Major League Baseball 2K13 is an offensively recycled product and an embarrassment to sports video games. In my five years as Kotaku‘s sports writer, I’ve spent a good deal of time in comments defending the genre, and those who make its games, from the worn-out slur that annual sports titles are nothing but reskinned roster updates. Yet that is exactly what MLB 2K13 is, and its existence is forever an argumentative trump card to any advocacy I can make for sports, whether for a series that did meaningfully improve itself — like Madden NFL 13, or a consistently excellent title that made largely cosmetic upgrades, such as NBA 2K13.
MLB 2K13 shows so little effort as to be unworthy of the basic dignity of a full review. The Xbox 360’s baseball fans, however, do deserve to have a condemnation put on the record, in their name, because MLB 2K13 is nothing but a fuck-you to that constituency. For the past four years, Take-Two Interactive has peddled its poor-me bullshit over this licence — recklessly negotiated by a corrupt regime preceding the current one — rather than taking ownership of its responsibilities and giving the MLB series the leadership and resources it so badly needed. One would think that, finally freed of the contractual requirement to deliver an ugly, uninspired, glitch-filled game year after money-losing year, a management that professes to care so much about publishing only high quality brands, and not rushing them into annual production, would have the character to simply walk away from this mistake, not reanimate its corpse.
That’s what we have here in MLB 2K13. Do you want specifics about the game? Well, which creative work should I recycle, the review I wrote about MLB 2K12, or the one about MLB 2K11? The complaints I’ve had with both are still on full display. From comically sped-up animations to eye-twitching framerate drops on every swing, to something as nitpicky as the deformed numerals and nametapes on the back of every uniform shirt — it boggles my mind how that could be so difficult to reproduce — it’s all still in here. So is my favourite glitch. I simulated to the end of a World Series and yep, right on schedule, a batter from the losing team walks up to the plate and photobombs the winner’s celebration. You know everything about this game is, at best, reconditioned from the previous year as soon as you boot up the game. Its loading screen features audio of fans chanting “M-V-P” at Tampa Bay’s David Price, who did not win that award. It’s audio left over from last year’s introduction screen whose cover star, Detroit’s Justin Verlander, did.
No, this is not literally MLB 2K12. There are some minor differences. For example, online leagues are no more. Yep, they were taken right out of the game, which doesn’t bode well for the online support this game will get, either. Not that MLB 2K12 was a model of post-release support, receiving only one patch in a plain tip-off that 2K Sports was hell-yes washing its hands of the series. What else? Yeah, the Houston Astros, tied for the worst team rating in the game, will now play in the AL West, if you dig franchises with one pennant in a 50-year history rebooting themselves in another league. And the Million Dollar/Perfect Game/Whatever-the-hell-it’s-called now Challenge, whose grand prize winner in fact gets a quarter of a million dollars, now features rules prohibiting players from stocking the opposing team with terrible hitters to better their chances at throwing a perfect game. That should be good news, but we won’t know if the exploit allowing such roster manipulation was corrected until the contest begins on April 1.
Major League Baseball itself also deserves blame for MLB 2K13, and not just for buck-stops-here reasons because its name is on the box. Take-Two Interactive may have signed an outrageously priced contract back in 2005, but baseball had absolutely no long-term vision for the licence either, despite clear signals sent years ago that it would have no dancing partner on the Xbox 360 under any normal deal in 2013. This game was announced, by surprise, in January, and is plainly the product of Major League Baseball reckoning with the embarrassment of missing a year on the Xbox 360 and the fact it had zero leverage in avoiding it.
The structure of Take-Two’s semi-exclusive licence to make MLB video games on consoles left the big leagues with no way to engage a new developer in enough time to put a simulation product on shelves this year. I suppose MLB and the MLB Players’ Association could have renegotiated their arrangements with Take-Two to let in another publisher to build something — which would require modelling hundreds of players’ liknesses and at least six new stadiums — for release after the pact expired in 2012. That, presumably, would have required a large cash giveback to 2K Sports. Otherwise, what meaning does an exclusive licence have, and why would anyone have paid so much for one, incurring losses estimated at $US30 million a year.
As much as I hate reviewing a business plan, rather than a video game, that is all you are buying if you choose to pay for a new copy of MLB 2K13. You will be helping to reward 2K Sports with the first ever profitable year it will see from this licence after nearly a decade spent mismanaging it, and you are telling the Major Leagues that not only can they slap their logo on any piece of crap and everyone will still buy it, but also that their poor stewardship of a multimillion-dollar licence doesn’t matter either. You are endorsing MLB Advanced Media’s delusion that its video game product is as valuable as the NFL’s. It is not. That attitude created this awful mess in 2005, when Take-Two’s newly constituted 2K Games popped its suspenders and decided it would punch back at Madden and EA Sports by paying a ton of money to kill MVP Baseball, as revenge for the loss of the sainted NFL 2K5.
I’m embarrassed to reread my publication history on this game prior to last season’s release. I have, on two different occasions, driven 1,000 miles round trip to 2K Sports headquarters to preview this series. Another time, they flew to me in Oregon to show it off. I wrote neat things about camera angles in different stadiums, providing not only this game with a new presentational feature, but also inspiring its nominal competitor to include it as well. I wrote a bunch of praise for the regular joes who won a million bucks playing this game, or who fell agonizingly short. Despite the rest of the game being so painful to even watch, its pitching system is still the most brilliant and engaging means of handling the task that anyone’s ever conceived, No other publication or writer has given this series more benefit of the doubt, so when I say this game is shit, it should hurt.
It does. But I’ll learn from it.