MLB Video Game Gives a History Lesson on the Negro Leagues

Finding a balance to enlighten and inspire

It's tough enough to emulate real life in sports video games, let alone deliver racially charged lessons from history. But MLB The Show 23 embraced this challenge by introducing "Storylines," which celebrates the history of the Negro Leagues.

The playable mode allows gamers to step into the cleats of some of the Negro Leagues' best, like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige. They can also learn the stories of six unsung heroes.

Like MLB's animated series about the Negro Leagues (which operated from the 1920s through the early '50s), the video game experience is fundamentally educational, presented in documentary style. Developers recreated six Negro League stadiums, like Kansas City's Muehlebach Field and Chicago's South Side Park. Crowds in the stands reflect the spectators as they were: unsegregated.

Each player segment is accompanied by a short video. The new mode will remain as a permanent feature, incorporating more athletes and history in forthcoming seasons.

MLB The Show partnered with Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, who appears in each video vignette, delivering historical background. 

Ramone Russell, product development communications and brand strategist for Sony Interactive Entertainment—who originated the idea for "Storylines"—spoke to Muse about striking the right balance to enlighten and inspire.

MUSE: What compelled you to create "Storylines"?

Ramone Russell: The Negro Leagues are an important part of not only baseball and Black history, but American history. So, it's a no-brainer that they should be included in an officially licensed MLB video game. The tricky part was how do we introduce Negro League baseball and its stories of triumph over adversity in an approprIate celebratory manner.

How did you solve the issue of educating your user base in a participatory medium?

The conundrum has always been: For a video game that's E rated, how do we tell accurate stories rooted in the ugliness of American segregation, racism and Jim Crow? The goal has been to educate, enlighten and inspire. So we needed to figure out the right way to do this.

Can you explain the participatory aspect?

After you watch a short video about one of the eight players, you go into the game and play as them. The players are wearing Negro League uniforms, they are playing in Negro League stadiums, and the crowd looks period specific. Gamers will notice that the crowds are in their Sunday best, because the games were usually played after church. The commentary focuses on the player you're controlling at the time, to fill in the blanks and give the user more information.

I read that music was foundational for you in this effort. Can you elaborate on this?

It changed everything and gave us our North Star. Marvin Gaye’s "Inner City Blues" set the tone of the project. That song gave the project a soul.

What were the biggest challenges?

Video game development in every way is hard. For "Storylines," every aspect of this project was challenging. Licensing was difficult, finding enough visual reference for the uniforms and stadiums. However, the team was up to the challenge, and we're very proud of what we've been able to accomplish.

What's your main goal?

We're using our resources, our platforms and MLB The Show as a gateway for a younger generation to learn a largely forgotten part of American history. The story of the Negro Leagues is America at its worst and America at its triumphant best.

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