The first week after Thanksgiving is typically when MLB The Show's publicity machine rolls out the first screenshots and begins teasing upcoming details for the game, and right on schedule we got them this past week.
The Show has had no serious competition for five years. Next year it won't have any, in name or otherwise. The long-underperforming MLB 2K series is done for, which made this past week's details about MLB 13 The Show significant, not for what they say about a game that will come out, but for forcing gamers to confront the reality of one that won't.
There will be no baseball on the Xbox 360 next year. No new baseball game, anyway. Assuming 2K Sports doesn't pull the plug on online support for MLB 2K12 (or isn't forced to, for some reason, when the terms of its deal expire), then user-edited rosters may still be shared, and I'm sure there will be many uploaded next spring. But the game isn't getting another patch, isn't getting any official roster updates, isn't getting official anything.
This is hardly breaking news. MLB 2K has long been marked for death, even if its parent company never officially confirmed the kill. Thanks to the premium paid by previous management for an exclusive license that wasn't really exclusive, the title was blamed for a $30 million loss in Take-Two Interactive's 2K Sports label, though NBA 2K's phenomenal performance wiped that out and made the entire division profitable.
The last time we had a series cancellation anywhere near the scope of the one coming, it was when EA Sports decided to pull the plug on its NCAA Basketball series in 2010. There was a very brief reckoning with what that meant; gamers quickly understood that these series, no matter their quality, didn't sell very well because they followed the NBA simulation products by one month, and most folks are interested in college basketball only enough to follow it in one month, March.
What the reaction will be to an Xbox 360 without a new baseball game next year, I really don't know. I was asked the question on the latest Press Row Podcast, gave a quick answer, and even after pondering it further I still don't know what baseball fans' response will be. As a thought exercise, it raises more questions than it answers.
Heck, do we even need a new baseball game on the 360 next year?
• Will anyone really care? MLB 2K had long disappointed Xbox 360 baseball fans, becoming the kind of poor game whose death commenters cheer heartily. When pitchers and catchers report, it may be a different story. Fans who have the game or buy it used will pop the disc in, find a user-edited roster and start playing—and face all the things that drove them crazy about the series the year before, of course. They won't miss having any baseball on the Xbox 360, because technically they do have such a game. They will miss having a good baseball game that meets their expectations, but they've been feeling that since 2006. Honestly, 2013, in a lot of ways, looks like status quo even without a new game.
• Do we even need a new baseball game on the Xbox 360? This could tell us something about video game consumer culture that we've never observed directly. Practically every post I make about a sports video game gets a comment wondering why a series doesn't just come out every other year and release roster updates as DLC. (Aside from the fact licensing agreements require an annual release, there's no way that system makes a publisher more money. It makes a publisher less money, an outcome they are not very interested in.)
But if people are doing just fine with community-edited rosters and playing career modes that are three, four, five seasons into an alternate reality where present-day accuracy is meaningless anyway, it may change sports gamers' attitudes about habitually buying the next edition of the series. MLB 2K12 wasn't much to look at, but it wasn't unplayable. Pitching with it still was enjoyable, and its commentary was a mile ahead of The Show's. I don't think it'd be enough to sink sports publishing's fortunes, but if gamers find they can survive without laying down $60 for a new sports game with all of the bells and whistles it's touting this year, they may choose not to buy other sports titles' latest releases as well.
• Is this the end of baseball for good on this platform? Considering everyone expects next year's E3 to unveil the Xbox 360's successor, I'd say so. Conventional wisdom holds that any publisher who is interested in getting back into an agreement with Major League Baseball would wait until the next console generation to do so, and that may be upon us sooner than we think. I would not expect a baseball game to be ready for that console in 2014, however, unless someone signs with the league in the next two or three months. 2K Sports' deal was set to expire in Take-Two Interactive's 2013 fiscal year, which has begun.
For those who don't run right out and buy Microsoft's new console—the Xbox 360 isn't going to die when the new hardware pops out—they can expect to be stuck with MLB 2K12 until they get a different console.
• Will this have any affect on PlayStation 3 sales? Anecdotally, maybe, because I'm always hearing of diehard baseball fans who bite the bullet each year and go PS3 just to get The Show and play a game that knows what it's doing. But I don't expect it to be in numbers large enough for Sony to reap a windfall. You might see some bundles offered with MLB 13 The Show. If Sony's not already planning that, they'd be wise to consider it.
It should say something that 2K Sports couldn't make money off an uncontested baseball presence on the Xbox 360—a console selling 750,000 units last week. The size of a bad deal negotiated by prior (ousted) management has something to do with it, sure. But EA Sports paid a lot of money for the NFL license, turned out a stinker with Madden NFL 12, and still set sales records in that year. MLB 2K had a great marketing campaign for the past three years, and still couldn't sell enough copies of this, nor of any spinoff products, to make this deal work. If anyone is negotiating with the league, this is being discussed. If no one is negotiating with the league, this may be why.
That means either Major League Baseball needs to adjust its expectations of what kind of license it's going to sell and for how much, or gamers need to adjust their expectations of what console delivers baseball going forward. What will really happen? Like I said, I don't know.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.