Of all the sports, at least in the United States, baseball tends to be the most daunting to grasp and attempt to enjoy. As the years progressed and culminating with the release of Moneyball it’s become a numbers game, and I won’t pretend to be an expert on it despite the simple fact baseball intrigues me to no end. Very relaxing to watch in person is one thing, but the game never really translated perfectly to me. While MLB: The Show is a great deal of fun and deserves every ounce of praise it gets – especially considering the smoldering trainwreck known as 2K’s basball series – it never encapsulated the sport to me. The best baseball game ever released to me still remains MVP Baseball 2005, EA’s last foray into licensed baseball games before 2K locked up the license.
Forgetting the traditional baseball game where you control the players directly, Out of the Park Baseball has remained the top flight baseball management sim, surpassing the traditional console releases for at least a decade in terms of execution. Already a very specific market, the only other sports management sim that it measures up to is Football Manager. As far as I can remember Out of the Park Baseball has been continuing for years now, almost as long as the Madden franchise has existed.
It still doesn’t excuse the simple fact that the terms “baseball” and “management sim” would have likely ceased interest from just about every person, and Out of the Park Baseball is more than aware of this. They found their little niche and have persisted inside of it for years now and there doesn’t seem to be any longing to venture out of the safe cove they have made for themselves.
For a management sim, as stat-happy as baseball tends to be I was surprised to find that everything was more or less neatly laid out. If you know nothing about baseball then don’t bother but casual fans of the sport will have an easy time running a team. The basic goal of course is to take your selected team to a championship run of some sort depending on what league you’re dropped into. There is a sense of unpredictability when playing through a season and it’s important to never judge a book by its cover. You’ll find that as you play along players may raise or lower their skill levels as presented in a star system. Five stars and you get a player like Ken Griffey Jr, getting lower and lower until you get to the minor league nobodies at the half-star ranks. The unpredictability sets in when some minor league nobody “clicks” and proceeds to go on a tear in their league. As they seem to raise their production, it raises their potential rating for the future, and their actual rating as of that day. Monitor them closely and you may gain a player good enough to play on your major league team, or at least good enough to pocket some veterans or more prospects.
Trading is almost always a mixed bag in sports games, when you have a juggernaut like Madden or MLB: The Show there’s more an emphasis on making the actual games fun to play on a basic level. Typically what this means is trading for a star player and completely screwing over the other owner or GM is easy to do, effectively giving you the opportunity to trivialize the simulation portion of the game on top of the actual game. I know I’m going on and on about “actual games” but that’s simply because there is no place in Out of the Park Baseball where you directly control the players on the field.
The “game” is in managing everything from up above, allowing the developers all the time in the world to focus on the AI for more robust trading against opposing owners and GMs. As for your own trade decision, moving people around can have ramifications. You could bring in some very good veterans onto your Major League team at the expense of ruining your minor league system or put the teams over budget. With all these things to consider, trading turns into a tightrope act where it becomes exceedingly important to straddle the line between building up prospects and cementing your team with good veterans.
Building up prospects can take a great deal of care and turns out it’s something the AI has trouble with. Ten years down the road, finding your team as the perennial contender is easy when the AI destroys their prospects every step of the way. There are gems on each team over the years but even average players become hard to find on other teams. This complete lack of mismanagement on the AI’s part makes the game easy in the long run. Considering how a lot of teams are run in the MLB it seems somewhat fitting. It’s like when I took a game to manage out for myself and demolished the Houston Astros, making me applaud the game for realistically being able to simulate the abject awfulness of that team.
The community behind this game is especially dedicated. The add-ons offer a great deal more to the experience but they are not needed to make the game tolerable. The community also provides for online leagues, upping the fun of managing a team against another that is not controlled by AI. It’s not only you that is actively getting the better of other teams. Trading becomes a much more tense ordeal, as bidding to build long lasting teams must be done without being blown away by standings and the team’s finances.
It’s easy to drone on about a game like this because of the staggering amount of content inside the simulation. Depending on whether or not you’re interested in baseball or managing sports teams and all the aspects in between will determine the experience one gets. OOTP is a curiosity that reveals itself to be an addicting chess match, jostling for position against the 30 other teams while proving your worth as owner of the team. Interest in this game is almost entirely dictated by your interest in baseball, management simulations and strategy games. If those are two elements you can get behind along with the lack of on field action, then OOTP is definitely worth a shot. It adds onto previous iterations in a meaningful fashion which can be difficult to do with sports games.