Written by Robert Kuykendall, @rkuykendall.

The History of Baseball Video Games

16 April 2016

I researched and wrote this for a class on *Baseball and the American Experience* at Texas State University in San Marcos. It surprisingly difficult to find good information on older baseball games, so I decided to publish it online and will be working to improve it over the next few months.

Our Game and Our Games

By the late 1970s video games became an American obsession, and since the beginning, developers have looked to America’s pastime for inspiration. Baseball video games have been some of the most popular on every console2. Baseball video games allowed early players to connect with the game on the screen, bridging a generational gap between the games their fathers taught them, and the games they would have to teach their fathers. Before the consoles, kids would go nuts for old Coleco handheld games, hardwired plastic machines with a few lights and buttons2. Graphics in those days came were limited to the sticker placed onto the face. These primitive machines foreshadowed the games that led development on the early consoles, only shadows of what we know as baseball, but with an ability to stir the imagination. Graphics, audio and capabilities improved with the industry, and each evolutionary step a glimpse into another facet that makes up Baseball, but the best games of each generation were those that reached out and captured the pure joy of the game.

The first Baseball video game: “Videocart-12: Baseball”

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The first Baseball video game cartridge was released by Fairchild Semiconductor in August 1976. The twelfth game released for the Fairchild Channel F, a cartridge based video game console years ahead of it’s time. The controller was a stick without a base, and a cap on it18. The cap moved in eight directions: forward. Backwards, left, right, twist left, twist right, up, down18. The game featured an innovative pitching system that would become the standard among future games. Pulling the controller forward or back would increase the speed of the pitch, while twisting it left or right steers the pitch18. After a hit, Fielders could be mores left or right to make an out.

The Golden Age & Something Like a War

In 1978 Atari released Home Run, the first Baseball game for the Atari VCS, the first widely distributed Baseball video game. The VCS would be better known as the Atari 2600, but it wouldn’t be given that name until the introduction of the Atari 5200. Home Run was deeply flawed, as video game critic David Mrozek says in his History of Baseball Video Games, “I can see why Atari didn’t name this one Baseball, since it bears little resemblance to the national pastime”11. A team only consisted of 3 players, and they all moved together, like Foosball players, but in every direction. It was hard to tell what was going on and things jumped around a lot. It was Baseball for the Atari though, and that was all that seemed to matter. “nobody seemed to notice or care… It was a baseball video game that you could play on your freakin’ television!”2.

Atari’s Home Run entered a world desperate for an Atari Baseball game, but the console was ripe for competition. Mattel set it’s sights on Atari, and released the Intellivision game console in direct competition with the aging Atari VCS 8. “The early Atari/Intellivision War was legendary. The Atari had more games and spread like a virus, where the Intellivision boasted superior graphics”2. Mattel saw Home Run as Atari’s biggest weak spot, and leveraged advanced graphics capabilities to release a more realistic Baseball video game for the Intellivision. In 1980 Intellivision released Major League Baseball, featuring among other improvements, a real diamond, more players on the field and gameplay overall closer Baseball2.

The company launched an ad campaign, featuring sports writer George Plimpton, mercilessly attacking the Atari 2600 in side-by-side game comparisons5. At the time, game footage was often hidden as much as possible, if shown at all, because of how limited graphics were at the time, but Intellivision put screenshots and in-game footage in the spotlight of it’s campaign. In a magazine ad titled “Two pictures are worth a thousand words,” George Plimpton stands behind two televisions, running Home Run and Major League Baseball, with the quote “Nothing I say could be more persuasive than what your two eyes will tell you” 8.

