With Major League Baseball set to “play ball” starting this weekend, and fans excited about another season, Sony Interactive Entertainment has released MLB The Show 16 for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3. It’s Sony’s only internally-developed sports game and the only baseball simulation game available for any platform. (Xbox will be without baseball simulation again this year, but fans can play MLBAM’s arcade game RBI Baseball 16 on all platforms.)
Anthony Rizzo, the Chicago Cubs’ All-Star first baseman who has given the team’s fans hope of helping the team win the pennant after a drought of more than a century, worked with Sony as one of the “ambassadors” for the game. He provided insight from the sport to Sony’s San Diego development team. In addition to being a playable character in the main game, he’s featured as a team captain in the game’s Diamond Dynasty ultimate team mode. He offers virtual cards of different baseball players from all eras, and introduces challenges for gamers to complete.
Because of the partnership, Rizzo was able to play Sony’s new game early and hit a few virtual baseballs out of Wrigley Field. He talked with Fortune about the role video games played in his own battle with cancer (he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in April 2008), and gives his thoughts about how virtual reality is impacting his sport.
What video games did you play growing up?
I played a lot of Nintendo games like Super Mario, Duck Hunt, and Tecmo Bowl. In high school I played a bunch of Call of Duty and Gears of War all the time.
What about baseball video games?
I played Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball, which was the first game that allowed you to control the pitch as it was coming, and the SlugFest Baseball games.
What are your thoughts on how far baseball video games have come since then?
Oh my, it’s crazy. It’s so realistic that they’re not even a video game anymore. It’s real life, basically so it’s really cool. It’s amazing what they can do, especially with MLB The Show 16, how realistic it is with every detail. How much time goes into developing that I can’t even imagine.
What do you think of your in-game avatar’s stats in MLB The Show 16?
I got a pretty good rating. I wanted to get a little higher rating on the field, but everything is realistic in terms of the bat, the cleats, and the batting gloves I use. The only thing wrong is there aren’t sunglasses. When I was playing earlier I found out if you’ve got shades on you’ve got to take them off—but it’s amazing.
How big a deal are player ratings [WHICH ARE WHAT??? AND WHO CREATES THEM???] with you and your teammates when a new video game comes out?
When you see yourself on there, and your hot and cold zones and this or that, you’ll critique yourself. But as a competitor, you want your stats to be better than you got last year.
How big a gamer were you growing up?
Growing up in high school I really played a lot of Call of Duty, a lot of Gears of War, and a lot of Halo. It’s just come so far, as far as what you’re able to do in these games and everything. To be able to play video games now with how realistic they are. I remember I was in high school and ended up taking like six, seven, eight hours out of my day playing games, which was a good thing and a bad thing.
How has that changed today?
Now I really haven’t had much time for games. I play FIFA a lot, I play The Show a good amount, but it’s only like a couple of times a year now.
As someone who played Call of Duty in high school, what are your thoughts about eSports and the fact kids are now making millions of dollars playing in the Call of Duty World League?
It’s amazing. It’s crazy how far gaming has come. It’s very competitive. I remember when I used to play we used to get on there, get online, and we’d be pissed if we lost.
What role do you see baseball video games playing in connecting with fans, especially younger kids?
With the Road to the Show (mode) where you get to go play in the minor leagues as a kid who becomes a Major League Baseball player. A lot of young kids, myself included, wanted to be a baseball player. So having a game like that where you can go through the minor leagues and get to the big leagues and work your way up in the system, it’s as real as you can get. Plus they have all the stadiums with all of the details in there like Wrigley Field.
What advice do you give to someone who’s hitting in Wrigley Field in MLB The Show 16?
You need to know the wind. Whatever way the wind’s blowing, try to hit the ball there. I enjoyed playing at Wrigley (in the video game). I love playing at Wrigley personally, and on the video game it’s like, “Wow, it just seems like you’re there.”
MLB The Show 16 has a new ShowTime feature where time slows down. How realistic is that when you’re on the real baseball diamond?
Just like Road to the Show is really cool going through the minor leagues building your way up, the ShowTime feature is really realistic, too. Obviously, it doesn’t go as slow as the ball’s coming in, but sometimes you get into a zone where you get to slow everything down and it’s hard to get into that zone. But when you do, you see the ball so big and so well that this feature kind of resembles that in real life. When you’re in a big situation, you got to slow the game down, and you really do see the pitch like that.
How popular are video games with you and your teammates?
Yeah, there’s guys that play all the time. There’s guys that bring their systems on the road and play, but I don’t play as much anymore. I’ll mix in a game of FIFA here or there, but I don’t play that much anymore.
Who’s your go to team when you like to play FIFA?
Barcelona. They’ve got Messi.
Last year you were on the cover of RBI Baseball. How does that compare to The Show?
RBI Baseball is one of the longest running baseball games out there. And with The Show, everything is just so professionally done here it’s amazing what Sony has done with what’s the biggest baseball game out there. It’s been cool to be involved with both games.
Sony is launching PlayStation VR this October. What do you see that opening up for baseball games in the future?
I haven’t even seen that yet, but it’s going to be crazy because of the virtual reality. I’m excited for that.
We’ve seen MLB start experimenting with coverage of baseball for virtual reality with 360-degree video. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s just crazy how far everything has come, and that whole 360 thing. You put a headset on and just look around and basically see the field like you’re there. It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing because there’s nothing like the real experience, but technology is just so amazing now.
What role do you feel video games can play in helping kids battle cancer?
The main thing video games can do is get your mind off of things. If you’re playing a game with your friends, or if you’re playing online, or even if you’re at your house playing against whoever, getting your mind off whatever you’re going through is always a good thing.
How have you used video games to deal with Hodgkin’s?
When I was sick I would get on there and play some games. Anything to keep your mind off of whatever it is that you’re going through, and maybe helps you feel better, is a good thing.
There’s a lot of excitement around the Cubs again this season. Can you talk about why you think this season could be special?
Yeah, I mean every season has the potential. We have a really good group of guys that get along, and we’ve got a bunch of talent. So we’re just going to go out there and enjoy every moment and enjoy the ride. And never take any day for granted.
What advice would you give to someone playing as the Cubs in MLB The Show 16?
Hit me third. Start (Jake) Arietta, and enjoy playing at Wrigley.