MLB The Show breaks barrier with Negro League players

Video gamers are now able to venture into a storyline mode involving eight Negro League legends through MLB The Show 23, which released Tuesday.

a digital rendering of Jackie Robinson as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs from the game MLB The Show 23.

A digital rendering of Jackie Robinson as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs from the game MLB The Show 23. (Sony Interactive Entertainment via AP)

MLB The Show has broken a video game barrier: For the first time, the franchise will insert some of the greatest Negro League players — from Satchel Paige to Jackie Robinson — into the 2023 edition of the game as playable characters.

Video gamers are now able to venture into a storyline mode involving eight Negro League legends through MLB The Show 23, which releases Tuesday. The narrative experience will feature short videos about the players along with gameplay focused on the epic moments of their careers.

Along with Robinson and Paige, the game also features other players including Buck O’Neil, Rube Foster, Hilton Smith, John Donaldson, Hank Thompson and Martin Dihigo.

“This made sense on multiple levels,” said Bob Kendrick, the narrator of storyline experience and president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is located in Kansas City, Missouri. Along with the museum, he partnered with Sony for the historic Black players’ insertion into the game.

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“The way the Negro League players played, it fits perfectly for a video game,” he said. “There were so many gaming fans who have been clamoring for the inclusion of the Negro Leagues. People were popping into my timeline on social media. This has been stirring for several years.

“I never really dreamt this would become reality. And I didn’t really think it would happen with arguably the biggest baseball video game of them all. This is something we are inherently proud of.”

Kendrick said the multi-year partnership is a “gigantic step in keeping the legacy alive” for the Negro Leagues.

“For the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, this is all about creating relevancy,” he said. “How do I establish a relevant connection with an ever-changing generation of young people? I can’t sit back and wait for them to come to me at the doors of the museum. I have to got to them in the mode of which they are getting information. If it’s a video game, then so be it.”

Ramone Russell was the first to pitch Sony executives the concept of breathing life into the Negro League players through the franchise’s popular video game. He’s been mulling over the idea for more than a decade as a mainstay for the development and marketing team for the MLB The Show series.

“This is a project I’ve always wanted to do,” said Russell, the product development communications and brand strategist for Sony Interactive Entertainment. He played a vital role in working across multiple teams who did a “tremendously smart job” in creating the mode.

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“So many of our fans — even when they hear the word ‘Negro Leagues’ — they have no context of what the Negro League is and what it represents,” Russell continued. “I’ve been asked ‘Hey, when are you going to have the Negro Leagues?’ My answer would be, ‘As soon as we can find the right way to do it.’ As you know, perfection is the enemy of progress. But about two years ago, I felt like now is the time.”

Not a lot of game footage from the Negro Leagues exists, so game creators gathered archive video and photos from the museum and family members of the deceased players to collect as much as they could. That helped nail down the fine animation details for each player, jerseys and the stadiums where games were held.

Russell said the process was a tedious one, but it couldn’t have fully come together without the expertise of Kendrick — who he says knows the real history of the Negro Leagues and players “more than anyone else.” He said Kendrick was the perfect person to narrate the storyline mode, because of his well-rounded knowledge about player’s greatness.

Even though Jackie Robinson was the first African American player to play in a Major League Baseball game in 1947, Kendrick said during his narration in the mode that Robinson was not the best player from the Negro Leagues. He said the league had such a rich talent pool where players played with in a “bold, brash way” and was “fast and daring.”

“It’s not to disparage Jackie at all, but this is how great the talent was in the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “I tell people all the time that the talent in the Negro Leagues would not take a backseat to any league. We’re talking about some of the greatest athletes to ever put on a baseball uniform. And unfortunately, the majority of the public, they don’t know these names. But they should for both from a baseball perspective as well as a historical perspective.”

Sony’s San Diego Studio will donate $1 to the Negro Leagues Museum for every MLB The Show 23 Collector’s Edition is sold.

Kendrick said having the Negro League storyline in the game will hopefully inspire young Black kids and others of color to learn more about their heritage. He wants the visibility of the video game to help bring more awareness to the museum.

“Through animation and a project like this, you can bring them to life,” he said. “It’s a beautiful way to convey everything the Negro Leagues represents. I was amazed by people who didn’t know night baseball originated from the Negro Leagues. They just didn’t get their just due. It’s not there in the pages of an American history book. … Now, we have a chance to let people know.”

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