Cover Athletes: Putting More Than a Name Into a Game

Michael Phelps might have been on a Wheaties box. It doesn't mean he advised General Mills on how to make the cereal taste better.

But that's also the role Evan Longoria, the newly minted Silver Slugger and Gold Glover from Tampa Bay, takes on as the cover man for MLB 2K10, an endorsement announced this past week.

A cynic might view the selection of Longoria - a third-year player from a small-market franchise - as a budget choice for 2K this year, especially in light of MLB 2K9's underachieving performance last year with a Cy Young award winner (San Francisco's Tim Lincecum) headlining it. Longoria on MLB 2K10 is also well overshadowed compared with NBA 2K10 and NHL 2K10, which landed Kobe Bryant and Alexander Ovechkin, easily the top stars of their respective leagues.

But Chris Snyder, 2K Sports' director of marketing, insists the title wasn't settling when it signed Longoria. His team starts looking for the MLB cover man about two months into the season, meets with a pool of candidates at the All-Star Game, and bases the choice on his willingness to contribute to the game, not just its promotion.

"If Albert Pujols or A-Rod want to be in a video game, and give us that kind of time commitment, certainly we'd listen," said Snyder. "It's not that younger players have more time, it's more about them seeing video games as an avenue to promote themselves and their teams, and to be a part of something cool."

Longoria, who goes back to Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball on the Super Nintendo, is part of a generation of sports superstars now in its middle- and late-20s that has been playing modern, 3D sports simulations since at least their teenage years. It's a perspective that brings an innate enthusiasm for the product.

"Whatever I can do to further the realness and the gameplay - as far as things like the data, or the way I step in and out of the batter's box - any kind of input I can provide, I might not ever get this opportunity again," Longoria said.

Increasingly, we're seeing this kind of athlete input. An aside comment from Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals gave NHL 2K10 its "Is Party Now," marketing slogan. Although he wasn't the cover athlete, Edmonton's Zack Stortini consulted with EA Sports' NHL 10 on its new first-person fighting mechanic, and also the finer points of how physical play can be a tactic affecting team morale. Top mixed-martial arts fighters have also visited EA to weigh in on early builds of EA Sports MMA, sometimes with hilarious results.

And although, yes, the majority of a purchase decision will be for the game inside the box, it's why the person appearing on its front is in fact a consequential decision, Snyder said.

"It does matter, not so much for the star quality of the athlete, but what they bring to the table in making the game better," Snyder said.

Fair point. But clearly, Bryant was tabbed for NBA 2K10 - the centerpiece of 2K's sports catalog for going on five years now - as a statement about that game's excellence in the studio's 10th anniversary year. What statement does Longoria make about MLB 2K10?

"It's not so much a message about Evan and the game inside," Snyder concedes. "We start working on 2K10 immediately after 2K9 comes out, and we don't have the cover athlete locked and loaded. But our goal is still to put out the best game possible."

Cover Athletes: Putting More Than a Name Into a Game

Still, Longoria's announcement is the first public detail about this year's game, and many peoples' assumptions are still built on last year's. "We know MLB 2K9 wasn't a 90-rated game," Snyder says, "but hopefully this shows that we are taking the necessary steps to repair that, and put out a product people are proud to plunk down their dollars for, and for Evan to have his face on."

Longoria's role will be largely advisory, the game-within-a-game rather than the fundamentals of how it is played. "This game's 10 years old now, and every baseball game has catch the ball, hit the ball, throw the ball," Longoria said. So he'll be consulting on subtler aspects - individual matchups, his tendencies and others', how a hitter might guess the next pitch and jump all over it. It's one thing to be standing at third base and see a hunch play out; seeing a video game conform to those expectations is a surefire sign of quality.

"From a major league baseball player's standpoint, that's what really furthers the game for us," Longoria said. "We're fans of video games, we play them, too."

As an example, in his meetings with 2K Sports so far, Longoria's been asked about the tendencies of pitchers he's done well against, and seen those who have given him trouble in real life - such as New York's Andy Pettite - and judged their in-game difficulty.

Snyder said Longoria rose out of "a stable of guys" the team works with throughout the years in a role that is part consultation, part audition. Longoria also worked with 2K through a local GameStop tournament last year, helping his candidacy.

Snyder wouldn't name any of the other ballplayers in the consulting pool when I asked, but did say they were there because of their willingness to contribute. "We touch base with these guys throughout the season, picking their brains on baseball, asking them if they would be willing and able to jump in and help critique the game, and tell us what he'd like to see changed," Snyder said. "When you've got an athlete willing to lend time and expertise, that's a big deal."

But in the end, to be on the cover of this kind of product is primarily an honor. Longoria mused that his career is still young enough that its highlights - a World Series appearance in 2008 and two All-Star selections among them - are only starting to sink in. The significance of a video game cover likely won't strike him until "maybe a 10-year-old kid brings a 2K sports box down to the field for me to sign."

And he went to lengths to reflect his success here back to his teammates, and to Rays lifer Carl Crawford in particular.

"Carl's played his whole career in Tampa Bay, and he's been a part of some really bad teams," Longoria said. "If there was one other guy to have on the cover with me, it would be him. I feel like I stepped into an organization that was ready, ready to do nothing but go up. The year that I had (in 2008) and going to the World Series, it propelled me and a lot of guys who've been really good players into the spotlight. I think Carl has been one of the best players in the major leagues for seven years now. But he didn't have this opportunity, and it's just thanks to him and to the team for me being in this position."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.