Wax nostalgic with a sports gamer of a certain age and it's not long before he will mention, like a venerated religious text, the Three-Ring Binder. It was the original franchise mode.
I'm 37, and I've yet to meet a guy from my generation who didn't keep his own stats in a sports video game and doesn't still take tremendous pride in it. A few early PC sports games, notably Micro League Baseball and Earl Weaver Baseball, might have compiled player and team stats, but for most of us, without that Three Ring Binder, Wally Joyner would always be a .290 batter with 22 home runs in RBI Baseball.
My junior year of college, my roommate Scot played Dr. J vs. Larry Bird on an Apple II, the game's original platform, always taking Bird. Scot had a Three Ring Binder. After each score he'd put down that boxy joystick, pick up a pencil, jot a hashmark, and run the next play. He kept an entire 82-game season. For a one-on-one game.
A good friend got an Xbox shortly after he was married in 2004, and deliberately stayed away from baseball titles. "I knew if I played one, it would be the whole season, scouting reports, trades, the three-ring binder of box scores," he told me.
Today, nearly every sports video game enjoys total statistical support in all of its modes. Play online, you can get your box scores emailed to you. Start an online dynasty in NCAA Football 11, it'll even supply a wire-service writeup. Major League Baseball 2K11 serves up advanced Sabermetric analysis in the game's season mode. And every title now offers repeated, almost weekly roster updates that adjust a player's attributes to reflect his real-world performance and playing tendencies.
But these features don't supply what the Three-Ring Binder represented: a personal attachment to the performances.
MLB 11 The Show compiles a comprehensive statistical record fitting such a highly regarded simulation. But earlier this month I found myself cursing the fact I didn't know something, something I would have known had I been keeping a Three-Ring Binder like the old days.
My pitcher was on a scoreless streak that had reached at least 40 innings. But as a reliever, he'd had some inherited runs that scored in the game that started the streak, making it harder to pinpoint from a box score alone the inning in which it began. I'd have known how far I really had to go to catch Orel Hershiser's record of 59 innings had I kept a scorebook.
Over the summer of 1991, playing Accolade's Hardball! for the Commodore 64, I actually did, drawing off a grid of boxes on paper instead of buying a scorebook from a sporting goods store. That year, the "All-Stars" and "Champs" became multiple teams in a league I created, using the old nicknames from the National League of the 1880s. I drew up a 162-game schedule, renamed the All-Stars the Boston Puritans, and proceeded to win my first 50 games.
In addition to making scoring notations - L-5, F-7, 6-4-3 and the like, on a separate piece of paper I jotted pencil hashmarks in a running box score for both teams. This later had to be rewritten, in ink, to be the final box score included in the binder. After each three game series I recompiled the stats into a season-long tally. It sounds like a hell of a lot of work, but in those days I had fewer distractions, and a baseball game with no broadcast presentation plays lightning fast.
To this day I remember key details of the Puritans' season. McCall and DeSoto both stole 100 bases. The team averaged something like 10 runs and 20 hits per game. I kept a new stat, the "perfect inning," in which you got every batter out without him making contact (if he did, the music would stop) . Perez, the screwballer, had 11 of them.
Yet sitting here right now, I couldn't tell you my created player's ERA or win total, or even his spot in the Padres' rotation. I know I've struck out the side more than once, but I couldn't tell you how many. Moreover, I have no clue where the Padres are in the NL West standings for 2013, though it's still pretty early.
This isn't a complaint, and I don't wish for it to read like one. The point of this is that the Three-Ring Binder, in all of its old-school hard-copy, handwritten glory, represents something no developer, no programmer can put into a video game. It's the pride you take in playing it.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.