It's the bottom of the ninth for fans of baseball video games.
While baseball used to be a viable market segment of the video game world, times have changed. Take-Two Interactive, publisher of the MLB 2K baseball game series, confirmed in May that they won't renew their exclusive contract with MLB and has strongly indicated that they won't field a player at all next year.
That's bad news for fans, but making matters worse is that no other company is likely to take its place, leaving the future of MLB games in doubt.
The marriage of Take-Two and MLB proved to be a shotgun romance. Back in the heady days of video game sports exclusives, Take-Two's management shelled out big bucks for seven years of third-party exclusivity rights. But when those execs were kicked to the curb, the new management team found itself unable to get out of the deal or change the terms.
To be fair, it was a pretty stupid deal for any company to sign in the first place. In 2004 (the year before the deal was signed), baseball games took in $93 million at retail. Football titles took in more than four times that amount, generating $384 million in sales. And while the deal locked out EA and its MVP Baseball series, it left the door open for Microsoft (which, at the time, made the acclaimed High Heat franchise), Sony (who make MLB: The Show) and Nintendo to continue to make games.
Now the deal is over, and Take-Two says it has no desire to return to the diamond.
"We don't like losing money - and that was a pretty tough contract we inherited," says Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick. "Thankfully it's in the past."
And boy, did they lose money. The MLB contract cost Take-Two about $30 million a year, a number the game franchise's tepid sales couldn't offset.
With Take-Two uninterested in re-upping, it might seem like a good opportunity for EA Sports to get back into the baseball business. EA hasn't made an MLB game since MVP Baseball 2005 -- the last year before Take-Two inked the exclusivity agreement -- and considering the company's success with Madden, FIFA and NHL, it's a perfect fit for the company's portfolio.
But according to EA COO Peter Moore, an EA MLB game is pretty much off the table at the moment, at least for traditional gaming systems.
"We've been great partners with Major League Baseball over the years, but the landscape for baseball games [has changed]," he said. "[There have been] no discussions about the console business."
That leaves Sony's The Show, which, it seems, must go on. That's a good news/bad news scenario for players.
The good news? The game consistently scores well with critics -- much higher, in fact, than Take-Two's recent baseball efforts. The bad news? If you don't have a PS3 or Vita, you won't have the opportunity to play video game baseball at all next year.
The Show is exclusive to Sony platforms, and that's not going to change. With a lack of competition (other than iOS titles, which tend to lean toward the arcade play side of the spectrum), there's cause for concern that gameplay innovation might come to a bit of a halt. Baseball video games have a passionate following, but they're still not a particularly big segment of the gaming world. As such, they generally don't command big development budgets from publishers, making it harder to introduce major innovations.
There are exceptions to that rule, of course. Game developer Visual Concepts, the team behind MLB 2K, also creates the vaunted NBA 2K series, which has soared as a franchise despite zero competition.
But Visual Concepts saw its hands tied with the MLB -- a particularly frustrating spot for that group.
"The Visual Concepts folks loved the title. They loved it," says Zelnick. "We were obviously frustrated because we were constrained to invest in it. Every incremental nickel we spent meant we lost an incremental nickel. So that was a frustration for the team."
It was frustrating for fans, too. And now that there's just one team left, it could become even moreso when spring training 2013 rolls around.