Other ads actively pointed out elements of Baseball missing from Atari’s Home Run, present in Intellivision’s game6. George asks, in the middle of bleacher surrounded by 15 or so people, “Who better than Baseball fans to compare Baseball games?” As George introduces Atari Home Run, fans around him remark “Where’s the Diamond?” “There are only 5 players!” Intellivision Major League Baseball is greeted with “oohs,” “ahs,” and cheers as a player barely makes it home6. “What did you think?” Plimpton asks the man next to him, who responds as if he was watching a real game “He was out by a mile!” An older man a row up begins to argue with him, and Plimpton chuckles, “Intellivision Baseball: The closest thing to the real thing”6. The ad campaign mentions the realism of other games in the Intellivision collection, including Football and Soccer, but Major League Baseball was the centerpiece of the campaign and went on to become the best selling game in the Intellivision console history4.

Atari’s response to Major League Baseball was Atari Realsports Baseball. Released in 1982 for the Atari 2600, the game was a vast improvement in gameplay and graphics from Home Run, but the game was full of obvious flaws and bugs said to be caused by a lack of test play, and the 2600 was showing it’s age and couldn’t compete visually with the Intellivision11.

In response to the Intellivision ads, Realsports Baseball focused on creating an authentic Baseball image. They got Billy Martin, Manager of the Oakland Athletics, to star in an ad. In the ad for Realsports Baseball, set in the Athletics locker room after a game, Martin commends directly on the Intellivision ads, and almost seems angry at Plimpton when he says “I’ve played real Baseball”10. He voice gets softer and friendlier though, “I’ve also played new Atari Realsports Baseball, and I like it. I can hit and run, steal, pick off runners,” he fondly says, “Hey, It’s Baseball like Baseball should be played!” The ad is a direct attack on the legitimacy of the ads featuring Plimpton, who “just talks Baseball” unlike Billy Martin, “who lives it”10.

Later that year Intellivision released World Championship Baseball (1983) as part of an update of it’s sports line 1. The game was a bit rushed, which is clear when the title screen comes up reading “All Star Baseball,” but it brought a lot more of Baseball to the game, such as positioning fielders, sliding, fly balls, foul balls, bouncing balls, stealing, pick-offs and extra innings16. The graphics were the same as Major League Baseball, but all the added features put it ahead of it’s genre in gameplay.

In 1983, Realsports Baseball was released for their new Atari 5200. Realsports Baseball on the 5200 has superior graphics to World Championship Baseball, including a complete stadium with scoreboard and homerun fence, uniformed players, and a crowd. The impressive voice synthesis allows the pitcher to call strikes, balls and outs11. Pitching and hitting control were also greatly improved11. There are 12 distinctive pitches, ball control in flight, and you swing the joystick to hit the ball, controlling the height if your cut11.

North American Video Game Crash of 1983 or The Faith of Fifty-Million People

Mirroring the dot-com sector of the late 1990s, the video game industry had experienced a period of explosive growth. Atari was ready for more, and decided to take advantage of the Pac-Man arcade game, and the much anticipated Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was rushing it out for the 1981 holiday season. The game was received poorly by fans and critics alike, with complaints that it was nothing like the original. Despite a huge marketing push, Atari sold less than half the cartridges produced. Atari didn’t to anything from their mistake. In 1982, the following year, ET sat at #1 in the box office for six weeks straight. Atari bought the rights for $20 million, and anticipating huge Christmas sales in the wake of the movie, rushed out ET for the Atari 2600 in five weeks. Buggy code and poor gameplay resulted in disappointed fans and a disaster for Atari, who produced more copies of the game than there were Atari 2600s in homes.

The industry was full of third party developers trying to cash in on the booming video game industry. Companies with little regard for the consumer paid poor developers to quickly write game so they could get them on the shelves fast enough. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the 1983 game Pitcher’s Duel. In the early 1980s every console had their own Baseball game. Atari and Intellivision were still battling, the Odyssey2 had Baseball! (1978) and ColecoVision had Super Action Baseball (1983), but owners of the Vectrex system were out in the cold. In 1983, Vectrex hired a programmer to develop a Baseball video game for their console13. The developer, who knew absolutely nothing about the sport, was ordered to watch games on television until he understood enough to produce a game13. The development of Pitcher’s Duel reflects the mindset of the industry in the early 1980s.

