Restoring a missing piece of history with MLB: The Show's Negro Leagues
Taking inspiration from the Negro League Museum, Sony's San Diego studio was finally able to celebrate the forgotten baseball stars
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This year's iteration of Sony's MLB: The Show will be the first time the baseball title features the Negro Leagues.
Created due to racial segregation within the MLB (and America as a whole), the Negro Leagues were home for Black and Latin American professionals to play from 1920 until 1950.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, San Diego Studio's product development communications and MLB: The Show's brand strategist Ramone Russell talks us through the journey to bring this missing piece of baseball history to the game.
"Whenever we would start doing press [for MLB: The Show], I would always get the question, when are we going to do Negro Leagues?" he explains. "Somebody would ask, and the answer would always be, 'It's something that we think about all the time [but need to] figure out the right way to do it'."
Russell notes that including the Negro Leagues wouldn't have been possible with technology from previous console generations, due to the need to present historical context and information in the right way, as well as authentically recreating the players, stadiums and crowds.
So the first question wasn't for lack of trying but for how to approach the project.
"If you wait for perfect conditions, you can't get anything done," he adds.
Telling the stories for these players presented multiple challenges for San Diego Studio.
"If you're telling historical stories about underrepresented communities and Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement, it gets real dicey, real quick."
"There's agency in video games where you can make choices," Russell explains. "But if you're telling historical stories about underrepresented communities and Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement, it gets real dicey, real quick. There's a reason why you haven't seen any video games made about [that era]."
Russell uses the example of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson's story when he first played in the MLB. When Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he endured a great deal of anti-Black racism as he played.
Russell says, "We don't want to gloss over the ugliness of the history because it needs to be told accurately and also appropriately for your audience. [However] we're an officially licensed MLB game, so [our title] has to be rated E."
Finally introducing these players started with reaching out to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and its president Bob Kendrick, seeking the best way to incorporate the Kendrick's expertise into the baseball tile alongside the gameplay.
Russell says that this took a number of attempts and prototypes. One of those ideas involved users getting history lessons in-game via a podcast-like audio recording. Eventually, a short visual clip of each player's story before they step onto the field fared better as an idea.
"...Inner City Blues came on, and the light bulb went off [in my head]. That's the theme of this whole thing"
Russell explains that he took it upon himself to create a vertical slice for the team to convey the concept better. This took some help from the trailer team at PlayStation Creative.
"I started working with them, and it took us about 12 hours to put together this vertical slice video," he says. "It started with this Marvin Gaye track called Inner City Blues. I was in my car, out late one night, and Inner City Blues came on, and the light bulb went off [in my head].
"That's the theme of this whole thing; that's the project. So the beginning of the vertical slice had Inner City Blues, and we did this slow crawl where it revealed 'MLB: The Show presents the Negro Leagues'."
It was January 2021 when the team got behind a clearer vision of the concept, selecting a round of eight players to form 60 stories.
"But we're a yearly title," Russell adds. "We have nine months to develop a game. We can't tell the breadth and depth of the Negro Leagues in the right way in one console release."
San Diego Studio then decided to include eight to ten players per year. MLB: The Show presents the Negro Leagues: Season One is purposely titled to indicate that future content will be coming. And the team leaned on Kendrick's guidance when conceptualizing the inaugural roster.
"We called [Kendrick] and sat down with him; we needed a few heavy hitters and lesser-known individuals," Russell explains.
"So obviously, that starts with Leroy Robert 'Satchel' Paige and the transcended name of Jackie Robinson. His induction and breaking the color barrier signaled the end for the Negro Leagues."
Russell explains that the president of the Negro Leagues Museum was filmed over two days. To Kendrick's credit as a historian, he addressed all the questions about the player's profiles in his first storyline recording without being asked directly during the process.
After filming, the team was again thinking about how they wanted to present this history.
"So these videos need to be real short. They also need to be educational. They need to be informative, and need to be visually appealing," Russell says.
He explains that the studio had another set of developer challenges when rendering these historical players. For example, the only photos of Andrew 'Rube' Foster, the organizer of the Negro National League who played from 1902 to 1917, were in black and white.
"Hilton Smith [also] only had black and white photos...so we used Hilton Smith's grandson as a base to render his skin tone"
Based on his photos, San Diego Studio knew that Foster was a dark-skinned person. However, in the case of rendering Hilton Smith, who played from 1932 to 1948, the development team used a different approach.
Russell says, "Hilton Smith [also] only had black and white photos. So what's his skin tone? We work with all of the families and estates [of players], so we used Hilton Smith's grandson as a base to render his skin tone."
Historical accuracy continued beyond the baseballers. Standard stadiums weren't used during the Negro Leagues storylines, so not only were new arenas developed and inspired by the leagues, but so were the in-game crowds.
"Negro Leagues teams would rent out the ballparks on Sundays to play the doubleheader, and in the South, what would people do on Sundays? They go to church," Russell says. "Everybody's got on suits, ties, and hats. Everybody's dressed to the nine, so that's our crowd in all these stadiums."
The visual differences with the crowds didn't stop there; people who went to watch Negro Leagues games, unlike the MLB at the time, were not racially segregated. So this was also reflected as the design designed the onlookers for the feature.
San Diego Studio's last piece of the development puzzle was the accompanying soundtrack. Russell adds that he took on the task of creating the track list himself.
"I talked with our director and said, 'I know we haven't increased the music budget for a very long time. We have to do it now; this project doesn't work without its separate soundtrack. If you say no, I'm killing [this]. It's not going to work without this music.' He said, 'Yeah, whatever it takes.' So we doubled our music [licensing] budget."
Additionally, the brand manager admits that he would be seen as the reason if the project fell through.
"I was terrified because if we get this wrong, they'll look at one person. The guy with the Black skin who works at the studio, who's the face of [MLB: The Show] brand. So, if it's wrong, it's going to fall on me."
He notes that his concerns about failure would also reflect negatively on the San Diego Studio team and PlayStation.
"So the fear of getting it wrong is a very motivating factor," Russell expounds.
On a more personal note, Russell says that he and the team wanted to present Black history that would not traumatize its users. In addition, he wanted the feature to be fun and inspirational with its source material.
"Our motto for the project is the same model as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: educate, enlighten and inspire"
He explains, "Our motto for the project is the same model as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: educate, enlighten and inspire.
"We wanted to make sure that we didn't do participatory Black trauma in a video game…I don't need to see Black trauma on film or in a video game. I've seen that enough".
"The last thing I wanted to do was have a 12-year-old Black kid in Chicago play this and feel bad about himself. Also, I don't want a 12-year-old white kid in Cincinnati to play this and feel bad about himself [either]. So this project and storylines as a whole is a celebration of these largely forgotten players and how good they were."
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