Best of 2014- A History of Player-Licensed/Sponsored Video Games

This was originally a piece of a “Wisdom and Links” article at Hall of Very Good. Thanks to Shawn Anderson for giving me permission to put it up here.

Let me tell you of a time. A time before the sports video game-scape was homogenized and turned into a few companies putting out slightly different versions of the same game every year. In this wonderful time, lasting from the late 80s to around the turn of our century, there were countless baseball games. And they were often branded to a certain player. This wasn’t just baseball, of course- to this day you can find John Madden’s last name on Electronic Arts’ NFL franchise- but for baseball, it seemed to have it’s own special charm. Maybe it was the fact that many of them didn’t have any real players other than the sponsor, or maybe it was just because I was of the age where, to paraphrase the “The Lego Movie”…“everything was awesome”. Or maybe it’s just because baseball was and is my favorite sport and thus I am biased.

Still, let us travel back to that wonderful time and look at some of the greatest player-or-manager sponsored games in history.

(JUMP)

 

1987: Earl Weaver Baseball

Earl Weaver Baseball, perhaps more than any other (with the possible exception of Ken Griffey’s Nintendo games), is synonymous with the star-sponsored baseball game, and indeed is one of the most influential sports games for any sport- it’s success is what inspired EA to approach John Madden to lend his name and expertise to a NFL game.

What was so revolutionary about EWB? For one, it was the first to involve artificial intelligence done with input from an actual manager. The fact that manager was Earl Weaver meant it was also a bit ahead of the real-world baseball curve. After all, Weaver was the Godfather of Moneyball. This was a man who hated the bunt, rarely ordered a steal, kept notebooks of statistics, and who loved to get men on base so they could get driven home with a big hit. The statistical approach of Weaver played a heavy role in the game, and probably inspired more than one sabermetrician.

For another, it was the first to allow for simulating entire seasons, a forerunner to what is now a mainstay of sports video games, and also was the first to have various different stadiums from MLB and from throughout history, instead of just one or two generic ones. And, what’s more, update discs to add more recent statistics or all-time teams were released for years after release. If you’ve ever played Out of the Park Baseball, you can thank EWB.

And, finally, as amazing as it seems, the Amiga and DOS versions of EWB were the first sports games with voice announcers! Oh, they were computerized voices, but, still.

Most importantly, though, it was a great game. As late as 1996, it was being named the 25th greatest computer game of all time by the now-defunct Computer Gaming World magazine. That put it ahead of classic games like the first Quake, the first two Warcraft games and the early Wolfenstein games.

Sadly, I must admit… I don’t remember playing EWB. It was a bit before my time and I don’t think it was ever featured in any of the baseball packs of old games I often would get. Still, it’s influence is enough where it doesn’t matter – you could argue we’ve all been playing Earl Weaver Baseball since 1987.

 

1988: Pete Rose Pennant Fever, Reggie Jackson Baseball

Yes, the Kool-Aid Savior lent his name to a game – it was also known as Pete Rose Baseball. For DOS and two Atari systems, it…wasn’t that bad, far as I can tell. The Atari 2600 version in particular is praised in the few reviews I can find for it online, as it had some pretty good depth and camera-work for a game on that primitive early system. However, all the players had white heads. I don’t mean that in a “all the players were white” way, I mean it in a “their heads look like wrapped up mummies” kind of way. Weird. An interesting thing to note is that this was one of the first games- maybe the first game- to have a behind-the-pitcher view for when you are pitching, which has been in plenty of games (at least as an option) since.

Reggie Jackson also had a game with his name on it in 1988, on SEGA’s Master System. It had an exhibition mode, a tournament mode, a watch mode, and a home run contest. By the looks of it, it appears to have been somewhat similar to RBI Baseball, which it was something of a contemporary to. Based on reviews I can find online, however, it wasn’t nearly as beloved as RBI. Sorry, Reggie.

