How A Video Game Made Him Into A Major Leaguer

He’d given up six runs in three innings of work when MLB 10 The Show sent the manager out to remove him from the game. Even in a video game, the bad losses stick with you. They stick with Hans Smith a little more.

Smith, 25, bitterly watched the remainder of the game, every play simulated by his PlayStation 3. When it was over he got a visitor. “You look pissed off,” the guy said, moving Smith in his wheelchair.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I just had the worst game I ever played,’” Smith recalled on Friday. “He said, ‘Well, don’t worry, it’s just a video game.’

“I knew what he meant, it was well intentioned, but it rubbed me the wrong way,” Smith said. “I just had the worst game of my life, and you said it was just a video game? I don’t know how to explain to him that this is baseball for me.”

Smith has cerebral palsy, a disability that manifests itself by early childhood at the latest. A decade before most boys grapple with the reality they aren’t ever going to make the majors, Smith had to come to terms with the fact he’d never even step foot on the diamond.

Three years ago, MLB The Show was first introducing its Road to the Show career mode. Create yourself in the game, the TV ad said, tour the minor leagues, and fight to reach the majors. It dawned on Smith that this was more of an opportunity than a game. He sold his original Xbox and all his games to pick up a PS3 and The Show. He might never play baseball, but that didn’t mean he would never become a baseball player.

“My friends thought I was crazy,” Smith said. “I said, you don’t get it, I’m not a gamer, I’m a baseball player.”

It explains why Smith will watch every minute of his team’s games, even if he’s not performing. Why, last year, he waited out a four-week virtual injury in real time, without simulating ahead. And why, thanks to Smith’s insistence on considering himself a virtual athlete, not a disabled gamer, that more will be able to experience the game with MLB 11 The Show.

This year’s game will include settings that enable certain gameplay assistances so that all gamers, even those who can’t fully manipulate a PS3 DualShock controller, can play all modes of MLB 11 The Show, even online. They’re called the “ADVA Settings,” for the Association of Disabled Virtual Athletes,” an organisation that grew out of Smith’s studies at Boise State University, and a relationship with San Diego Studio, makers of The Show, that began with an earnest letter a year ago.

“We do get plenty of emails, fan mail, requests, to add feature XYZ to The Show,” recalled Kolbe Launchbaugh, a senior designer on MLB 11 The Show. “Nothing really compares to the passiona nd honest behind the words that Hans sent us. He thanked us for making the game, and he thanked us for giving him an experience he could not have had in real life.”

Touched, the San Diego developers brought Smith down for a studio tour and created him in the launch roster of MLB 10 The Show, with a proper 3D head scan for his face, and put Smith on his favourite team, the St. Louis Cardinals. The studio guys had to make him a pitcher, a position easier to integrate on the major league roster, rather than as a position player who might displace an actual roster player when the game simulates roster moves mid-season. But Smith is there, a left-hander with a fastball, curve, change and slider plus a knuckleball. He is on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster by default.

The relationship didn’t end there. In one of his classes, Smith was tasked with creating a fictitious business and a business plan for it. “Hans chose to use this opportunity to create something he’d been thinking about for a while,” Launchbaugh said.

While Smith plays the game as completely as he can, certain controls are impossible for him to manipulate, requiring specific play settings to assist him with things like fielding. In live multiplayer, both control systems must be the same. What Smith was proposing was a means for each player to select his control type, which would be a way to integrate disabled gamers with the rest of the game and the miltiplayer community.

The ADVA controls are described more or less as “one-button” controls – the CPU takes over moving the baserunners or fielders, requiring only the press of a button to swing the bat or throw the ball. Smith had been able to play the game without this new control set, of course, but not against live competitors of any ability. Now he can.

“Strategically speaking, the game plays exactly the same way,” Launchbaugh said. “That fact is a very important distinction as ADVA members want the same mental challenges as everyone else, they just need an interface scheme that enables them to physically play the game.”

The ADVA will come into being with MLB 11 The Show’s March 8 launch, Hans said. The association’s web site will go live that day. “I hope to create not only a competitive league, but a place where people with disabilities can come together with a common interest to socialize and have friends, where otherwise they might be alienated from that group,” Smith said.

And when The Show arrives, Smith will be back within Road to the Show, continuing his baseball career. Last year, Smith stayed with the Cardinals’ major league roster the entire season despite the injury, going 9-11 with a 4.51 ERA. Smith said he stopped playing The Show at season’s end last year and won’t pick it up again until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in a couple of weeks.

“Last year I gave up 39 home runs; it’s sad I can remember that,” Smith jokes. “I could tell you what the count was and who I was pitching against in nearly all of them. For me, that’s a part of baseball. That’s part of the experience.

“You multiply your feeling of wanting to play in the majors by the fact I’ve never put on a pair of cleats, not in the major leagues, not ever. Now I’m pitching in Busch Stadium,” Smith said, “This game has given me a pair of cleats. It has given me a glove and said here. You’re on the mound for nine innings. Go and take it.”

Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.

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