make to The Show is to finally nail the online play. Admittedly, baseball is perhaps the most difficult sport to model online, with a ridiculous number of physics calculations to make from the moment the ball leaves the pitcher's hand to the point that it flies off the bat and into the field, and with zero room for error in terms of input lag. But in this day, good online play is a must, especially given the prominence of Ultimate Team modes. And for too long, The Show's online play has been a painful weakness.
This is not to say that MLB 15: The Show will be a total failure if its online woes continue for another year. It'll be a very good baseball sim regardless, and Road to the Show will continue to be eminently playable (if a bit dry in comparison to NBA 2K's sports movie-like MyPlayer mode). But if Sony San Diego actually manages to fix online play this year, it will go from "very good" to "must buy right now" very quickly. At this point, good online play is the bar MLB: The Show needs to meet to get back into the uppermost tier of sports games alongside FIFA and NBA 2K. I'll be rooting for them. It's about time I finally get a True 162 baseball league going.