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SIE's Russell says "MLB The Show 21" breaks down entry barriers with new modes

TORONTO — The 2020 Major League Baseball season is underway, ending months of anticipation for both sports enthusiasts and statheads.

TORONTO — The 2020 Major League Baseball season is underway, ending months of anticipation for both sports enthusiasts and statheads.

Baseball is arguably the most stat-driven among North America's major sports, and a trip to any ballpark will almost certainly result in spotting one or two fans in the stands furiously filling out scorecards while watching the action.

That focus on stats has been a big part of Sony Interactive Entertainment's "MLB The Show" video game series, which will see its latest entry released April 20 for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 and, for the first time, Microsoft's Xbox One and Xbox Series X and S. But for those who don't know their OBP from their OPS, it could also be a potential barrier to entry.

Ramone Russell, product development communications and brand strategist at Sony Interactive Entertainment, says that barrier has been lifted in "MLB The Show 21" with two new game modes. 

The stat-driven simulation mode is still there, but there is also a beginner mode for new players, and a gameplay style for those who like their skills with the controller to do the talking.

"In previous games, it was always a 50-50 split between the player's attributes and your stick skills," Russell, who has been part of the series for almost 13 years, said in a recent interview. "And what we found over the past few years, and especially coming into Xbox this year, we have a lot of newcomers playing the game.

"Baseball and our game still seems to be very daunting. There's so much to do and so many mechanics to pick up. And the competitive crowd wanted a way to play online where their stick skills reigned supreme.

"So we tried to kill three birds with one stone, and I think we've done that with gameplay styles."

Russell said casual mode was designed to let new players focus on the game play rather than beating artificial intelligence. Players will get hits, homers and strikeouts more easily than in the other modes, and the game will pause for a brief tutorial whenever a new mechanic is introduced.

"From an AI standpoint, the computer isn't trying to beat your face in," Russell said. "It's going to let you get away with a lot of stuff, because casual mode has a focus on learning the game."

On the other side of the gaming spectrum, the new competitive mode will allow elite gamers to show off their stick skills. Russell said this is the default mode for head-to-head online play.

While the emphasis on stick skills won't let players turn Javier Baez into Jose Abreu, it will allow them to reign in some of baseball's inherent randomness.

"We over-index on the user skills and how good you are with the controller in your hands, and the player ratings don't matter as much," Russell said. "They still matter a lot, just not as much as in simulation mode.

"So if you're really good and you hit your timing right, you're going to have better results. If you miss those spots, we're going to punish you more."

That new emphasis on control extends to the mound with the introduction of the pinpoint pitching mechanic. Russell said players who use pinpoint pitching will find it hard to master, but rewarding for those who persevere. 

"Most pitchers aren't that accurate. The ones that are, you know who they are, they get paid a lot of money," Russell. "But pitching is such a difficult thing to do at a very high level, and we're trying to replicate that."

To help with the pinpoint aspect, "MLB The Show 21" introduces the PAR (an acronym for "perfect accuracy region") feature that will show where your pitch will land, provided you have the skills to pull it off.

"In previous games in the past you had no idea. So you could try to throw a pitch in the dirt, you mess up your input, and you hang a pitch and it gets hit for a home run and you're like 'Well why did that happen?'" Russell said.

"So with PAR we're showing you, if you're prefect, this is where the pitch is going to land. I think we've attacked a lot of issues and introduced a fun, very exciting new mechanic for people to try out."

"MLB The Show 21" will include several other features including over 1,000 new gameplay animations and changes to the game modes for created players. For next-generation consoles, it will also mark the debut of the stadium creator feature.

The stadium creator, which Russell said was a "blue-sky" idea for the last several years, allows players with an architectural streak to build anything from a classic ballpark to a spacebound stadium.

"John Ramsey, who is one of our head graphics programmers, we locked him in a room for over two-and-a-half years and that's the only thing he worked on," Russell said. "And now people are seeing the fruits of that labour."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021.

Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press