In recent years MLB and groups associated with it have been making more of an effort to remember the history of the Negro Leagues. In December of 2020 MLB finally announced they were going to recognize the Negro Leagues players as equal to MLB players and include their numbers and records among the official marks. In January 2021 Baseball-Reference showed up with some numbers from seven Negro Leagues plus a wide variety of independent clubs. Then, this year, 2K Sports announced that their annual entry in the MLB: The Show series would include a mode called Storylines which would explore the stories of eight Negro Leagues players. They are as follows:
- Hilton Smith
- Jackie Robinson
- Buck O’Neil
- Satchell Paige
- Martín Dihigo
- Rube Foster
- Hank Thompson
- John Donaldson
This was all done in cooperation with the Negro Leagues museum and they even got Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, to narrate the stories. I recently got a chance to spend a few hours with the game and I put them exclusively into that mode. I’ve been on the fence about whether I wanted to spend $70 on a sports sim game I wasn’t really going to have time to dive into but wanted to support because of this mode, and now I have a definitive answer - at least for me.
One thing you probably noticed is that while the lineup includes possibly the two most famous Negro Leagues’ players to the modern fan in Robinson and Paige, it’s missing a lot of the other superstars such as Larry Doby and Josh Gibson. Unless you’re a Negro Leagues scholar there are probably at least a couple of names on there you’ve never heard of, too. This was, I think, an intelligent decision both from a story-telling and money-making perspective. You don’t want to use up all the heavy hitters in the first installment of the series because you want to have something to advertise next year. But also, one of the truly unfortunate things about the Negro Leagues’ existence is the number of players who could have easily competed with Major League talent but never got the chance because, for a long time, only the best of the best were admitted even once the color barrier was broken.
Since I didn’t have unlimited time with the game, I chose to start with Buck O’Neil and then moved on to Satchell Paige since those were the players of most interest to me. When you first select a player’s storyline and between every challenge, you get a narrated story from Bob Kendrick accompanied by video and photographs of the player or some pretty cool animations. If you’ve been to the museum or watched a Royals game where Kendrick appeared on the broadcast you’re familiar with how well he can tell a story and that comes through loud and clear in those narrations. The only downside I could find to the narrations was that there was absolutely no option for Closed Captioning or any other kind of subtitles, which makes those narrations somewhat inaccessible for people with hearing or audio processing issues like myself.
While the stories were excellent, the gameplay challenges were not always so. This is especially true of the hitters, in my experience, as I tried a bit of Hank Thompson’s story before I ran out of time to see if it differed. Regardless of the narration being told by Kendrick, the hitting challenges were simply increasingly difficult challenges. The first Buck O’Neil challenge is to drive in a run during the course of a game. You’re given four at-bats and the first one always starts with the bases loaded. A later challenge requires you to get three total bases in a game and then the challenge that stumped me for the longest, getting three hits in a single game.
I had the difficulty turned down as far as it would go because I was here to see the story more than to experience the gameplay, because it’s been a few years since I really dug into a sports sim game, and because I knew I had a limited time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to make most of those hitting challenges particularly easy. Add on the frustration that they had little or nothing to do with the narrations - one of the narrations talked about what a slick fielder Buck was right before it led into yet another hitting challenge - and that part was something of a disappointment.
The Satchell Paige experience was quite a bit better, however. For one thing, the pitching controls turned out to be easier for me to get a handle on than the hitting controls had. For another, his challenges had to do with the narrations. The second narration talks about Paige’s wide variety of pitches and sure enough, you’re asked to pitch two scoreless innings and offered a choice of his Bee Ball, the Dipsy Do, and others. The next narration mentioned that his Bee Ball was once clocked at 105 MPH; the next challenge involved striking out a batter while using only that pitch. There’s even one more challenge I adored that I won’t spoil here, but I promise you, it’s even better than those.
One interesting choice that was made was to have the game’s primary commentators, John “Boog” Sciambi and former American baseball outfielder Christopher Verdell Singleton, call the action during the challenges. This ended up being a great opportunity to just give the player some facts about the player they’re currently controlling in the same way you might expect to hear from a broadcast but also had a less fortunate side effect where, for example, if you used a contact swing to get a base hit they might discuss how the hitter didn’t try to do too much even though in “today’s game” everyone is swinging for the fences. It’s a repeated complaint regardless of your type of swings or the result of the at-bat in a way that would be annoying even if I wasn’t playing a game supposedly set 80 years prior. Also, if you got stuck on a particular challenge, you would very likely hear the same facts repeated over and over again as the game patiently waits for you to get your act together and connect the bat with the baseball. Still, better that than missing out on any of the great tidbits they share.
All in all, I’d say that the Negro Leagues Storyline mode is a positive experience but definitely one that could use more polish in future iterations. I have no complaints about the amount or type of content shared about each of the players - it’s enough to get you interested in them and do more research if you’re that kind of person but not exhaustive by any means, which is just about right for this format. However, if you are contemplating purchasing this game simply for this mode I’d try to wait until after the season when the prices are sure to drop precipitously, or even near the start of next season when the next version comes out. If you like sports sim games in general, go for it, but this mode alone is not sufficient to justify the $70 price tag the game currently holds.