Though you might not know it from looking at TV ratings, America’s favorite pastime is thriving like never before. According to Forbes, Major League Baseball’s 30 franchises posted profits of $496 million in 2006. The average franchise value rose to $431 million, representing an average 1-year growth of 14.7 percent. Meanwhile, fans turned out to stadiums around the country to the tune of 76 million last season, a record that will be bested in 2007.

Surveying the gaming landscape, you would have no idea that baseball has enjoyed such resurgence. In 2006, Madden NFL 07 moved roughly 6.5 million copies on all platforms to take the No. 1 slot in overall game sales. According to the gaming industry website Next Generation, the best selling baseball game of 2006, Take-Two’s Major League Baseball 2K6, placed a paltry 23rd in total sales across all platforms. Not only did it lose to Madden, it lost to three other EA Sports games: NCAA Football 2007, Fight Night Round 3 and NBA Live 07.

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It wasn’t always this way for baseball. As far back as the early 1980s, baseball games thrived on the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. Their popularity only grew with the appearance of the NES. Nintendo’s eponymous Baseball remains one of the NES’ strongest sellers and was one of the earliest sports games made available on the Wii’s Virtual Console. The sheer number of baseball games on the NES serves as a testament to their popularity. If you didn’t own Baseball, chances were you played your fair share of LJN’s Major League Baseball, SNK’s Baseball Stars, Jaleco’s Bases Loaded or Tecmo Baseball. They were all hot properties in their time, but talk to any baseball gaming fans today, and you’re likely to hear about one above all others: RBI Baseball.

Jeff Passan, a national baseball writer at Yahoo! Sports, has all but given up videogames, opting to use his free time to prepare for the impending birth of his first child. But even his wife allows him to make time for an old NES and RBI Baseball.

“It’s nice to see blades of grass whirring in the wind, and it’s nice to see [an in-game player] that’s taken from a bodysuit that has little nodes attached to it,” Passan tells me, describing his experience with some of the newer baseball games. Sill, he has a soft spot for Tengen’s classic. “The idea that every guy was a little fat guy that looked like a weevil, and you could hit a homerun that went off the screen, and the fireworks exploded. There are so many little things to RBI Baseball that make it great. There’s just a fondness.”

Like Passan, Mike Beales holds a special place in his gaming library for RBI Baseball. His love is one that has turned a $40 high school wager into a national competition with prize money totaling over $1,500. Called the RBI Baseball Championship of the Universe Tournament, or COTUT, Beales and his friends have hosted this bi-annual tournament in the Chicago area four times since 2000, and the fifth instantiation is scheduled for June of 2008.

The COTUT may take place in Illinois, but RBI Baseball is a truly international passion. Over at the Dee-Nee Forums, RBI Baseball enthusiasts from around the world discuss all manner of RBI minutia. Whether it’s debates on pitchers hitting homeruns or examinations of the dimensions of Tengen’s in-game stadium, there’s something for every RBI fan at Dee-Nee. In fact, the site gets its name from the sound the game makes when someone gets a hit. But while the popularity of a baseball game from 1988 can’t be questioned, where is all the enthusiasm for today’s baseball games? If today’s fans are organizing RBI Baseball tournaments across the country, will we be seeing MLB 2K6 Tournaments in 2027?

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Even though baseball has clawed its way back into fans’ hearts following the strike of 1994, baseball videogames never seemed to recover. Madden dominates today’s sports gaming landscape; the NCAA Football series is a close second. What isn’t so clear is what happened to America’s favorite pastime. It’s convenient to say Passan’s “fondness” is just nostalgia, but that doesn’t explain how baseball can reign as king in 1988 and barely muster the No. 23 spot in 2007.

For Passan, much of the problem comes down to simplicity. “Anybody who’s played any kind of PlayStation game can tell you what the four buttons do for football: whether it’s hurdle, dive, sprint or spin,” he says. “But I don’t think anybody can tell you how to play a baseball game. There’s nothing consistent from game to game about baseball, and nothing that you really remember.” Even within series, developers will often tinker with control schemes from year to year in an attempt to find the mix that best captures the game’s feel.

Likewise, Beales cites the older games’ simplicity, saying a large part of their popularity comes from “the fact that you don’t have to learn moves, or do too many combos, because you only have so many buttons on the controller. I think that the simplicity leads to a shorter learning curve. Take RBI and take any friend who hasn’t played the game before. You play one or two games with him, and he’s already at least decent.” By evening the competitive balance, older baseball games fostered purer competition and more of baseball’s bottom-of-the-ninth-two-outs anxiety.

The idea of simplicity, though, points to a larger concern with bringing baseball to consoles. At their heart, most sports games are contests of strategy. Unlike football, where a player need only make a single decision before the snap and then control one man to steer the game’s action, baseball requires several independent actors to be working in concert. The nature of each football player’s role in any given play is very narrowly defined. Thus it is relatively easy for programmers to make sure your left guard, middle linebacker and even wide receiver behave rationally. Simply program in an error rate that makes computer-controlled players screw up every so often, and voilà! You have a competitive football game.

Baseball, on the other hand, has eight players acting independently on every defensive play, and as many as four base runners functioning with only minimal support from a human. Sure, programmers can give us increasing levels of control over these in-game players, but the learning curve skyrockets. The only other option is to put most control over these players’ actions in the hands of AI, which ultimately takes away from the player the bulk of the responsibility for any single game’s outcome. And no matter what kind of game you’re talking about, that’s a formula for disaster.

Beales and other retro-baseball game fans have found their answer to this quandary by looking to the past. “There’s a point in RBI where you can almost no longer get better,” he says. “It goes from gameplay to strategy. You have to know who you’re playing, in terms of your opponent, what his style is and who he likes to choose as a team. Do you want to have a Boston vs. Detroit match-up? Some people like that, some people don’t. [With] righty pitchers, I mean, if you’re batting, you definitely want to have a righty batter. It’s just easier because they have to throw more over the plate and can’t go for the outside corners.”

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Fans may find joy in the details, but games like RBI originally succeeded in large part because the graphics of the day – crude by today’s standards, but still a large upgrade over LED hand-helds and earlier consoles – allowed fans to experience baseball on their own terms. Without the internet, and with 24-hour cable sports networks still in their infancy, fans weren’t able to quench their baseball thirsts as they are today. The novelty of a game like RBI, especially with its MLBPA license, was still a force to be reckoned with.

Today, baseball fans play fantasy sports and subscribe to DirecTV’s Extra Innings. At MLB.com, we can stream any game’s video or radio broadcast. Our every baseball-related whim is catered to by more services than we could have imagined 20 years ago. Videogames no longer need to fill that void for fans, and developers have failed to find a consistent gameplay formula to truly keep gamers coming back.

Don’t get me wrong; some of today’s baseball simulators offer a deep and enjoyable experience, but the days of baseball’s dominance of sports gaming may be over. The Wii, with games like Take-Two’s The Bigs or even Wii Sports‘ baseball, has given us a glimpse of what new control options may mean for the future, but at this point it’s hard to say if anything will put baseball game sales anywhere in the ballpark of other sports franchises. We’re conditioned to always look for the newest offering, but it simply might be the case that for a sport built largely on tradition, the best gaming experiences will always be the classic ones.

Jon Schnaars is a freelance writer with interests in genre and representation in gaming. He blogs full-time about issues in psychology and mental health for Treatment Online.

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