MLB 23 The Show is doing more than just letting gamers play as legends from the Negro Leagues. The game set out to tell their stories.
In less than two weeks, Sony will usher in a new era with MLB 23 The Show. The premier baseball gaming franchise is set to debut a new Storylines mode that celebrates the Negro Leagues.
The mode was created through a partnership with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. In this year’s game, the mode will highlight eight players: Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Jackie Robinson, Andrew “Rube” Foster, Hilton Smith, Hank Thompson, John Donaldson, Martin Dihigo and John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil. In future MLB The Show releases, each game will be equipped with seasons of new players.
“This is all about educating, enlightening and inspiring a brand new set of baseball fans who have never heard of players like Satchel Paige,” said Sony product development communications and brand strategist Ramone Russell in an interview. “We have this opportunity and duty to tell these stories the right way.”
Making the Negro Leagues A Story for Everyone
One of the biggest hurdles for Sony Interactive Entertainment and San Diego Studio was to accurately tell the story of the Negro Leagues experience while allowing the game to maintain an E (Everyone) rating. Doing so meant tactfully navigating the intense racism that players in the game encountered.
“We can’t lose that E for everyone rating but we also need to be accurate and not gloss of the ugliness of the past. So how do we do that?” Russell asked. “We don’t. Bob [Kendricks] does that. Bob has been at the museum for 30 years and is a Negro League historian. We sat down with Bob and told him our idea and he understood the assignment.”
Sacrificing the rating to give an authentic experience could have major ramifications on sales and the game’s overall reception.
“[Racial slurs] have no place in games. That is participatory trauma,” he continued. “Me speaking personally, I don’t like to watch Black trauma at all. That was very much in the forefront of my mind. You won’t ever hear the n-word. At the same time you’re going to hear about the trials and tribulations they had to go through.”
Russell and San Diego Studio are treating the feature as an opportunity to celebrate the Negro Leagues through education. Even though educational obstacles exist, Russell acknowledges that his own team is not as diverse as it could be.
“How do you tell this story on a development team that doesn’t have a ton of melanin-skinned individuals on it?” he said. “You do it by not doing it. None of the storytelling is done by anybody on the development team, including myself. Everything that we did was based on Bob Kendricks and the museum. We’re just following their lead and telling the stories that Bob Kendricks has.”
“Bob has an amazing way to talk about the ugliness of the times but bringing it back to the triumphs. These individuals had to go through some really messed up stuff just to play the sport they love.”
Each of the eight players will have a one to three-minute video, narrated by Kendricks, that details their story. The videos highlight some of their proudest moments as well as their most difficult ones. There are over 73 different videos alongside the in-game experience. In addition to San Diego Productions using images of the past and historical footage, the company also created custom illustrations and doubled the music budget for the project.
Russell told Boardroom he wanted the game to feel a certain way, and that required resources. Outside of the music, the team created 12 different versions of four Negro League uniforms, as well as bases to reflect the times, new stadiums, and even new historically accurate crowds.
$1 from each sale of the collector’s edition will go to the Negro League Baseball Museum.
Education & Empowerment
Russell said taking on a project of this magnitude comes with a heavy emotional toll for all Black people involved. They have a deep desire to tell the stories authentically without filtering the hardships of that era. Still, because of how polarizing the subject is, it could be easy for a gaming studio to shy away from telling the stories altogether in favor of sticking with a traditional product that sells.
So Russell went to his boss, the director of production, and asked for his trust to do the job the way it needs to be done.
“I said to him ‘I need you to give me all the resources y’all would give anyone else,'” Russell said. “It is one thing to ask and another to receive what you’re asking for and then know what to do when you are gifted the keys to drive the ship.”
Fortunately for him, he did, in fact, get everything he asked for.
“The company, the MLB and Bob Kendricks have been 100% supportive of us telling the stories the way that we want to tell it,” he said. “He who has the pen gets to write history. Most people don’t know that these were some of the best players in the world, they just couldn’t play with everybody else. We needed to make sure that we did justice and we were able to let everybody know and I feel like we did that.”
The education that Sony Interactive Entertainment and San Diego Studios are hoping to provide goes beyond playing the game. Last year on Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel Robinson’s 100th birthday, San Diego Studios donated $875,000 to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. As part of the gift, the company created scholarships for young people looking to pursue a career in the video game industry. The scholars receive paid internships, hands-on training and mentoring all throughout the program.
The company also has scholarships with USC Games through the Gerald A. Lawson Fund and the United Negro College Fund. The three different programs will combine for over 120 scholarships over five years. Russell is most proud of the Playstation Career Pathways program. The initiative is basically a video game incubator that hopes to foster the next generation of video game creators.
“We really think by following them their entire collegiate career and giving them face time with the studios that we are helping them to become the best possible internship candidates and then when they graduate they will be the best candidates for whatever field that they are looking for,” Russell said.
All of the potential scholars will have a chance to see the work Sony Entertainment and San Diego Studios have put into MLB 23 The Show on March 28. The game is available for preorder for $69.99 to $99.99.
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