MLB Becoming A Big Problem For Sony’s PlayStation Brand

There was some rather industry shaking news made when MLB The Show was announced for Xbox. While groundbreaking that a PlayStation developed game was heading to Xbox, it was still just a baseball game. It oddly just seemed like a debacle between the MLB and Sony, considering the MLB is suffering record losses and MLB The Show being the only real viable game to push the image, it made sense that the MLB wanted it to be in more hands. Still, it was just baseball, it wasn’t God of War or something more dramatic, so we accepted it and moved on.

Then Microsoft really hammered things home when they announced the game will also be on GamePass on Day 1. Now we have an issue.

There are a few things here to understand. First, the MLB license is not an exclusive license like you would see with the NFL. With the NFL, EA owns an exclusive agreement with them to be a sole publisher of a licensed game (until recently). With the MLB anyone can get the license and publish a game. This is why 2k has had a franchise. The MLB also purchased RBI Baseball and now self publishes it.

The problem seems to be MLB The Show is hands down the best baseball game there is, and the MLB wanted to expand on this. Why? Well the MLB had it’s lowest rated season ever last year, and leading up the pandemic their ticket sales had been rather…. Lackluster. Only 9.8 million people watched the last World Series, and that’s if you stretch thinly into streaming and include bar licenses. (Compared to 91.6 million for the last Superbowl) Overall viewership was down 37% year-over-year last season, which was already a decline of nearly 70% from their peak of 2007, and also includes a 4% spike mid season. So the MLB could be utilizing the game to gain more attention for the sport at the expense of making their one good game developer upset.

Which leads to the second notation. Sony isn’t publishing the game outside of PlayStation. While PlayStation Studios San Diego is making the game, the publisher outside of PlayStation is the MLB itself. This is important for several reasons because it means the overall decision in this process was entirely out of Sony’s hands. While Sony could have potentially offered more money to keep the game exclusive, it doesn’t seem worth it as the peak sales over the past few years was only 1.3 million units, with a steady decline to under 1 million units the past two years. Sony may have even potentially been in discussions to end the series, we don’t really know. This is what happened with RBI Baseball and why the MLB is now the publisher.

Overall this is highly important to note because this means the deal to be on GamePass was with the MLB, not Sony. In other words the MLB, most likely cluelessly, cut a deal with Microsoft to offer the game to a wider audience and sweep some money into their closet. While it is easy to pass blame on Sony with how hush they have been in this whole ordeal, it wasn’t them betraying their userbase, it was them with their hands tied and just going along with it.

Which leads us to the issue. If the MLB forced Sony to not only lose their agreement to be a PlayStation only title, but forced them to develop on rival consoles, and then signed a deal to offer the franchise on a rival service, then Sony needs to strengthen their side of the agreement as well.

Is the cost of the PR nightmare this created worth whatever profit Sony gets from MLB The Show? The game sells on an average of 1 million units yearly, not record breaking, but enough to warrant some yearly income for the studio. But the nightmare it has created is going to cause a lot of people to jump ship. The GamePass inclusion may even damage sales on PS4/PS5 since GamePass is so easily accessed by gamers with multiple platforms (why buy it on PS4/PS5 if it’s free on the other shelf). Since MLB is the publisher on Xbox, that means whatever deal Microsoft cut to put the game on GamePass isn’t paying Sony directly. Yes Sony may have gotten some payment to develop the game on other platforms, but nothing from the GamePass addition. To top it off, Sony has yet to implement any type of major microtransactions in the game. EA Sports titles and 2K’s NBA title are absolutely littered with microtransactions, while MLB The Show has slowly been evolving their “choice packs” which are digital trading cards. The entire selling point from Microsoft for GamePass seems to be that developers/publishers will make more money off in-game transactions than they would by simply selling the game. According to their statistics players are more likely to spend more money in the long term in smaller increments (via DLC, microtransactions, etc) if they get the game for free. So in other words, Sony would need to further exploit in-game transactions with MLB The Show in order to make the deal profitable.

