Not the Bottom of the Ninth, but a Big At-Bat Coming for MLB 2K10

Scapegoated by its ownership and sandbagged by both declining sales and declining reviews, MLB 2K is a seriously troubled franchise. Flawed though it is, the title's biggest problems going into 2010 are not entirely of its own making.

Let's recap. In a conference call with investors and analysts last week, Take-Two Interactive said its quarterly and fiscal year figures would be worse than expected, and called out just one current property in explaining why: Major League Baseball. (The delay of an upcoming Max Payne sequel also was cited.) 2K Sports' MLB titles also took the fall for a fourth quarter earnings decrease of 9 cents per share.

That this could happen to a publisher holding the exclusive MLB license for everything other than Sony's platforms raised a lot of schadenfreude in a community disappointed - at best - by what MLB 2K9 showed this year. Savaged in reviews, MLB 2K9 declined in sales as poor word of mouth spread while Sony's MLB The Show became the sport's standard bearer - on a single console - with a superbly received offering.

Of course a better quality game would help Take-Two's position - but only argumentatively, as it misses two key points: The first is that the bad news here is relative to Take-Two's internal numbers. In other words, this isn't about product quality. Take-Two was offering guidance to its shareholders based on what it knew about its titles, and MLB 2K9 has been out since March, with its reputation cemented well since then. Take-Two's projection wasn't likely built on some significant baseball comeback. It was depending on other things.

The second is that those internal figures have factored in a very large overhead number for several years - the exclusive pact Take-Two signed with Major League Baseball back in 2005, largely in response to EA Sports inking a deal to make its Madden title the only NFL game on the market.

So, taken together, it means the size of that deal, and Take-Two's inability to create commercially successful spinoffs to justify its cost - i.e. The Bigs 2 and Front Office Manager - are the fulcrum of the existential crisis facing MLB 2K10, not its poor gameplay reputation.

"They could try to cut corners on quality and marketing, but my guess is that they wouldn't save enough to offset the corresponding loss of sales" said Michael Pachter, the eminent financial analyst covering the games industry. "It's pretty clear that they signed an unprofitable deal, and they are stuck with it."

The Bigs 2 didn't do so badly, in an artistic sense. Released around the All-Star break it met with a generally favorable reception, commensurate with its predecessor. But as most know, good reviews by themselves don't make hot water come out the shower. "The first Bigs game did well, and they presumed incorrectly that the second would do better than the first," Pachter said. "When it didn't, they missed their earnings expectations."

Not helping anything was January's Front Office Manager, an unfortunately conceived offering that should certify that a console is just not the place for a numbers-dependent, behind-the-scenes sports sim. Unfortunately, it came right after EA Sports gave up on its NFL Head Coach series. So 2K Sports, put up to finding another baseball variant to pay the bills, again looked like a copycat fighting last year's war.

Pachter estimates Take-Two is on the hook for $40 million to MLB over the life of the deal, covering 2005 to 2012. "They can't generate enough profitable revenues from the baseball simulation game (MLB 2K) to cover the minimum, so they have tried brand extensions like MLB Manager and The Bigs to expand sales."

To me, it suggests that even a 90-rated MLB title for 2K Sports would still be in trouble this year. Sure, MLB The Show isn't, but it's not shouldering the kind of expectations for SCEA that MLB 2K is for Take-Two.

Face it, baseball is a less telegenic, less intense, less spectacular sport than not only football, but also basketball and hockey. Baseball's unique sales points are its long seasons, its record book and sentiments, and playoff suspense. Good luck translating any of those into video game qualities as compelling as football's hard-hitting desperation or basketball's fast-paced showtime, or anything about ice hockey, undoubtedly the most arcadelike of any team sport in the world.

"Take-Two made the mistake of thinking baseball was as big as NFL, FIFA or NBA," Pachter said. "I don't think any other publisher thought so, which led to Take-Two being stuck with ‘winner's remorse' when it won the bidding war for the MLB exclusive."

This doesn't necessarily portend that MLB 2K will be a title on life support for 2K10, 11 and 12. If Take-Two is looking to cut its losses, adventures like The Bigs and Front Office Manager will be the first to go, while they keep up appearances in the flagship product. (The Bigs' first title was in 2007, the second was ‘09, so maybe it would have skipped this year anyway.)

All this means that this year, more than any sports game has ever needed it in this console generation, MLB 2K10 needs a jaw-dropping comeback. It may not be enough to bail out Take-Two - stung by the loss of the NFL five years ago and stuck with the worst rebound hookup in the industry. But a lackluster showing in March will certify this franchise is in writeoff mode until the deal expires.

A conspiracy theorist might suggest Take-Two's poormouthing of its MLB titles is gamesmanship to open talks to reconfigure the deal, but let's be real. That's a huge contract, and Major League Baseball either has been paid, or will have to be paid a lot more - in a buyout or litigation - to get out of it.

"They can try all they want to get out of the deal with MLB, but a contract is a contract, and nothing short of bankruptcy will get them out of the deal," Pachter said. "Since they aren't likely to go bankrupt any time soon, they are stuck with the terms of the deal they signed. It's really no different than a professional sports team signing a big name athlete who underperforms. They're stuck with the contract regardless."

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