 

1989: Tommy Lasorda Baseball

Another SEGA product, Tommy Lasorda Baseball appeared in arcades and was a launch title for the Genesis. It’s most notable for being the first 16-bit baseball game. For that alone, Tommy Lasorda’s licensed title represents an important part of baseball video game history.

 

1991: Bo Jackson, Tony La Russa

Bo Jackson had TWO games: There was one for home consoles and computers, and another for the Game Boy. The Game Boy version was named Bo Jackson: Two Games in One, and paid tribute to Bo’s multi-sport stardom by being both a baseball game AND a football game.

Also coming out in 1991 was the first edition of Tony La Russa Baseball. The spiritual successor to Earl Weaver Baseball and created by some of the same people, it spawned a series of games throughout the 90s. While I can’t remember what version it was, I can remember distinctly playing one of the La Russa games, mainly because it was one of the first games I played that had “all-time teams”. Like Earl Weaver Baseball, it had a statistical bend to it and allowed for simulations, fantasy drafts, and the like. In addition, La Russa introduced the practice of putting a circle on the ground where a fly ball was going to land so you knew where to position your fielder. Overall, another important step in baseball video game history.

 

1992: Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball

How I never played this game is beyond me, as Ripken was my favorite player growing up. Released for both the Super Nintendo and the Genesis, CRJB didn’t have any real players other than Ripken (a common thing in these games, where usually only the title player was licensed and not the whole league), but it did have the nearest equivalents to them! Taking a look at screenshots from it, I see that the Texas team has an ace pitcher name “Ryan Noles”, who totally isn’t Nolan Ryan. Nope, not at all.

Sadly for the Iron Man, his game didn’t get very good reviews. Sorry, Cal.

 

1994: Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball

Now we’re talking. As they would say on Buzzfeed, you know you’re a 90s kid if your favorite baseball game growing up was the Ken Griffey Jr. series on Nintendo consoles. It was a match made in heaven: the game’s youngest and most charismatic star, playing on a team owned by Nintendo itself. With games released in ’94, ’96, ’98 and ’99 (with a Game Boy Version in 1997), Griffey’s far-too-short reign as the “Face of Baseball” was heralded by his games. I think I played all of them (with the exception of the Game Boy version) at least once.

But, anyway, an interesting thing about the early Ken Griffey Jr. games are that while they did have the licensing from MLB to use real logos, uniforms, and stadiums, they didn’t have any licenses to the players other than to Ken Griffey himself. Instead, players received themed names. The Boston Red Sox, for example, had their players renamed in honor of “Cheers”, Boston landmarks and the founding fathers, the Brewers were filled with superheroes and detectives, and the Angels had the names of famous actors. Heh.

As you can tell, this game didn’t take itself as seriously as some other ones, and was definitely more on the “arcade-y” side. Still, it was a ton of fun.

Oh, it also had funny commercials:

 

1995: Frank Thomas, Deion Sanders

The year 1995 saw Frank Thomas step into the game with Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball, which eventually evolved into the All-Star Baseball series. It was most notable because some of it’s later released versions- those for systems like the Playstation and SEGA Saturn, were among the first baseball games to have 3D graphics.

Deion Sanders is undoubtably the worst player to ever highlight a baseball video game, as he starred in World Series Baseball Starring Deion Sanders for the SEGA 32X. Perhaps not surprisingly, Deion was also in a SEGA football game, suggesting it was an attempt at some sort of synergy.

 

1996: Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run

The second in the Griffey series, this was notable for being developed for Nintendo by Rareware, the same people behind Donkey Kong Country and later the awesome N64 Goldeneye game. While still lacking any real players other than Griffey himself, it was one of the first to feature the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who could be unlocked by playing through a full 162-game season.

Also, if you left the game for a bit to get a drink or go to the bathroom and forgot to pause, when you got back you might come back to the umpire tapping the screen and yelling at you to “PLAY THE GAME, KID!”

 

1998: Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr.

