An MVP Hangs In There, With Los Muchachos Del Verano

It seems like a familiar story: a baseball veteran gets to the end of his contract, can't sign another one, and finds new life, and love, in another country. In this case, it's EA Sports' long lost MVP Baseball 2005.

Discontinued when 2K Sports won the exclusive third-party license from Major League Baseball, the game still retains a relatively sizeable fan base in its exile, thanks largely to a strong modding culture for the PC version. And through this, MVP is now something of an unofficial national baseball video game in countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Mexico.

That's thanks to "MVP Caribe," the largest and best known of the game's "Total Conversion Mods," the full-featured remakes that completely change the game's rosters, teams, uniforms, ballparks and even its audio. Downloaded more than half a million times since it was first released in October 2007, it's the product of 10 modders, using a tool set developed and used by the robust MVP modding community.

An MVP Hangs In There, With Los Muchachos Del Verano

One's from the Dominican Republic, eight from Venezuela, and Héctor Rivera, Mexico's lone representative, (that's him at right with Agustin Morillo of his hometown team, the Yaquis de Obregon). He's an 18-year-old university student who's gotten some amazing features into the game, and remarkable exposure for it.

"We had a very funny situation in the 2009 (Caribbean League) Series, in Mexicali, while the Dominican Republic and Mexican game was being played," Rivera recalls. "Adrian Gonzalez hit a home run, and the camera points to the crowd, and there's a fan with an MVP Caribe sign. It also got on our SportsCenter. I don't know why or how that guy got the sign, but it was really cool."

MVP Caribe, which has been updated annually since its first release, swaps the National and American Leagues for the clubs from the four nations of the Caribbean winter leagues (Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and since they total 28, two sides from Cuba are included for scheduling balance.) Rivera's responsible for the Mexican Pacific League (LMP is its Spanish abbreviation), which replaces the National League East and West divisions in the game.

In the game, players take control of one club and play a full schedule, hoping to win out in their league and make the Caribbean Series, which serves as the game's playoffs mode. It's much more than a roster or jersey swap. The mod team builds stadiums to reflect their real life counterparts, and carefully scrutinizes players who are in, or might be headed to the winter leagues, to make sure their in-game models look like them, and adopt their same batting and pitching motions.

And MVP Caribe even has an announcer, thanks to Rivera's work.

Oscar Soria, the Spanish play-by-play man for the Arizona Diamondbacks, introduces all 30 stadiums at the beginning of each game in MVP Caribe, recording the audio for free at Rivera's request. Rivera got Soria's email address from a Mexican baseball forum and sent him an email. "We had a little chat and I said I wanted him to help me with the audio, and he said yes," Rivera says. "When I told him what I was doing, he said he knew about the game already, because another ESPN announcer had played it and told him about it." One of the mod team's strong Venezuelan contingent went to a Carribbean Series game there and got a picture with the ESPN announcing team there, all of them big fans of MVP Caribe.

Getting actual Spanish-language play-by-play into the game is a prohibitively large task, with more than 16,000 sound files in the game. So after the intro, it's back to Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow calling the action, unless they're deactivated.

An MVP Hangs In There, With Los Muchachos Del Verano

In Mexico, MVP Caribe is especially well known (that's a newspaper feature on the game at left) and even gets promoted in LMP parks. It's a free mod, of course, and a free ad, but LMP president Omar Canizalez himself took an interest in Rivera's work, seeing it as a powerful way to extend the league's exposure, especially to young fans. Rivera isn't paid by the league, but he does get media credentials and press access to conduct research for his work on MVP Caribe.

"In my country, baseball is a secondary sport," Rivera says. But in Obregon, which is in the country's northwest, by the Gulf of California, baseball has a strong following, and the sport's most popular league is the LMP, rather than the 16-team Mexican League that plays in the summer, often overshadowed in cities with large soccer franchises and passionate followings.

"Since I was a kid, and many people have said the same thing on our website, we have dreamed of a video game with the Carribbean League teams, playing in our hometowns' ballparks, with our players and our passion," Rivera said. "The closest we had before was to play an MLB video game, like Triple Play ‘99, choose a bad team and then get all the Mexican, Venezuelan or wherever-you're-from players and try to win the championship with that team. Now I'm proud to say we have made those dreams come true for thousands of people."

How much longer Rivera will remain with the project is sort of an open question. He's just enrolled in Universidad La Salle del Noroeste and knows his studies will require time that he's been able to give to MVP Caribe. He plans to stay "until I notice it's getting harder to continue with all the stuff," Rivera said. "I'll think about it in university. Let's see what happens."

But if he had a choice between continuing with the mod, and all of the fun, notoriety and friendships he has acquired through that, or having a bona fide Carribbean League video game, or the leagues fully represented in one, Rivera is like all gamers and sports fans. He'd choose the real game, for the affirmation it would provide not just of his team or league, but his and others' nations.

"Even if a video game creator like EA Sports someday makes one, I know that the Caribe modders were the ones that started it, and that will never change," Rivera said. "I will always know that we were the ones that started it, and helped make the leagues more known in other countries."

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