In 1993 the market was flooded with products from a multitude of publishers17. Third party companies began to go out of business and their games were discounted heavily, companies still in business lose money to all this excess stock and the snowball rolls down the hill. Nearly complete, Pitcher’s Duel was shelved as the crash sealed the consoles fate. Milton Bradley acquired the console, and lowers the price to make it competitive17. The price drops to $100 and Milton Bradley is losing money with each unit sold and cancels the Vectrex17. Vectrex owners never got a Baseball game to call their own.

The Return of the Video Game & A Whole New Ball Game

Hardball, released by Accolade in 1985 for the Sega Genesis, was the first big step in this direction; “Until [Hardball], we settled for little moving dots and poorly animated players”2. Accolade improved graphics and animation on the field, and Hardball is credited as the first game to include the behind-the-pitcher camera angle so familiar on television, a fundamental change and drastic improvement over the bird’s-eye-view of previous games.

Pete Rose Baseball was released for the Atari 2600 by Absolute in 1988. It was the last Baseball game released for the console, but easily the best11. Absolute added the behind-the-pitcher pitching view from Hardball, and the pitcher, batter, catcher umpire are all present, detailed and well animated11. After the ball is hit, the camera switches to one of two infield views, then to one of three outfield views if the ball continues11. Unfortunately, by 1988 most kids had switched to the Nintendo16.

In 1988 Jaleco released Bases Loaded for the NES. Bases Loaded had simple controls and solid gameplay, including great base stealing and pitching control, but was also aided by an impressive advance in graphics2. The game featured twelve different teams, each with around thirty players, and was the first game where players were complete with individual statistics214. If you hit a player enough time, it would start a brawl, which is an interesting feature that has failed to come up in future games16. Jaleco added the Hardball behind-the-pitcher view, and game included a scrolling field which much more realistically followed the ball instead of switching between predefined shots or a static field11.

In 1988 Japanese company Namco released RBI Baseball for the Nintendo Entertainment System 7. RBI Baseball wasn’t the best looking video game of it’s generation, nor did it do anything to advance the technical aspects of the genre or introduce new aspects of play, but the gameplay was solid15. More importantly, RBI Baseball was the first video game sanctioned by the MLB Players Association, which meant you could play with real players214. Each player had individual statistics from the 1986 and 1987 seasons, so the lineup mattered9. The game was made up of players from ten teams, the eight playoff teams from the 1986 and 1987 seasons and the All-Star teams from the American and National leagues, but without an MLB license teams simply went by the name of their city914. The game included a nine-game season mode that began the development of the complex Season modes in present games2.

In 1989, SNK released Baseball Stars for the NES. It was the first game to have long term memory, which significantly expanded gameplay possibilities. For the first time players were able to create their own teams and players, which has become a standard amongst baseball games since16. There was no trade option, but you could fire players and hire new ones16. Each player on your team got a certain amount of money and if you could give them a raise you’re given a number of points you can use to improve player statistics16. This opened the genre up to a whole new type of play, as players could be trained and traded, and the digital Baseball Franchise game was born.

In 1992 Sega released Sports Talk Baseball for the Sega Genesis, the crowning achievement of play-by-play commentary that had become a growing staple of Baseball video games16. The commentary lagged signally behind the action because the announcer had to finish saying things, but it was surprisingly good. Sports Talk featured all the major league teams and players, but no real stadiums113.

In 1993 Tengen released RBI Baseball ‘93. Although it couldn’t compete with Sports Talk Baseball, RBI is a good game with good gameplay. The illustration and animation of the game was excellent, but what made it special was that all the Major League parks were represented in stunning detail11. They may be less impressive sixteen years later, but memory preserves our awe, David Mrozek writes “I remember being so impressed with Royal stadium and it’s fountains of frozen water.”

