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This year’s Sony MLB: The Show will be the first baseball title to focus on black leagues.
Created out of racial segregation in MLB (and America in general), the Negro leagues were home to black and Hispanic professionals who played from 1920 to 1950.
talking to GamesIndustry.bizSan Diego Studio Communications Product Development and MLB: The Show Brand Strategist Ramon Russell walks us through how to bring that missing piece of baseball history to the game.
“Whenever we started doing press [for MLB: The Show]“I always got the question, when are we going to do Negro Leagues? he explains. [but need to] find the right way to do it.”
Russell notes that the inclusion of Negro leagues would not have been possible with the technology of previous console generations, due to the need to properly represent historical context and information, and to faithfully recreate players, stadiums, and crowds.
So the first question was not about lack of trying, but about how to approach the project.
“If you wait for ideal conditions, there is nothing you can do,” he adds.
Telling the stories of these players presented many challenges for San Diego Studio.
“If you tell historical stories about underrepresented communities, Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement, it becomes very risky, very quickly.”
“In video games, there is freedom of action where you can make choices,” explains Russell. “But if you’re telling historical stories about underrepresented communities, Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement, it becomes very risky, very quickly. There’s a reason why you haven’t seen a single video game made about [that era].”
Russell uses as an example the story of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson when he first played in MLB. When Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he encountered anti-black racism during the game.
Russell says, “We don’t want to gloss over the ugliness of the story because it needs to be told accurately and also relevant to your audience. [However] we are an officially licensed MLB game, like this [our title] should be rated E.
Finally, getting to know these players began with a call to the Negro League Baseball Museum and its president, Bob Kendrick, in search of the best way to incorporate Kendrick’s experience into baseball tiles along with gameplay.
Russell says it took several attempts and prototypes to get there. One of these ideas was for users to receive in-game history lessons through a podcast-like audio recording. In the end, a short visual clip of each player’s story before they took the field was better than the idea.
“… The inner city blues began to play, and the light bulb went out. [in my head]. It’s the theme of it all”
Russell explains that he took it upon himself to create a vertical cut for the team to better convey the concept. This required some help from the trailer team at PlayStation Creative.
“I started working with them, and it took us about 12 hours to put together this vertical piece of video,” he says. “It all started with a Marvin Gaye track called Inner City Blues. One day I was driving in my car late at night and Inner City Blues started playing and the light went off. [in my head].
“This is the theme of all this, this is a project. So at the start of the vertical slice was the Inner City Blues and we did this slow scan where it showed “MLB: The Show Represents the Negro Leagues.”
It was January 2021 when the team got a clearer idea of the concept, choosing an eight-player round to form 60 stories.
“But we release every year,” adds Russell. “We have nine months to develop the game. We can’t properly capture the breadth and depth of the Negro leagues in a single console release.”
San Diego Studio then decided to include eight to ten players a year. MLB: The Show Introduces Negro Leagues: The title of the first season intentionally indicates that there will be content in the future. And the team relied on Kendrick’s guidance to develop the first lineup.
“We called [Kendrick] and sat down with him; we needed some strong hitters and lesser-known personalities,” explains Russell.
“Obviously it starts with Leroy Robert “Satchel” Page and the surpassed name of Jackie Robinson. His induction and overcoming the color barrier marked the end of the Negro League.”
Russell explains that the president of the Negro League Museum was filmed over the course of two days. To Kendrick’s credit as a historian, he answered all questions about player profiles in his first storyline entry, and was not asked directly during the process.
After filming, the team again thought about how they wanted to present this story.
“So these videos have to be very short. They should also be educational. They should be informative and visually appealing,” says Russell.
He explains that while rendering these historical players, the studio had another set of problems with the developers. For example, the only photographs of Andrew “Rub” Foster, an organizer of the Negro National League who played from 1902 to 1917, were in black and white.
“Hilton Smith [also] there were only black and white photographs… so we used Hilton Smith’s grandson as the basis for his skin tone.”
Based on his photographs, Studio San Diego knew that Foster was a black man. However, in the case of the rendering of Hilton Smith, who played from 1932 to 1948, the development team took a different approach.
Russell says “Hilton Smith [also] There were only black and white photographs. So what is his skin tone? We work with all families and estates [of players]so we used Hilton Smith’s grandson as the basis for his skin tone.”
Historical accuracy has survived beyond baseball players. Standard stadiums were not used during the Negro leagues storylines, so not only were new arenas designed and inspired by the leagues, but also in-game crowds.
“Negro league teams used to rent out baseball stadiums on Sundays to doublehead, and in the South, what did people do on Sundays? They went to church,” says Russell. “Everyone has suits, ties and hats. Everyone is dressed to the nines, so that’s our crowd in all these stadiums.”
The visual differences with the crowd didn’t stop there; the people who went to watch Negro league games, unlike MLB at the time, were not racially segregated. So that was also reflected in the design meant for the audience.
The final piece of the San Diego Studio puzzle was the soundtrack. Russell adds that he took on the task of creating the tracklist himself.
“I spoke to our director and said: “I know that we have not increased the budget for music for a very long time. We have to do it now, this project does not work without a separate soundtrack. I kill [this]. Nothing will work without this music.” He said, “Yes, whatever the cost.” So we doubled our music [licensing] budget.”
In addition, the brand manager acknowledges that he will be seen as the cause if the project fails.
“I was horrified because if we make a mistake, they will look at the same person. A guy with black skin who works in a studio who is the face of [MLB: The Show] fire. So if it’s wrong, it will fall on me.”
He notes that his fears of failure will also reflect negatively on the San Diego Studio and PlayStation team.
“So the fear of making mistakes is a very motivating factor,” explains Russell.
On a more personal note, Russell says he and his team wanted to present a black story that wouldn’t traumatize its users. In addition, he wanted the source material to be funny and inspiring.
“Our motto for the project is the same model as the Negro League Baseball Museum: educate, educate and inspire.”
He explains, “Our motto for the project is the same model as the Negro League Baseball Museum: educate, educate, and inspire.
“We wanted to make sure we don’t injure blacks in a video game… I don’t need to see blacks get hurt in a movie or in a video game. I’ve seen it enough.”
“The last thing I wanted was for a 12-year-old black kid from Chicago to play this game and feel bad. Also, I don’t want a 12 year old white kid from Cincinnati to play it and feel bad about himself. [either]. So this project and storylines in general are a celebration of these almost forgotten players and how good they were.”
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