In the era of eSports, more and more popular sports leagues around the world are looking to get in on the action. Since Atari released Pong back in 1972, it became clear that live sports would be a pivotal aspect of gaming culture.
Today, simulations remain some of the highest-performing video game series, from FIFA to PGA Tour. With some counting even Rocket League as a simulation, it’s clear sports-based games aren’t going anywhere. Still, that doesn’t mean every sport has gotten a fair shake when it comes to virtual iterations.
Baseball, compared to sports like soccer and football, has received less attention than other major leagues. This isn’t too surprising — even in the realm of live sports, baseball tends to stand alone. Fans and pundits tend to be more stats-obsessed than other sports. In fact, baseball helped usher in an era of data-driven athletics.
In real life, pundits pore over reports to look for hints hidden within the data, then forecast MLB picks throughout the season. Fans, in the meantime, will make their own predictions in fantasy leagues with friends. Clearly, the emphasis is on data-driven decisions, which doesn’t translate well for simulation video games.
The MLB is looking to change this. Last year, the league launched its very first eSports competition for its MLB The Show game, titled MLB The Show Players League.
Building on the Madden Championship Series & NBA 2K League
The MLB The Show Players League, co-hosted by Sony Interactive Entertainment, contracted 30 top players to represent each MLB franchise. From there, the players competed in 29 games against all other players. From there, the recognizable format saw eight teams head into the playoffs that culminated in a virtual World Series.
The competition was familiar to other sports-gaming fans, who have likely already heard of successful eSports tournaments like the NFL’s Madden Championship Series and the NBA’s 2K League. Both are big-money endeavors for eSports players and leagues alike; Madden offers $1.65 million in prize money annually, while the NBA 2K League literally drafts and houses star gamers, offering a minimum of $32,000 for players.
In both scenarios, the NBA and the NFL select elite gamers and teams to compete in a format that closely mirrors live regular season play. The MLB’s variation differed slightly; it came on the heels of a shortened 2020 season, which led organizers to consider the competition series differently.
Rather than contract star gamers, the MLB relied on its own star athletes. From April 10th to May 3rd (2020), the MLB broadcasted the games on streaming platforms and television channels for a total of 435 games. The format worked wonders, bringing in 35 million views and giving fans something to chew on as they waited on the season to start.
A Tiny Piece of the Pie
Though the MLB The Show Players League was a hit amongst fans, there’s no word on a continuing series from the league. Though many fans held out that there would be a new roster of real-life players, others are now wondering if MLB The Show has the chops to join other top sports simulations in the eSports arena
It’s likely the MLB has plans to launch its own eSports league—though it will first have to find a way to contract top gamers like the NBA 2K League, rather than draw talent from its own baseball rosters. Even if the MLB succeeds, it will only be taking home a small margin of total eSports revenue.
Newzoo predicts the global eSports industry will be worth nearly $2 billion by next year. Games like League of Legends and Fortnite command the public’s attention, with sports simulations lagging far behind. However, there are clear signs the MLB is looking to expand.
This year’s release, MLB The Show 21 is available on four consoles, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox X/S. This is a first for the series, which has historically only been released for PlayStation. More options mean more gamers have access to the baseball simulation, which could help foster interest in an eSports league.