Paul Goldschmidt fishes for the 1-1 slider way outside of the strike zone. He kicks dirt over the batter's box chalk, walks in a counterclockwise semicircle, fidgets with the brim of his helmet, and digs back in. Jon Garland rolls his shoulders and sweeps his foot twice over the pitching rubber. Now I may press X.
In the playoffs, in September, these gestures could have meaning in a moment larded with dramatic tension. In a video game, in May, it is simply the slow tango of baseball, and it takes two to dance it. Todd Parker, a 43-year-old technician for the electric utility in Worcester, Mass., has a hard time finding willing partners online when he comes home from work at 3 p.m. to play MLB The Show on his PS3. Considering the game I just described was 17 minutes old in the first inning, it's not hard for me to understand why.
The spectator sports fan in the DVR age is constantly driven to shell each possession, each series of downs, each at-bat and each play down to its most consequential result. Viewers who have recorded the broadcast or time-shifted their viewing of it may fast foward through not only through timeouts and advertisements and player substitutions, but also missed shots and whole quarters of a game that doesn't look like it's going their way. In live programming, DirecTV's Red Zone channel is constantly cycling through NFL games where a score is about to take place.
No sport offers as much interstitial, untelegenic chaff as baseball, whose MLB.TV service will condense for a subscriber all of the consequential moments in a nine-inning, two-and-a-half hour game down to just 20 minutes, and still leave him feeling as fully informed as if he had watched the entire thing live.
But it is this kind of filler that Parker consumes in bulk when he plays MLB 13 the Show. Like every sports video game, it lets a player shuttle forward through the post-play, to the action, with a button press. Parker is part of an extreme minority that do not take the opportunity.
The Show, I've noticed over the years, will gently chide users for their hyperactive thumbs. Play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian always goes through the day's starting lineups and if you button through it too quickly, he'll interrupt himself. "Whoops, well I guess we're all ready to go," he says, with a tone that implies something unnatural just occured, because he would never be caught like that in real life.
"It just didn't seem like baseball when you're click-pitching," Parker told me later. He and his best friend from high school, another 43-year-old guy from New York named Tony Wilson, have been playing MLB The Show online (and sometimes in person) on the PlayStation 3 since the title debuted on that console back in 2007. Early on, the two settled on ground rules for proper play.
"I had a big thing about letting the announcers get us into the game, and show us the stadium," Parker recalls. "In the third inning, The Show used to always do a panoramic view of the stadium. I would never let him X through that. Any view of the stadium I could get made it seem more real to me.
"Baseball moves at a leisurely pace," Wilson said, "you're either with that or you're not. Just because a game allows you to skip past that doesn't mean that you should."
The need to hit the button is almost Pavlovian in a sports gamer, though, especially when you're used to playing offline in singleplayer modes. I'm in my third season of Road to the Show, MLB the Show's career mode, and I didn't get there by stopping to pick daisies on the highway median. I'm constantly Xing through the computer's foul balls. The only animation I truly savour is when I get a called strike three for the third out of the inning. I love watching the catcher hook-shot the ball back to the mound. I watch that to its end every time.
I didn't last an inning playing this game Parker's way at the beginning of last week. Yet it wasn't for a lack of patience. You have to be good if you're going to weather any deficit and come back to win, because a bad inning just takes forever in real time, and is crushing to the psyche. Parker, in addition to being a superfan, is very good at this game. We had set the match for Hall-of-Fame pitching difficulty, and even with Arizona's Patrick Corbin — undefeated through nine starts — I could not get out of the first inning (we restarted twice.)
In one I gave up a three-run bomb to Troy Tulowitzki. In another, I gave up a grand slam to Todd Helton. It took an act of extreme will not to pound the button as Helton dragged his old legs around the basepaths. Buttoning through a play not only gives you the prerogative of cutting to the chase, it's also a means of putting the last bad result out of your mind.
Parker and Wilson are both members of an online league — The Adult Sim League — which they joined over TheShowNation.com forums, where players of a like mind can get together before joining up. Parker has the Pirates, Wilson has the Giants (both are Red Sox fans). Only they and the league's administrator will play out games according to their unofficial, slow-pace, watch-everything rules. There are 27 other members of the league, playing an 84-game schedule.
"I'm adapting every year," Parker sighed. "In five years, I'll probably be Xing through plays like everyone else, too."
Sports video games are increasingly asked to deliver not necessarily the sports as they are played, but the sports as they are seen on the television. They get dinged for boring time-out graphics or repetitive booth analysis, or anything that sounds like the commentators' audio library is not actually watching what's taking place on the field.
The truth of the matter is that a lot of sports video game commentary sounds repetitive because we're only hearing a fraction of it. The between-play moments are when the booth teams are commenting on the events of the day, the events elsewhere in the league, or the preceding game. These are the ones gamers are most likely to X through.
Of the best sports games each year, The Show is the one most often cited for repetitive commentary. But that perception may come from the fact that so many users — myself included — are buttoning through the sequences that would show off it's variety. "Our script writer goes to great lengths to cover as many different types of situations as possible," said Jody Kelsey, the game's senior producer. "By not Xing through presentations, even we sometimes get surprised that we have a line about an obscure situation or play that occurs."
Parker, Wilson and their likeminded friends are not puritans. They do button through replays of routine outs. When batting in a multiplayer game, someone also must press X to initiate readiness for the next pitch. If not, a quirk in the game will select the pitcher's primary pitch type for him automatically. So you have to be paying attention when you play the game this way. Hitting against Parker, I always waited until a pitcher swept the rubber with his cleats, if he was throwing from a full windup.
"It's definitely a commitment, playing the game this way," Wilson said. "I feel like the gaming companies have done a decent job on their end — the inning ends, they give you who's coming up the next inning, just like you're watching the game. What I'm giving the other guy is the decency of knowing who's coming up next."
It's not all eye candy, or the fantasy of believing that you're inside a TV broadcast, Wilson said. "There's a little bit of intel there. What I'm giving the other guy is the decency of knowing who's coming up next. Why do you button through that?
"What are you really saving? 15 minutes? Is it really going to kill you, for 10 seconds, to watch that great takeout slide at second base?"