Major League Baseball goes to bat with ‘R.B.I. Baseball 14’ reboot

April 11, 2014, 10:49 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Baseball season is in full swing. It’s early enough in the spring that fans of every team still feel like they have a shot at the pennant. There’s a sense of hope and excitement. And it’s not just because the new season is upon us. Fans have a brand new virtual pastime this year — an update on a classic. R.B.I. Baseball 14 has been revived by none other than Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the interactive and Internet division of MLB.

The game just launched for Apple (AAPL) and Android devices for $5 and as a downloadable game for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for $20. R.B.I. Baseball 14 will step to the plate on next generation consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in May. This marks the first time that any major sports league has taken on the development and publishing of a videogame internally.

MLBAM, which launched in 2000, began developing mobile and online games last year and has been working on this console reboot of R.B.I. The New York-based studio hired Jamie Leece from Take-Two Interactive (he was the president of the Gotham Games label) and built up a team of 40 game developers. In the past, during R.B.I.’s heyday in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, developer Namco and publisher Tengen took the arcade hit and released multiple cartridge versions of the game featuring some of the top players of the day such as Roger Clemens, Andre Dawson, and Don Mattingly.

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R.B.I. Baseball was the ultimate game growing up,” said Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. “We still play the arcade version in the club house today.”

Three-time MLB All-Star Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds, who has the arcade version of R.B.I. Baseball in his house, said “We still play that game constantly. Even though you couldn’t really move the guys where you wanted to and there were a lot of limitations, back then it was an amazing game.”

Now players have a brand new incarnation of the arcade game to play across multiple platforms. The new game features all 30 MLB teams and 480 MLB players. Unlike a pure simulation game like Sony’s MLB 14: The Show which features the full rosters, R.B.I. Baseball 14 focuses on the starting line-up, three pitchers, a closer, and some bench players from each club. The game makes use of today’s technology to bring all 30 ballparks to life. Each stadium, from Fenway Park’s Green Monster to the cavernous center field at Minute Maid Park to the AstroTurf in Rogers Centre, all play into a unique gameplay experience.

“Our goal was to make the game fun, and we started with pitching and hitting,” said Jamie Leece, vice president of games at MLBAM. “We also wanted to make sure that two friends playing together could get through a full game in 15 to 20 minutes with a healthy amount of trash talk. We test this all the time with new players and veterans, and this has held true across the board.”

Leece grew up playing games like Earl Weaver Baseball, Hardball, Tommy Lasorda Baseball, Tony La Russa Baseball, and of course, R.B.I. Baseball. He’s spent much of the past four decades developing games. At MLBAM, Leece has spearheaded mobile games like Home Run Derby, MLB Ballpark Empire, and Franchise MVP.

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“Gaming is all about connecting with the player,” said Leece. “Mobile games are great in that there is very little forgiveness. If a game is not fun almost right away, the player will tune out to another app. You have to connect with the player early and often. Accessibility is key, and the roots for R.B.I. Baseball 14 are firmly in its accessibility. It’s easy to use, but deep and fun to master.”

That depth comes through another division of MLBAM, which collects data from every pitch and every at-bat and every play of every game. Leece and his team used that data to breathe virtual life into the avatars of the Big League players in the game. “We pulled that data to create behavior tendencies for pitchers and hitters,” he says. “All of that data influences how a player will feel and perform.”

As an incentive to make full use of the statistics that have helped keep baseball America’s pastime for all of these years, R.B.I. Baseball 14 offers Team Challenges to players during the season mode. Gamers who perform feats like pitching a perfect inning or hitting a grand slam will unlock special jerseys like the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Montreal Expos.

Leece said players will be able to purchase new downloads this summer that will add new content to the game beyond roster updates. Leece believes that R.B.I. Baseball will become an annual game release, just like Sony’s MLB 14: The Show franchise.

Michael Pachter, videogame analyst for Wedbush Securities, forecasts sales of 3 to 4 million copies of R.B.I. Baseball 14 across platforms. In comparison, Pachter said Sony sells approximately 1 million copies of its MLB franchise across PlayStation devices each year. This May will see the debut of MLB 14: The Show on PlayStation 4, while the PS3 and PS Vita games are out now.

“The third-party baseball market is small, so it is pretty hard to justify development costs and a hefty license,” said Pachter. “MLB can do it themselves because they don’t pay a license fee.”

Unlike the NFL and NBA, the baseball videogame business is harder to crack. Looking back at sales of MLB-branded titles over the past 15 years, Peter Warman, CEO of videogame research firm Newzoo, said there have been 20 million games sold on consoles since 1998, representing around $800 million spent by consumers.

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“Looking at the sales trend, MLB 14: The Show, just released by Sony (SNE) should sell around half a million copies,” said Warman. “That 2K dropped the title is not so surprising. NBA 2K13 sold over 5 million units, more than 10 times that of the MLB game. Regardless of which version, over 90% of baseball sales was in the U.S.”

MLB continues to license its game to Sony. With 2K Sports exiting the baseball game this season, there’s a void in the simulation baseball videogame market for Xbox 360 and Xbox One gamers. Warman said the current value of the MLB-branded games for Sony or Microsoft (MSFT) is around $15 million on an annual basis, illustrating why Microsoft is not that worried about not having an MLB sim game. Leece believes with the right team, and the right product, a simulation baseball game would do very well on all platforms. For now, fans have two noncompeting ball games.

“R.B.I. Baseball 14 appeals to a demographic that hasn’t really been served,” said Leece. “I think that MLB 14: The Show is the best sports game in the industry, period, and I stand by that. I am pretty biased, but I am pretty proud and pleased with what we have to offer in our game. It’s not really an either/or scenario in my mind. If you’re a baseball fan, get them both.”

Mobile also opens up new opportunities for big sports leagues and players. NFLPI (NFL Players Inc.) had representatives at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month to initiate a contest that will award a development team the NFLPA license for a mobile game this coming season. They’re looking for games that are off the gridiron featuring NFL stars.

“Without the expertise required to get boxed products in retail, it has become much easier for brand owners to take more control and ultimately a larger share of revenues,” said Newzoo’s Warman.

While MLBAM is trailblazing at the moment, the advent of digital distribution across all platforms could change the traditional sports videogame landscape in the near future. For now, there’s a classic baseball game that might have never seen the light of day again if not for digital delivery.