MLB The Show 23 review: Negro Leagues tribute makes it the best sports game

MLB The Show 23 review: Negro Leagues tribute makes it the best sports game

For the greatest players of the sport of baseball, and especially for those who have labored to keep alive their memory and deeds, MLB The Show 23 must seem like a dream come true. Its centerpiece game mode, an exploration of the Negro Leagues — one of the greatest shames and greatest stages of prewar American sport — brings true justice to those whose word-of-mouth adventures have been met with a cocked eyebrow or condescending smirk for almost a century.

It really takes an interactive museum exhibit, which Storylines: The Negro Leagues is, to understand what the stars of baseball’s segregated leagues accomplished in their time. “What they went through” is a topic explored by more competent authorities in film and book. But what they actually did hasn’t been embraced — in the same fashion as Willie Mays’ basket catch or Hank Aaron’s 715th home run — until now, simply because there is no visual record of it. MLB The Show 23 supplies that proof.

And it’s delightful. Oh, for sure, many of these scripted moments are easy for anyone to pull off if they’ve been playing MLB The Show for two or three years and know anything about baseball. But come on: Pitching as Satchel Paige, with all of his infielders kneeling at the mound like he’s reading a bedtime story — with a runner on first base, I might add? That’s a blast. It’s awesome, even if you know you can’t help but make the batting order of NPCs look silly with Satchel’s “bee-ball” and “dipsy-do” deliveries.

Storylines: The Negro Leagues depends a little too much on pitching, rather than hitting, in terms of the scripted moments that its first season offers. I understand that there will be future seasons of Storylines in future MLB The Show games that will address the exploits of big-time hitters like Josh Gibson. Still, I have modeled my created players on Cuba’s Martín Dihigo since the game first allowed two-way (pitcher and hitter) characters in MLB The Show 21. It was, frankly, astonishing to meet the man in a video game, much less take control of him and his pitching repertoire. When I discovered that Dihigo used a steep 12-6 curveball instead of a changeup for his off-speed pitch, just like my created players have for upwards of three years, I yelped with joy — and the satisfaction that I’d actually gotten something right.

MLB The Show 23 could easily communicate Dihigo’s skill as a pitcher or hitter through a slate of 99-rated attributes read off the back of his player card. What is more important, though, is how the game relates the day-to-day barnstorming survival of players in the Negro National League, when even future Hall of Famers had to put wrinkles into the game to give fans their money’s worth and bring them back—with a friend—the very next day.

This showmanship wouldn’t translate without MLB The Show 23‘s bedrock gameplay. If you’re going to pitch or bat in scripted events, you need a tight and well-designed game running underneath. The product here is still as coast-to-coast consistent as a case of Budweiser bought in Seattle or Miami. Developer SIE San Diego Studio put in some new crack-of-the-bat sounds, which you’ll definitely notice when you click one deep into a cavernous power alley in San Diego, or to the center field triangle in Fenway Park. I am continually impressed at how MLB The Show can feel so familiar, year to year, while still delivering new experiences, or maybe a little extra polish on the old ones.

The real secret weapon, though, is the Negro Leagues mode, and its narrator, Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a born storyteller. (And host of a great podcast, too.) Just by sitting down for one of his history lessons, you’re going to unlock so many great players and cosmetics for use in MLB The Show’s Ultimate Team-like Diamond Dynasty mode, you can ‘t help but come out of it with a 90-rated team looking sharp as hell.

I am almost 50 years old now. I was once the daily newspaper reporter for Cooperstown itself. Buddy, I chewed tobacco when I played T-ball, and I am bonded to baseball through my father and friendships going back to kindergarten. Still, MLB The Show 23 found a way to teach me something about the sport, and give me new reason to love it.

MLB The Show 23 launched March 28 on nintendo-switch, playstation4, playstation5, XboxOneand Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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