The Show 14 – My Favourite RPG

There are a variety of distinct noises that can be created when wooden bat meets leather ball. There is the hard crunch, where the ball cannons through the air, and there is the shatter, where a cloud of shards fans out and the ball dribbles only a short distance. There is everything between. This though, this is sweet and crisp, like peanut brittle shattering in your mouth. The ball doesn’t cannon, it just disappears, ending up somewhere above the right field stands. Raph Kazmir trots around the bases unnoticed, the attention of everyone fixed instead on the ball’s exit. This is his eighth home-run of the young 2016 Major League season, making him the undisputed league leader for the first time in his career.

Raph’s story is similar to dozens you might hear if you were to walk through a Minor League Baseball clubhouse. His first few matches were unequivocal disasters, neither showing the gathered scouts what he was capable of, but somehow he got drafted anyway. The Pittsburgh Pirates saw something in the way he had played that suggested he was capable of more. The only difference between Raph and the hundreds of sportsmen striving towards the highest level is that Raph Kazmir only exists in the hard drive of my PS3. He was born through character creation screens, a bizarre medley of cool-looking hair, sunglasses, and tattoos, allied with my patchy baseball knowledge to become the player (and person) that he is now.

Their stories aren’t the same of course. Raph bulled through the ranks of the Minor Leagues, blitzing staggering numbers in his first season to be called up to the Pittsburgh Pirates just in time for their big playoff push. The numbers he posted in the MLB however, were hardly earth shattering. He hit a home-run or two, started the odd game here or there, but generally underwhelmed. His season ended in heartbreaking fashion when he tried to steal second base and went into a bone-crushing slide. His knee was wrecked, his season over, and Raph Kazmir’s dream was on the brink of ending almost before it began.

When he came back at the start of the 2015 season, he was still on the roster for the Pirates. He wasn’t fit enough to start even if the Pirates wanted him to, but they had recruited a top-flight first baseman during the off-season. So Raph played as a pinch hitter for the most part, thrown into the game at the most difficult moments and proving time and again that he was a clutch hitter. Consecutive home runs to tie and then win the game against the Mets were the high point of a season that ended in disappointment for the Pirates.

By the start of the 2016 season, Raph had manoeuvred himself into a starting position in the lineup, and the results showed in the home-run spurt that started the season and put him in an early lead for the home-run tables. Raph Kazmir was finally making some noise. He was proving that not only could he play at the top level, but also that he was a threat. Then he slumped. Suddenly he couldn’t lay bat on ball, and to make matters worse, his fielding was circling the drain. He missed routine plays, dropped balls that he would have caught without even thinking just a few months before. He was becoming such a liability that his batting average dropped below .200 – meaning that he was hitting safely only once for every five times batting – for the first time in his short career. The Pirates did the only thing they could: they dropped him. He returned to the Minor Leagues that he had blown past so breezily, but this time he had to work. He couldn’t just rely on his talent, on his eye. Major League pitchers had figured him out, and everyone else took note.

He wallowed in the minors, defying expectations that it would be a short stint to rediscover his swing. Now, halfway through the 2017 season, he has started a strong hitting streak once again. Could he be on track for a triumphant return to the Major Leagues?

Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t played that bit yet. But the more I play of MLB 2014, the more the stories that I’m being told – not through writing or voice acting, but through the natural events of the season – are amazing me. Injuries, loss of form, hot streaks, cold streaks, modifications to swings, and the tales told through all these things are small, but significant. After all, I’ve just regaled you with the story of only one of my characters in only one of the sports games that I play. I could tell you of Hiroki Kobayakawa, of Stephen Ashe, of Sebastian Min, basketball players, American footballers, football players. The list is almost endless, and my waffling would soon get tiresome, but the point remains.

Is this any less a role-playing experience because they didn’t fight against the Orc hordes? Sports games get a lot of flak for being casual and repetitive (I’m looking at you, FIFA), but I’ve always believed that the playing field tells the most interesting tales. Many of my favourite films are related to sport in some fashion, even if the plot stretches further than the field itself, and games are no different.

There might not be reams of narrative, a dramatic fight with the final boss, or even a set storyline, but I truly believe that sports games provide some of the best RPG experiences possible.

And did I mention character creation? Sure, Skyrim let’s me play as a cat, but NBA 2K14 let me play basketball as a tiny Japanese man with a green mohawk. If that idea doesn’t inspire a smile, well, I’m not sure what will.

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