The Beauty of Human Error, Committed by a Computer Umpire

Illustration for article titled The Beauty of Human Error, Committed by a Computer Umpire

It's the bottom of the fourth and that SOB Dallas Hodges is squeezing the zone low and away, again. Strike three went by like a freight train and Hodges just stared at it like a cow. This ump's a disgrace.


This ump also isn't even real. He's one of 10 in MLB 10: The Show, who can, thanks to a menu option, call personal strike zones that can definitely make you believe someone has it in for your pitcher. And when superstar hitters get to the plate, I swear they're both in collusion. I'll get nothing on the corners and then I'm forced to groove a two- or three-ball pitch and Ryan Braun hits it into the 25th century.

But at least no one ever blows a call the way Jim Joyce did on Wednesday, catapulting baseball's annual outrage over terrible officiating into the national spotlight, several months ahead of its usual postseason appearance. Joyce botched a call in a scenario that seems like something out of a screenplay - missing the 27th out of a potential perfect game, and it was not even close. Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, covering first base, clearly beat Cleveland's Jason Donald to the bag, but Joyce ruled the runner safe. Joyce wasn't out of position, and it wasn't a bang-bang play. He just missed it.


Joyce would later emerge as a sympathetic figure, once it became clear he admitted and owned the mistake, and that he is very well liked and respected by players and managers. Paired with Galarraga's forgiveness and first-class gestures toward Joyce, the moment became, if not a happy one, at least bittersweet.

Baseball fans still seethed with outrage on talk radio and over Twitter and the usual channels, instead directing their anger at Major League Baseball's unwillingness to expand instant replay review, and at rules that prohibit other umpires from challenging or correcting a mistaken call, no matter how obvious. I was definitely part of that chorus.

And yet every single time I've started a Season or Road to the Show campaign in MLB The Show, I've selected the variable plate umpiring. The feature's been a part of the game since MLB 07 The Show and I've used it ever since. I've also turned on check-swing appeals and the potential to get hosed on that call, just as Washington's Matt Capps was in Houston earlier this week. I've taken a completely closed, controlled environment that is incapable of incorrectly officiating an objective result and willingly introduced the chance that I'd lose a game when a stingy umpire won't give the obvious strike three.


Something is seriously weird when hardcore baseball fans demand technology that eliminates the chance of a mistake in real life and creates the chances of them in a video game.

Illustration for article titled The Beauty of Human Error, Committed by a Computer Umpire

But when I plug in MLB 2K10 - whose pitching controls I prefer - it just doesn't feel right to always get a strike when I nip the corner, as MLB 2K10 will do for you. MLB 2K10 has no variable officiating. And even if the stitches of the ball graze the strike zone, you're getting that call every time. When I'm pitching a single game with a different team, MLB 2K10 is a fun trip to the mound, but when I'm playing for the long term, career or franchise, I'm using MLB 10 The Show and its often inscrutable umpires.

I suspect I'm not the only one who prefers that feature. I tried searching out the umpires' names and found a couple forum threads brimming with the staples of real-world ump hate: Allegations of blindness, vendettas, hurried play and pet peeves, all of it directed at lines of code.


"Woody Freakin' Keller is a blind d-bag who is in a hurry to go home and kick his dog. The man is clearly blind."

"Doc Bryant is a total toolbag. I swear he has a personal vendetta against me! He will not call strikes at the knees to save my life."

" ‘Cowboy' Joe Watson punches me out every time they appeal a check swing. I mean every time! Ruthless!"

"Woody Keller can sit on the wrong end of a baseball bat ..."

"Porter Callahan will screw you all game long!"

"All I know is Dallas Hodges has boiled eggs, not eyes."

No real umpire appears in any current baseball video game, probably because he's not worth the licensing, but also because announcers sometimes criticize the officiating for verisimilitude. (Matt Vasgersian is especially sympathetic to your cause in The Show.) A league that hands out five-figure fines for bitching about the umpiring isn't going to let a video game rip a real one, either.

But looking at those hilarious comments above, it dawns on me, the point of human officiating and the contribution it makes to a sport. These are umpires in a video game - the most ancillary and figure-headed of characters - and yet gamers choose to enable their participation in potentially unfair ways, and consider it a positive feature of a video game, because it creates a richer narrative. This is exactly the case made by those who are against instant replay officiating in baseball.

Although Armando Galarraga would certainly prefer the immortality of a pitching a perfect game, and Jim Joyce the anonymity of calling a game perfectly, both men are forever a part of baseball history for something even more unique. And something that, by their uncommon grace and character in the aftermath, will ultimately be remembered more for good reasons than bad.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story said no real official appears in any sports video game. This is incorrect. Ed Hochuli has appeared in-game as an NFL official since Madden NFL 06. Boxing referee Mills Lane has also appeared in some games, and this year's UFC Undisputed 2010 has a full complement of real life mixed-martial arts referees.

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Now I'll admit that I don't typically play sports games, but I have a theory:

Say the game is set to call everything perfectly without error. If the game's controls over the in-game players allow you to consistently replicate desired actions, it also leads to predictable outcomes. This means that, once you've spent enough time to master the controls, as long as you don't screw up, you'd always get the call you're going for.

And that's boring. Videogames have far fewer variables than the actual sports, meaning it's way easier to just reproduce a result. Once you've overcome your own human error as a gamer, a perfect umpire system reduces the game to a cold, robotic reproduction of the sport— endlessly predictable, and completely inorganic. It might as well be a mass of calculations and nothing more.

In the real sport you'd have both player error and umpire error affecting the outcome. In a game with simplified presentation, you're given the opportunity to eliminate player error from your team, personally. The simulated 'humanity' of the in-game umps is the only way to keep spontaneity in the equation. It's the only familiar link to the uncertainty you'd usually feel for your favorite team while watching them in real life— you can't personally guarantee victory for THEM with expert thumbs. That's why it's so exciting.