Imaginary Triumphs: Sports As A Role-Playing GameS

We stalk back to the visitor's clubhouse, everyone suffused with silent disgust. In my big-league debut, family beaming from the stands, I scattered five hits and one run over eight innings. Behind that my teammates, the Washington Nationals, scored nothing.

Their eyes follow me all the way up the Citi Field ramp. The tension is upon us all; I'm the phenom with the 98-mph blowtorch. My starts are found money, the opportunity that can't be wasted. When they are, it makes my distance from the team even more apparent. It makes it worse. And it makes it all up to me.

I fire my glove into my dressing room stall and stand atop my chair. The writers are outside but I'm sure they can hear. "You know what, fuck this game," I say. "This game is over and I no longer give a shit and none of you should either. We play tomorrow and I pitch next week and when I do I swear to you I will fuck the Braves up."

• • •

None of this happened in MLB 09 The Show. Nor will it happen in MLB 10 The Show. Nor, considering the language, will it ever happen in a licensed video game. I made it all up in my mind. I said these things to a television screen, stabbing my finger in the air in an empty room. It was another episode in a freelance narrative I'd pieced together over a month while brushing my teeth, getting the mail and buying groceries.

"No one has yet calculated how many imaginary triumphs are celebrated by people each year to keep up their courage," the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus wrote around 200 A.D. Even if it were calculable, the number has surely mushroomed in the advent of sports simulation gaming. And it's a figure that can only grow, for sports are the undiscovered country for the role-playing genre in video games. It's an urge that's been brewing for years and has only recently been tapped by solo-player career modes like NCAA Football's Road to Glory, NBA 2K's My Player and MLB The Show's exceptional Road to the Show.

But it lies outside the design orthodoxy of both console role-playing games and sports simulations. Sword-and-shield RPGs, no matter how open-world they profess to be, still supply a backstory, a goal and missions. Sports simulations have none, beyond the player's institutional memory of the league and its performers, then the games he plays, and the continuity he remembers.

RPGs will create milestones as one progresses through the story. In a sports career mode, not only must the player achieve them, he must create them. Nothing foreordains a seventh-game World Series showdown by your fifth - or any - year in the majors, but such climactic events are essential to standard RPGs.

Yesterday I put the question to the MLB The Show team. Is what you make a role-playing game? I expect them to say yes. Why not? It appeals to more players, right?

Not exactly.

"I think we do a good job of tiptoeing that line" said Aaron Luke, a designer on the MLB 10 The Show team. And for a genre where true-to-life simulation sells the most copies, tiptoeing the line is about as far as anyone wants to go right now.

"One of the things that makes it hard to commit fully to a role playing game, even though the aspects of creating a player and improving him and customizing him are there," said senior designer Eddy Cramm, "is that role playing games come from a basis of fantasy and make-believe. But baseball, a sports game, is based on reality. When you're making a sports game, you are all about making it more accurate and true to life."

That's not to say your accomplishments in MLB The Show, or any sports game, take place in a vacuum. The announcers will tell the viewers you're making your debut. Through the seventh inning of a no-hitter, the ritual of not mentioning the elephant in the room begins. Closing in on a milestone victory, home run or hit carries its own special audio and cut scene, with celebration and catharsis.

Imaginary Triumphs: Sports As A Role-Playing GameS

But sports games still must serve the here and now more than posterity. There's a tremendous multiplayer constituency that console RPGs don't have to serve. "Me, I'm more of an on-the-field guy," says Cramm, "I play against a buddy, and that's my competition. But there are a lot of guys out there who want to compete against themselves, who want that role-playing aspect, that career aspect. It's important to reach them, too."

Luke, however, is a man after my own heart. As a designer, he's played thousands of games. But his most memorable one goes back to the original Road to the Show mode of MLB 07 The Show. "That's the one I'll always remember," he said, "I'm a Cubs fan, so I specifically remember pitching for Chicago, it was in the playoffs of my third major league season and I was the No. 3 starter."

Cramm nods at this. "This is three years later. It was one video game, and he still has an attachment to that moment," he says. "I think it says a lot."

I understand that sports simulations are largely sold on how well they reflect real life. You'll see it when MLB 10 The Show's marketing campaign ramps up. But that value isn't mutually exclusive to the fantasy it can deliver - which is the longest and most commonly held dream of a population more vast than video gamers worldwide. Generations of men have died wanting it before the pitch was thrown, the first goal scored, the first touchdown made on an Atari 2600: Make the big leagues. Win the big game. Hear the cheering of thousands. Now, if only as a palliative for our own regrets, missed opportunities, inadequacies or failures, video games are starting to soothe that.

"That exact philosophy is what spawned the Road to the Show mode three years ago," Luke said, "taking someone through that experience, something we all wish we had."

• • •

Imaginary Triumphs: Sports As A Role-Playing GameS

Luke treasures his first major league shutout. And now I'm on a mission for mine. In my second start the Nationals face the Braves in Atlanta. In the second inning, Ryan Zimmerman pumps a solo shot off Javier Vazquez to get us on top 1-0. (Vazquez, like others in this simulation of a 2011 season, have signed with different teams in real life 2010). I scatter a couple hits over three and the game locks into a pitcher's duel through five.

In the sixth I come to bat and Vazquez hits me on my right forearm, the nonpitching one. In the bottom of the inning, he comes to the plate with one out, everyone expecting me, the hothead, to hit him. I dismiss Vazquez on three fastballs. Then I deliberately put on two runners so I can face Chipper Jones, the future hall of famer, Mr. Brave, hitting third. Without hesitation I blast Jones between the shoulder blades, loading the bases. Only the implausible foolishness of the situation saves me from an ejection. I shrug and pat my jersey front but I can't even hear the umpire's warning; my ears ring with the hate of the Turner Field crowd.

But I make sure to leave the mound casually after freezing free-agent pickup Pat Burrell with a 1-2 change, plate umpire Wally Hughes pumping his elbow and punching at the Braves' dugout for effect.

Turner Field in April is a mausoleum as I finish this out. The score is again 1-0. This time, we win. My 11 strikeouts and one hit batsman have delivered on my promise. Two weeks ago I made the major leagues. But in my second start, I have made this team.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.