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The importance of video games in growing the next generation of fans

MLB The Show is how they need to reach young fans.

PlayStation Special Announcement Event Photo by Rommel Demano/Getty Images

It’s video game theme week at SB Nation. This is a post along those lines!

Baseball has a lot of problems right now. Probably too many to count. They have bigger things on their mind than what they did even a few months ago, with outside factors obviously playing a big role there. That said, they’ve also dug their own grave a bit with public negotiations for a 2020 season that have gone nowhere and have, fairly or unfairly, alienated a lot of fans. Read the replies to any update on this situation from a national reporter’s twitter feed and you’ll see fan after fan declaring that they are done with the league. Now, do I think all of those people are being serious or that they are representative of the average fan? No. But it doesn’t need to be a majority of fans that leave because of this to be a big issue for the popularity of the game. When you throw in the fact that there is a contentious CBA negotiation right around the corner as well and a very, very real chance at a lockout in 2022, it only gets worse.

And, of course, it’s not as if baseball was problem-free before these negotiations. The cries of “baseball is dying” have long been overblown, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to worry about. Among the multiple issues for the league from a fan perspective is the aging of the average fan, up to 57 after being 50 as recently as 2000. MLB just hasn’t been able to find a way to consistently market itself and its stars to the younger fan, and while the revenues are still at all-time highs — and while they are still selling record TV deals amid a pandemic — that trend can only last for so long.

I know a lot of people that like baseball. I grew up around Boston, which is obviously a sports-centric city, and as a sports fan I obviously became friends with a lot of sports fans. I don’t know a lot of people that love baseball in the same way I know people that love football or love basketball. When I tell people what I do or even simply that baseball is my favorite sport, the reaction is usually something along the lines of, “Really?” On individual bases, that’s fine. People are allowed to like different things. But when it becomes the most common answer I hear among my age group, which sadly only keeps getting older, it becomes a problem.

So when I think about all of this stuff, I think back to how I became so obsessed with baseball, and really sports in general. But more specifically baseball. There are the obvious answers, being that I played it, and that I grew up in a family where sports were always on TV and in the summer months that means baseball was on every night, and that Pedro Martínez was in his prime during my formative years as a fan, and that it was my brother’s favorite sport and I copied him. Those all combined to be powerful forces, but really they are a better explanation for why I’m a big Red Sox fan moreso than they describe my love for the whole league.

And that is the big problem for baseball. Because while baseball isn’t dying, it’s popularity as a national game is dwindling. We hear it all the time. “Baseball is a regional sport.” It’s true! People love their local teams! They don’t care as much about the league as a whole in the same way they do other sports. And when I think back to how I became a fan of the league as a whole, video games are probably the biggest answer.

I wasn’t a huge gamer overall at any point in my life — show me a shooting game and I’ll show you the worst performance in said game you’ll ever see — but I loved sports games, and particularly baseball games. Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball for N64 was my first foray into this space, but I also grew up on Sammy Sosa High Heat for PC, Backyard Baseball, and of course MVP, may it rest in peace.

These games were massive parts of my childhood. With my birthday being right before Opening Day every year, it was a customary gift for me, and it was a consistent favorite. I would play these games all the time, all year long, going through multiple variations of dynasties and create a player and whatever other modes were available for any given game. I’d inevitably start by playing with the Red Sox, but I had a short attention span so I’d get bored with that eventually.

That’s when I’d move on to other teams, and that’s how I would learn about the entire league. Video games expanded my bubble of knowledge outside just the Red Sox and taught me about the individual players around the league. I knew the stars already, of course, but this taught me about the role players. I would learn who the players were and what they were good at. I had experiences with them, albeit virtual ones, that turned into memories. Ken Griffey Baseball had a glitch in our system where it would speed up the audio sometimes when it said Scott Brosius’s name. That’s now what my brother and I associate with him. Walt Weiss stole a bunch of bases against me in that game. I still think of him as the fastest player I’ve ever seen, even though that is very much not true.

The important thing, though, is that I knew these guys, at least as players. I could watch a Red Sox game and not only feel like I knew what to expect from those players but also the ones on the other team. I could turn on a random Tuesday night ESPN game and not just be watching an anonymous baseball game. I knew the players and had experiences with them, even if they were just in a video game. I can promise you I would not have been as interested in any old random baseball game on my TV if I wasn’t familiar with the players.

That brings us to today. I’m basically done with my video game days save for Out of the Park, but they’ve already had the lasting impact on my sports fandom. Baseball hasn’t done as well in this regard lately, though. MLB The Show is pretty popular, but you can only play on Playstation. That’s absurd. They are fixing that with the next generation of consoles thankfully, but they can’t stop there. They need to really work with the developers to make it an impactful game. Regionally speaking, baseball is fine. But if they want to build a new national audience, and one that isn’t, on average, eligible for senior discounts, video games are a good start. It’s not the only thing they can do — earlier start times for playoff games, more lenient social media policies, ridding blackout policies — but it’s a hell of a start. Take it from me, a fan of the game nationally who is still (for a few more months, at least) in his 20s who got to be this way largely because of video games.