Sports games have always been a dominant player in interactive entertainment, with titles like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K routinely ending up near the top of yearly sales charts and being one of the two games consumers buy on average every year. One popular sport noticeably missing among those ranks is baseball. Critics could cite baseball’s diminishing attendance numbers as a reason why the digital simulation of America’s Pastime doesn’t fare well, but the reality is more complicated.
For an entire console generation, Major League Baseball fans’ only hope for getting a good hardball fix required the purchase of a PlayStation 4 to gain access to the Sony-exclusive MLB: The Show. If you owned a Switch or Xbox One, the only licensed MLB option was RBI Baseball, an arcadey approach to the sport that critics and gamers alike roundly rejected. This scenario denied MLB access to the hundreds of millions of gamers (and potential baseball fans) playing on other non-PlayStation platforms at a time when reaching a wide interactive audience is becoming increasingly critical for the business of sports.
Last year, NBA commissioner Adam Silver professed that “an entire generation of basketball fans engage and connect with NBA teams and players through NBA 2K.” Thanks to some courageous thinking from all parties involved, MLB will be in a better position to activate a similar audience moving forward.
A win for all parties
This past month, Sony and the MLB announced a multi-year licensing extension with a startling curveball: starting as early as 2021, MLB: The Show will spread its reach to include “additional console platforms beyond PlayStation.” The good news was immediately shared by Nintendo and Microsoft across social media, giving baseball fans news they’ve desperately craved ever since 2K Sports walked away from its multiplatform MLB 2K series in 2014. Baseball fans now get to live their major league fantasy on the platform of their choice.
When it comes to the immediate parties, Sony gets to bring its brand of best-in-class baseball to at least two platforms, increasing brand reach for The Show and cushioning its bottom line with a dramatic increase in sales. For the MLB, opening up its major licensed title to an even bigger console audience gives it critical exposure.
Sony’s pivot to the future
This decision is the latest evidence that the runaway winner of the last console generation is not resting on its laurels for the next generation and has instead evolved its thinking to prepare for the disruptive future of cloud streaming, subscription services, and borderless gaming. In an era where consumers can watch what they want to watch on any platform they own, they expect the same level of flexibility from games.
Thanks to recent advances in cross-platform play, gamers can play Fortnite with friends no matter what device each of them is using. Traditional thinking suggests platform holders like Sony have the most to lose when the borders between consoles like PlayStation and Xbox disappear, but like Microsoft, Sony has started preparing for the future by flexing the considerable muscle of its brand and franchises. Starting in 2014, the PlayStation Now service started to allow subscribers to play PS4 games on PC. Earlier in the year, Sony finally relented to consumer and developer pressure to add PS4 cross-play, allowing gamers using different consoles to play together.
MLB: The Show’s migration to other platforms is the latest pitch in a much larger strategic overhaul when it comes to Sony’s first-party software. Centerpiece franchises like God of War and The Last of Us will likely still remain exclusives for the time being to draw consumers to the PlayStation 5, which is slated to launch in late 2020. But Sony executives have also expressed an openness to thinking beyond exclusivity and doing what’s best for each individual game. “We must support the PlayStation platform – that is non-negotiable,” recently departed Sony chairman of worldwide studios Shawn Layden told Bloomberg in August. “That said, you will see in the future some titles coming out of my collection of studios which may need to lean into a wider installed base.”
Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding is one such title. The acclaimed game launched on PlayStation 4 on November 20, and Sony plans to release it on PC in summer 2020. Another Sony published game that may be leaving the PlayStation walled garden is Dreams. Media Molecule’s stunning creation suite seems like a natural fit for the mod-centric PC market, and its developers recently expressed interest in bringing the game to other platforms.
Consumers demand a borderless future
Each of these decisions demonstrate evolved thinking as platform holders grapple with the idea that consumer expectations point toward a borderless future. Through the course of talking to thousands of consumers every year for the last 60 years, Magid sees a trend across TV, movies, and games where consumers are no longer tied to a single platform and are not only willing, but demanding to experience entertainment across a wide-range of platforms and providers. We’re also seeing this gaming-centric consumption increasingly bleed into other mediums, as evidenced by Netflix’s successful recent adaptations of The Witcher and Castlevania.
Will gamers one day open up a PlayStation app on an Xbox and vice versa? Time will tell, but Sony and the MLB’s decision to load the The Show’s bases with Microsoft and Nintendo is another courageous step in a direction where hardware walls blur, software reigns supreme, and critically, consumers win.