The Baseball Experience & The Turn of the Century

RBI Baseball 4, released by Tengen for the Sega Genesis in 1994 was an unfortunate foreshadowing of the kind of dishonest tactics that would muddy sports video games over the next decade. RBI Baseball 4 was essentially RBI Baseball 93, released one year prior, with updated rosters. The developers made improvements, but they were sparse and only stood to point out the real progress that could have been made. Around this time large companies realized they could invest money into developing a successful franchise, and each year with minimal upkeep, make minimal improvements, update the roster, and sell it as a new game. The resale value on older years plummeted, and sports video games began to receive from video game enthusiasts the same animosity film buffs hold towards formula films.

World Series Baseball, developed by Sega for the Sega Genesis in 1994 represents the first real release in an interesting field of Baseball realism that continues today. World Series Baseball was the first game to strive for realism, not just in the game, but in the experience. All the professional teams, stadiums, players and respective statistics are represented, realistic and beautiful15. What really sets the game apart are the additions to the park. The Sports Talk Baseball announcer does play-by-play, a scoreboard displays humorous animations along with the score, many other additions and details are scattered throughout the game, such as vendors shouting in the stands11.

Sega released produced World Series Baseball 95 the next year with more vibrant, colorful graphics, and various interface and gameplay improvements. Sega took a great game and improved it significantly. Unfortunately, greed and shortsightedness led Sega to follow in the footsteps of RBI Baseball 4. World Series Baseball 96 is a near perfect copy of the previous title with updated rosters11. World Series Baseball 98 is unique, in that it represents the beginning of another sleazy marketing tactic that would tarnish sports video games. Released in 1997, World Series Baseball 98 skipped a year, in a move for a competitive advantage over all the other Baseball video games. Once this became a universal practice in the industry, releasing a game named for the year it was produced, or even the Baseball season the roster is from, would be commercial suicide.

Leading up to the turn of the century, the genre began to stagnate, perhaps mirroring the publics opinion of the sport after the players strike and leading up to the homerun race. The next generation of video game consoles took video games into the third dimension, but Baseball games were just going with the flow. 989 Studios released MLB 99 in 1998 for the Sony Playstation, and then updated the roster and added a few lackluster features for MLB 2001 in 200011. Acclaim released All-Star Baseball 2000 in 1999 for the Nintendo 64, and then updated the roster for All-Star Baseball 2001 in 200011. The games released were solid, and entertained the many Baseball fans buying consoles, but there’s nothing else to say about them.

The Show & The Game

In 2009 Sony released MLB ‘09: The Show for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii. The Show is the undisputed pinnacle of Baseball video games, and of the breed of Baseball realism begun by World Series Baseball in 1994. ESPN called The Show “the most convincing game of interactive baseball ever made”15. The visuals in the game are as authentic as it gets. There are a great number of compilation videos on YouTube put together by fans, and in any one of them you can forget for a second that you’re watching a video game. Players are true to life, down to lucky wristbands and glasses, and the animation is nearly flawless. The lighting and color is beautiful, and as the sun sets on evening game, the sunlight dances across the field, casting shadows of the park’s silhouette on the grass12.

The features that make The Show interesting are the things that have been added to capture the essence of a Major League game. All the parks have all been recreated in unbelievable detail to match the original perfectly12. Each park has their own unique elements, such as Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park or the sting rays at Tropicana Field, if you hit a home run in Houston and the train with move along the tracks, “if a stadium has it, we have it as well”12. The ivy in Wrigley field changes from green to brown with the seasons12. Hometown fans hang K signs on the nearest railing, representing the strikeouts by the home team’s pitcher12. The mascots for each team are there, and during the game they pump up the fans, dance on the dugout, do everything else you might expect. In one clip, Mr. Met is shown staging a dance competition between two fans12.

