It’s Opening Day, and the Angels have driven up the I-5 freeway to play the Oakland A’s at RingCentral Coliseum. Despite the pageantry, it’s not exactly a premier matchup. This is going to be a game between two teams that have struggled for years and will probably continue to do so. But I’m here for the same reason as everyone else: Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani, who graced the cover of last year’s edition of Sony’s MLB The Show, has made baseball fans experience feelings they never thought they would: that the sport is growing. Ohtani’s fireworks with Team Japan in the pre-season World Baseball Classic captured global attention. The event itself, while controversial among some for its pre-season injuries, was the best non-traditional baseball event the sport has had in some time. And boy, have there been some confusing ones, like Home Run Derby X.
So Ohtani is coming off a rock star performance; He has to be the first pitcher I use in this year’s The Show ‘23. And he delivers, baffling the A’s with 6 innings of shut-out ball. Frustratingly, Ohtani is not in the batting lineup (did they forget about the Ohtani rule?), and my Angels are only able to deliver an early knock through Mike Trout, giving them a slim 1-0 lead. They load the bases with no outs only to strike out and hit into a double play. Several double plays, in fact.
Although this game is razor-thin, as the announcers keep reminding me, my mind keeps drifting. Ohtani cruises through to the 7th inning, where he starts to get in a little trouble with Seth Brown and Jesús Aguilar. The bullpen is able to get the job done, but as the crisis resolves my mind keeps going elsewhere. I’m distracted, and the A’s are taking advantage. They load the bases in the 8th, and then, in the 9th, Brown hits a walk-off two-run homer. It’s annoying, to be sure, but I’m ready to move on. There’s another pitcher I’m even more excited to try than Shohei Ohtani: Satchel Paige.
Thanks for the Memories
Growing up on Ken Burns’ mini-series Baseball, I used to lug the unwieldy accompanying coffee table book to bed with me every night to read about baseball legends. I encountered the sport through its history, and the mythos of the Negro Leagues loomed large. An entire league born out of necessity, in spite of ever-present racism, with some of the greatest players to ever live. Paige was one of the game’s all-timers, and The Show ‘23’s revolutionary Negro Leagues section offers a great introduction to one of the sport’s most fascinating chapters.
Half history lesson and half mini-game, the storyline mode features the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick, guiding players through the careers of a variety of Negro League players. This includes Paige, Jackie Robinson, and lesser-known players including Buck O’Neil, Rube Foster, Hilton Smith, John Donaldson, Hank Thompson, and Martin Dihigo. For the baseball aficionado, some of these choices are baffling: Where’s Josh Gibson, considered by many to be the greatest hitter of all time, or Cool Papa Bell, the legendary speedster who was said to run around the bases in a breathtaking 12 seconds?
The players that made the cut do offer their own fascinating stories. The game explores Rube Foster’s legacy as a businessman and inventor of the screwball, and perhaps the most fascinating discovery for many will be Martin Dihigo, the Cuban nicknamed El Inmortal who played all nine positions, outdueled Paige in the Mexican League, and reportedly funded Fidel Castro’s communist guerillas.
These mini-games give players goals similar to those found in the March to October feature, like pitching two scoreless innings or hitting a home run in a crucial moment. Kendrick is a charming narrator, and the playing experience is a seamless one. Kendrick introduces how Paige gave his pitches unique nicknames, for example, and then in the next outing your available pitches are listed as the “bee ball,” the “dipsy-doo” and such. Getting to throw the bee ball, Paige’s equivalent of a fastball hitting 105 MPH and with incredible accuracy, feels like Kratos finding his Blades of Chaos in his widely beloved 2018 video game. All you can think is, “We are so back.”
The Negro Leagues mode succeeds because, like the World Baseball Classic, it expands our idea of what baseball means on a more profound level. Giving players the superpowers of Satchel Paige in his prime, and then slowly taking them away as he ages (he played until around he was 60), offers an instructive look into the life of a pitcher. Watching him bring fielders in to sit on one knee while you strike out the side is incredibly cool.
Focus on the Big Moments
The way yearly sports games typically go is to have several years of incremental growth followed by something new. March to October, the most recent innovation from The Show ‘21, is back. It reduces a season to big “moments” like Opening Day, a winning streak, or a player’s turning point. It’s a fun way to hammer through a season, with play mostly coming during or after the 6th, with some lite management.
It feels like a mainstay, right alongside “Road to the Show,” which follows a player through the minors and into the majors with some light RPG elements. Although enjoyable, both of these modes feel smaller this year, with an earned focus on the Negro Leagues.
Other innovations, like the new throwing meter, are less impressive. Maybe some will like it, but entering a pitching-style meter during the heat of a defensive play is annoying. It feels like some of the game’s worst impulses through the years in its focus on the technical at the expense of what makes baseball great: the players.
The experience that big sports video games call “realism” can detract from capturing how fun these games are to play, both virtually and IRL, which is where sims like Super Mega Baseball can come in. The Show still has some elements that drag: the arcade mode, which draws inspiration from Ken Griffey Jr.’s ‘90s video game, feels like wasted potential.
All things considered, the misfires in MLB The Show ‘23 feel smaller than they have in years, and the upsides in this year’s entry elevate the full package. The game’s core product is solid, and the Negro Leagues mode offers something that hasn’t been explored at this level before. What should be coming next is a chance to play the Negro Leagues as the Negro Leagues.
With rules changes coming alongside these new perspectives, baseball feels like it is going through a period of discovery. There’s no pitch clock in The Show, where the game moves fast enough already. This year, The Show is leaning more into the fact that it is not just meant to be a photorealistic replica of watching a baseball game. It’s also a video game, which means it can create things that would be impossible to see otherwise. The result is the best entry in years.
MLB: The Show ‘23 is now available for Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.