Though I wish I could say I was smart enough to think up this ruse in advance, I really did forget my backpack somewhere inside EA Sports' Tiburon studio during a recent visit. This became an opportunity to roam all of its upper four floors of development, though not unescorted.
Madden has its own section, Tiger Woods PGA Tour has its own section, NCAA Football has its own and so on. "Which floor is the one where you're secretly building MVP Baseball?" I asked my contact. He chuckled, but not in a way that suggested anything.
Maybe I should have lost my backpack in British Columbia; before it was closed down by 2K Sports' infamous exclusive contract with Major League Baseball in 2005, MVP Baseball was built at EA Canada. But who knows. It's not like I was making an unannounced visit, and EA Sports has shown it is capable of keeping things secret even from others who work in the same building.
Still, the most simple answer is often the correct one, and in this case, it could be that EA Sports is not building MVP Baseball at all. Though everyone assumes EA Sports will jump back into publishing an MLB game, the idea that they wouldn't isn't so ridiculous.
I mean, let's be real: Even a year is not a lot of time to make a simulation-quality video game. Yes, EA Sports has already done a lot of work that can be useful to a new video game, but since the last MVP Baseball five new stadiums have opened, and rendering them in a game is an immense undertaking, much more complex than in other team sports because of how irregular playing dimensions influence balls in play. (Sony's MLB the Show designers say a single stadium requires four months of work). I can't imagine Major League Baseball or 2K Sports allowing any preparatory surveying to happen during an exclusive licence between both. 2K Sports' exclusive licence with MLB is why EA Sports' NHL series couldn't feature the Winter Classic until it moved to an NFL stadium, and why the Pinstripe Bowl or the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which are played in baseball parks, don't appear in NCAA Football.
All the other stadiums would have to be re-rendered in high definition, too. And while MVP has retained a very loyal core — particularly on the PC, where they are known for "total conversion mods" that keep the game fresh — you're still talking about last-gen animations, interactions and even gameplay mechanics. I think about everything that has to go into building a current-generation simulation baseball title, and the gap between current expectations and MVP 2005 — even if it did win Operation Sports' recent greatest-game-ever bracket tournament — is stark.
Honestly? It's hard to think that EA Sports is in the game.
We're almost 10 months from the traditional release of Major League Baseball's simulation video game, with no news on who will be the licensee for baseball video games on the Xbox 360, which is currently 2K Sports. Its exclusive deal with Major League Baseball was announced in January of 2005, a full year before it kicked in. I have no idea what day 2K's deal with Major League Baseball expires. It was never specified in the original announcement, only said to expire in 2012.
Though 2K Sports is definitely behaving like the licence owner with its aggressive marketing of MLB 2K12, and a million-dollar contest promotion now in its third year, that's to be expected. Longer term, 2K Sports is seen as a mortal lock to not be involved in a future deal. The one Take-Two cut in January 2005 under previous (and scandal-ridden) leadership, at a price some estimated at $US200 million at the time, has been a consistent money-loser. Analyst Michael Pachter estimates it as a $US30 million thud every year. Any company with the interest and the ballsack to sign a $US200 million deal is likely publicly traded, and that makes the precedent of a $US30 million loss, even if you can blame it on someone else's bad video game, a huge no-go for investors and the board of directors.
Strauss Zelnick, the superboss who has repeatedly badmouthed the deal, recently said the company's approach since his management team took over "is 100 percent-owned intellectual property." And a look at the sports titles cancelled since Zelnick Media took over Take-Two in 2007 — NHL 2K, College Hoops 2K — certainly bears that out. There is nothing in this company's current corporate character that shows team sports titles, and the enormous licensing costs they carry, are a priority. Only NBA 2K's consistent excellence (which the Zelnick regime inherited more than it cultivated), and EA Sports' two-year absence in that space, keeps Take-Two and 2K Games in the sports discussion.
But EA Sports, similarly, hasn't given any indication it's the next bridegroom rushing to catch the garter. Every time I have asked, I've gotten a poker-faced, noncommittal reply. Conversely, the label was excited to share news that NBA Live was returning, and with good reason — there's actual work being done on that.
If not EA Sports, then who? THQ and Sega (which publishes an online, licensed baseball management simulation) are both hurting. Activision has the cash but it would have to do everything from the ground up, and it's making too much money off the better bets it has made in Call of Duty and through Blizzard to fool with something it doesn't fully own. Konami would also have to start from scratch, just with less capital and wherewithal. And Ubisoft? If a French company was making a video game for the National Pastime, there would be a congressional inquiry.
There seems to be no chatter or urgency from any publisher in acting on this, and it's easy to see why. If 2K Sports can lose $US30 million a year on this deal, and Major League Baseball is steadfast in wanting an exclusive licence on the same footing to the last one, then why would anyone step in? Granted, MLB 2K's failures in visual quality and gameplay have made it a nonentity on the PlayStation 3, and magnified the dominance of MLB The Show. But The Show is still legitimately dominant on its own merits, and a third-party publisher would need to be able to sell on the PS3 to make any deal even marginally worth it. And Sony isn't going to take over the entire thing and publish both consoles' versions for the same reason Ford doesn't make parts for Chevy trucks.
I suppose Take-Two could be letting MLB figure out that it has zero suitors, and then come back, hat-in-hand, on terms more favourable to the publisher. Take-Two certainly has nothing to lose, if it's been so publicly willing to leave this category. But at this point, it's looking like the unfounded speculation is that there will be a major league baseball title on the Xbox 360 next year. Sound crazy? Well, there's no college basketball video game on the market, either.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.