Wii Sports, released by Nintendo in 2006 stands in contrast to MLB ‘09 The Show. The game is designed to be intuitive, instantly playable and fun. There is no setup or calibration, and since swinging the bat is as simple as swinging the motion tracking controller, it plays just as you would expect19. Pitching is simple and flicking Wiimote will throw a fastball, but you can hold D-Pad to change pitch location, and in combination with other you can throw curveballs, screwballs, and splitters19. There is no running or fielding, so base runs are determined by where the ball is hit. Wii Sports reminds us of the early Coleco handhelds and simpler games like Home Run. For players might not have been introduced to video games, Wii Sports Baseball is a game that doesn’t require an introduction.

References

  1. Mrozek, David. 2001. The Video Game Critic’s History of Baseball Video Games. The Video Game Critic. http://www.videogamecritic.net/baseball.htm (accessed October 7, 2009).

  2. 2006. A Brief History of Baseball Video Games. UGO Entertainment. http://www.ugo.com/sports/tribute-to-baseball/?cur=baseball-video-games (accessed October 7, 2009).

  3. 2009. Games We Love: Sports Talk Baseball (Genesis). Games We Love. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmftKsdh4xE (accessed October 7, 2009).

  4. 1981. Intellivision® TV Commercial: Major League Baseball. Intellivision Lives. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0KTjpaG3cg (accessed October 7, 2009).

  5. 1981. Intellivision® TV Commercial: Plimpton Sports. Intellivision Lives. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDza6eTXGEY (accessed October 7, 2009).

  6. 1981. Intellevision [sic] Major League Baseball Commericial [sic]. Internet Lurker. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSnLtSCmmFY (accessed October 7, 2009).

  7. RBI Baseball NES TV Commercial. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usfzRQkxW78 (accessed October 7, 2009).

  8. Onfrichuk, Brendan. 2007. 2600 vs. Intellivision: The world’s first console war has only begun.. The Atari Times. http://www.ataritimes.com/article.php?showarticle=577 (accessed October 7, 2009).

  9. Cutini, T.J.. 2008. T.J.’s Time Machine - R.B.I. Baseball. Operation Sports. http://www.operationsports.com/feature.php?id=368 (accessed October 7, 2009).

  10. 1982. Atari 2600 Realsports Baseball Commercial. Commercial Archive. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W44MVmb7Ezk (accessed October 7, 2009).

  11. Mrozek, David. 2009. The Video Game Critic’s Intellivision Reviews. http://www.videogamecritic.net/intelsz.htm (accessed October 7, 2009).

  12. 2009. MLB 09 The Show - The Little Things. Sony Computer Entertainment. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdfOGmMZKro# (accessed October 7, 2009).

  13. 2007. Take Me Out To The Ballgame With The Vectrex. Pink Gorilla. http://www.pinkgorillagames.com/retro_reviews/take_me_out_to_the_ballgame_wi.php (accessed October 7, 2009).

  14. 2006. History Of Baseball Videogames. G4 TV. http://g4tv.com/videos/11367/History-Of-Baseball-Videogames/#video-41892 (accessed October 7, 2009).

  15. 2009. Top 5 best baseball video games. MSNBC. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30020089/ns/technology_and_science-games/?pg=2#games_top5_090403_baseball (accessed October 7, 2009).

  16. Henderson, Lee Andrew. 2007. The History of Baseball Video Games. Associated Content. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/147860/the_history_of_baseball_video_games.html?cat=19 (accessed October 7, 2009).

  17. Herman, Leonard, Jer Horwitz, Steve Kent, and Skyler Miller. 2002. The History of Video Games. Gamespot. http://gamespot.com/gamespot/features/video/hov/index.html (accessed October 7, 2009).

  18. Marriott, Scott Alan. 2009. Videocart-12: Baseball. AllGame. http://www.allgame.com/game.php?id=17322 (accessed October 7, 2009).

  19. Marbles. 2006. Wii Sports Review. GamePro. http://www.gamepro.com/article/reviews/86628/wii-sports/ (accessed October 7, 2009).

Robert Kuykendall — Say hi at , @startcomics, or in the comments below.