So while the MLB is happy cashing out on a quick GamePass deal and getting their product in front of more eyes, Sony needs to basically destroy their game with microtransactions to remain relevant. The MLB won’t get blowback for this decision at all, but they may lose yet another product on the gaming shelf when people are fed up.

What needs to be done is Sony leveraging this bad PR the MLB created, and their ability to make the game, in order to push it on their own services too. For whatever reason (most likely licensing rules with the MLB) not a single MLB The Show title is available on PlayStation Now. The game has been released yearly since 2006 (even earlier if you count MLB titles by 989 Sports), which dates way back to the PS2/PSP days, and yet not a single edition of it is available on PlayStation Now (and Sony just announced April’s games, which again doesn’t include any MLB titles). As far as my research goes, the only time MLB The Show was offered for free on PS Plus (separate from PS Now) was October 2019. By comparison, EA Access is a majority sports titles with every EA Sports title available at some point during the season, with previous years available at all times. These games also have an early access perk as well, but again they are all littered with microtransactions.

Sony’s leverage is rather easy from this perspective. First the MLB created havoc, not good, Sony’s not happy. Second Sony clearly makes the best MLB title, RBI Baseball clearly isn’t a good game if you will self publish a rival title to compete with it, do you want the game to stop? And lastly, similar to what Microsoft sold with GamePass, do you want your product in front of more eyes? If so, lets add it to PS Now BUT you will be paying for it.

Just think of the payout this is creating for Microsoft/Xbox. Like I said earlier, it’s just a baseball game. Most headlines ran with the idea of “PlayStation Developed game on Xbox!” but once people realized it was just a baseball sim they turned down their excitement about 90%. Yet Microsoft had one massive card in their stack when they announced it would be on GamePass on day 1. Now the entire table turned. You get the game for free while PlayStation’s own userbase has to pay $60/70 to play. It rips into Sony more than it benefits Microsoft directly because it shows not only the value of GamePass, but how lacking Sony services such as PS Now currently are. And to top it all off, it literally removes one exclusive title from PlayStation. It’s a marketing victory and worth whatever payout they did with the MLB to get it. This has become clearly evident when reading any posts by Sony regarding MLB The Show. On the Official PlayStation blog there was a single post for the game and the entire comment section is people mad about it not being free for PlayStation, where the dedicated fanbase is. On a PS Now post about new games, a majority of the posts are asking why MLB The Show isn’t offered at all.

To say the least, Sony is in hot water on many fronts right now and this just added fuel to the fire. Already players were upset that the PS5 is harder to find than toilet paper during a pandemic. Then Sony announced the closure of PSvita and PS3 digital stores, and currently still doesn’t provide backwards compatibility on Ps4 or PS5. Now Sony is skipping E3…. Microsoft meanwhile has been making waves with GamePass, and of course their Bethesda acquisition rocked the industry. Sony needs to have something planned, and fast.

The MLB was already an issue with 2k, which is why they stopped their franchise after decades. There just was not money to be made. MLB The Show had great marketing and push by being a Sony exclusive, but why bother doing that any further when you have been betrayed so badly? The MLB see’s it as brand marketing and clearly doesn’t care. If there isn’t enough money or leverage there to push Sony’s own services, then why bother innovating and remaining such a good franchise for them? Normally Sony is pushing MLB The Show months in advance, but they waited till weeks out to announce the Xbox partnership, and not much beyond that. Instead Sony has been pushing other games such as Returnal and Deathloop since last year. The GamePass addition, Sony’s PR problem, and the hot water the MLB created with its own politics may lead to record low sales for the game this year.

My Opinion: The only real reason for Sony to continue, and potentially just let this pass over, is simply the fact they are in discussions with Microsoft to remain in partnership with Bethesda, or something more. It’s really the only logical step for them to make. There are quite a few Bethesda titles currently on PS Now, plus Sony obviously would like to keep these franchises available to players in general. Discussions between Microsoft and Sony could be on-going for various different things, and playing nicely may be an overall better deal than simply cutting losses now. Sony already hyped up the advertising by including Xbox Box art in their announcement and in trailers, and even mentioned Xbox on the official Blog, but again this could be all the MLB doing.