The penultimate game of the Griffey series and the first for the Nintendo 64, it was also the first Griffey game to have actual player names for everybody, not just Griffey. Also, it had Ken Griffey Jr. rapping out stuff in the introduction:

The game only received average reviews from the critics. Proving that critics are dumb.

 

1999: Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest

The last of Nintendo’s Ken Griffey series, and, in some ways, the last of the true player-sponsored baseball games. At least, the last of the good ones. Once Griffey was traded to Cincinnati, Nintendo’s connection to him ended too, and so did the series. While I distinctly remember Nintendo Power once half-jokingly teasing a Ichiro Suzuki game in the letters page, it was just that- a joke. With Griffey gone from the baseball video game scene, the world fell into darkness…

 

2000: Sammy Sosa Softball Slam (also: High Heat)

…and nowhere was that darkness darker than in Sammy Sosa Softball Slam. I have discussed it before over on my blog, and I never want to discuss it again – if you want details, click the link. But, duty-bound, I must at least somewhat cover it. Quite frankly, Sammy Sosa Softball Slam was a fever-dream of the steroid era, a game horrible in ever aspect other than the comedy it provided in how horrible it was. It was incredibly easy, you could turn any player into Sammy Sosa, and the entire presentation of the game was both over-the-top and yet barebones at the same time.

Sammy Sosa also lent his name to the first game of the High Heat series, released around the same time and by the same developer of Softball Slam. I haven’t played it, but even if it was the perfect time-travelling love child of MVP Baseball 2005 and Out Of The Park Baseball, it still wouldn’t make up for the stupid softball game.

 

2004: Barry Bonds Homerun History

Since the fall of the House of Griffey, console baseball games have become homogenized, generic, and far fewer in number, as the expense of making modern games and the cut-throat nature of sports licensing has grown ever larger. This has been to the detriment of baseball gamers everywhere. A exclusive-rights deal by a far inferior publisher, for example, brought an end to the MVP Baseball series. Although that deal is now ended, MVP Baseball still hasn’t returned. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that the video game industry in general is not yet completely through it’s transition to the newest consoles (there are still games being made for the older ones, for example), as well as the fact that Sony’s MLB:The Show is so popular on Playstation means any third-party game on basically every console would be unlikely to make much money on the best-selling one, making EA no doubt skittish of pouring money into a competition with another MLB game, especially when they have bought rights to the NFL, UFC and a large chunk of the best leagues in FIFA that ensure they have near-monopolies in those sports and thus far less risk. MLB itself created a revival of RBI Baseball recently to try and fill the void, but the fact remains that baseball video games aren’t what they used to be, and they never are licensed by individual players anymore.

Well, almost. You see, the mobile video game landscape is a bit different, as it’s rare that people have enough time on it to focus on the lack of MLB rosters or correct uniforms, making it a good place for old Griffey-style licensing agreements. Back in 2004, for example, Barry Bond Homerun History came out for some Nokia phones. While very simple and basically a glorified hitting mini-game, it paved the way for another MLB icon to have his name on the small, small screen.

 

2005-2009: Derek Jeter Pro Baseball

From 2005 to 2009, Derek Jeter joined with Gameloft for a series of mobile games. While they lacked the MLB Players’ Association license and thus only had Derek Jeter as a real player, it’s initial release got very good reviews, and it ended up running until 2009.

 

2000s: Cal Ripken’s Real Baseball

An attempt to create a massive multi-player online baseball game that would allow up to 18 people to play at once, each controlling a different player, this noble experiment failed in late 2008 due to both technical and business errors. Still, it did have Cal Ripken’s name on it for a time, thus ensuring that it will at least be remembered in this article.

And that’s it. There are a some I skipped because of either too little data or to save space, but that covers most of the important player-licensed baseball games. Who knows if we may one day see Mike Trout Baseball or Pat Neshek’s Sidearmer Action… but, rest assured, if such a thing happens, I’ll update this list.

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