MLB The Show 21 Is Being Released to Its Widest Audience Ever

This is Luke’s first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. Luke has been a graphic designer in the golf industry for the last five years, though he’s never truly enjoyed that particular “swing at a ball” sport. Rather, it’s baseball that provides the proper amount of weirdness for him. Umpires ringing up hitters. Gold Glovers awkwardly squirming under wind-blown popups. Sluggers whiffing on 88 mph fastballs. That stuff is Luke’s wheelhouse, and he explores those interests on his site, The Pop Up Dance. He lives in Portland and is on a never ending quest to find the mythical Jeff Sullivan. You can purchase the new FanGraphs t-shirts he designed here.

For its entire 15-year history, MLB The Show has been exclusive to Sony consoles, from the PlayStation 2 up to the current era PlayStation 5. The reason for that is simple: Sony owns San Diego Studio, the creators of the game. But this year, a whole new group of gamers will be able to join in the digital action, as MLB The Show 21 will be released on Microsoft’s Xbox consoles for the first time; it’ll also be a part of the company’s subscription service with millions of active subscribers. This move allows for casual or new baseball fans to enjoy the acclaimed video game series without the barrier of it being full-priced. Increasing the accessibility of MLB The Show is a great way to get new fans interested in not just the video game, but the sport of baseball itself. There is a lot to parse here, so a little background should help us fully understand the baseball ramifications.

At the time, San Diego Studio was fairly small compared to some of the other sports video game studios, such as EA Sports (the makers of Madden and FIFA) and 2K Sports (NBA 2K). 2K Sports even had a licensed baseball game of their own that was released yearly on multiple consoles, including PlayStation.

San Diego Studio began releasing their MLB The Show series in 2006 to immediate praise. Focused on a revolutionary “Road To The Show” mode in which one could create a player and play their way up through the minors, MLB The Show quickly became the game that baseball fans wanted to have. Year after year it racked up high review scores for its polished and innovative releases — the funny commercials were just a bonus. San Diego Studio was making their rival obsolete.

Aggregate Review Scores Between MLB Games
Year MLB The Show MLB 2K
2006 83 66
2007 77 79
2008 85 70
2009 90 64
2010 91 76
2011 90 69
2012 87 68
2013 87 48
SOURCE: Metacritic
Metacritic aggregates review scores from video game media outlets. Review scores are 0-100.

Eight years was all it took to squeeze the life out of the MLB 2K series. After a particularly poor release in MLB 2K13, which contained barely any updates on the previous game, 2K Sports stopped making baseball games altogether. The Show was now the only realistic baseball video game on the market.

In December of 2019, it was announced that MLB and Sony’s next licensing agreement was coming with the stipulation that the game would be developed for multiple platforms, meaning that it was finally coming to Microsoft’s Xbox consoles. A licensing deal is crucial for a big game like MLB The Show. Without an MLB license, they wouldn’t be able to use team names and logos. Without an MLBPA license, they wouldn’t be able to use player names. It’s unclear exactly how much this situation was forced on Sony, but if MLB required a multi-platform release in order to get a renewed license, Sony had little option other than to accept. Starting in 2021, the Xbox audience, long-starved of a quality baseball sim, was finally going to have MLB The Show.

Xbox players were not done receiving good news. Indeed, the best news of all wouldn’t come until April 1 of this year. Not only would MLB The Show 21 be releasing on Xbox, it would also be instantly added to Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service. Game Pass is a quickly growing behemoth in the video game landscape. The pitch is simple: the Netflix of games. For $10 a month, users get access to a catalog of games that can be downloaded and played as long as you have an active subscription. For reference, MLB The Show 21 costs $60 or $70 depending on whether you are buying it on PlayStation 4 or 5. One important aspect of Game Pass is that it’s not available on competitor’s systems. Having a Game Pass subscription is useless if you only have a PlayStation. This means that Game Pass subscribers will essentially have access to MLB The Show on their Xbox for no additional cost on the day it comes out, while PlayStation owners will need to pay full-price for the game.

More recently it’s been hinted at by Sony executives that this was a decision that came straight from MLB and that Sony had no say. This is made possible because it’s actually MLB publishing the Xbox version of the game. (Sony is only the official publisher of the PlayStation version.)

From a video game perspective, this is a huge deal for Xbox in their never-ending console war with PlayStation. Xbox can use every bit of help they can get right now when sales estimates suggest that there are two PlayStation consoles in the wild for every one Xbox. From a baseball perspective, this is big because the audience for their game just grew by the millions. What’s good for Xbox and baseball isn’t necessarily good for PlayStation. Many were quite perturbed by this announcement. In the snap of a finger, PlayStation went from the only console to play The Show to the most expensive console to play it on.

I understand being bothered by this news, even if I’m more on the slightly annoyed side of the spectrum rather than full-on rage. I’ve been a PlayStation owner since 2002, and every time I’ve had to make a decision on what console to get next, the existence of The Show has been a huge point in PlayStation’s favor. Like me, many baseball fans have already been filtered into the PlayStation ecosystem over the years. So other than annoying PlayStation fans, how big of a deal is MLB The Show coming to Xbox Game Pass, anyway?

Because I threw out the term “Netflix of Games,” you may think Game Pass is bigger than it actually is. Netflix is so common that you don’t even ask your buddy if they have Netflix, you just assume they do and you question your friendship when you find out they don’t. Netflix is sitting at an absurd 200 millions subscribers. Game Pass is nowhere near that level of ubiquity. I think I know one fellow human that subscribes to Game Pass. I think I know one fellow human that’s not subscribed to Netflix. Game Pass last reported their subscriber total in January and it was 18 million users. That number is small in comparison, but that’s still a lot of people and the number is going up fast. Game Pass had 10 million subscribers in April of last year and had jumped to 15 million by September.

Game Pass is blowing up and their subscription model is here to stay. The video game industry in general saw massive growth last year as well. We all know why: No vacations, no going out on a Friday night, no new season of Survivor to watch. So a lot of us turned to video games, and not the Survivor video game either. There are actually good video games out these days, and the world collectively threw their money at them. Video game spending grew 27% in 2020 and reached an all-time high of $56.9 billion.

MLB has seen that growth in the video game industry and they’ve seen the growth specifically in Game Pass, and they saw it as a great way to get their golden goose, MLB The Show, in the hands of more people. Most importantly for what MLB is trying to accomplish, they want their game in the hands of people that wouldn’t be buying the game anyway. MLB is desperate to grow the game of baseball, and the hip, young crowd that plays video games is exactly the audience they are looking for. The die-hard baseball fans are already buying the full-priced game on their PlayStation, anyway.

I think the Xbox version of MLB The Show was expected to sell much worse than the PlayStation version because of the 15-year migration of baseball fans over to PlayStation. Buying a full-priced baseball game is a tall order if you are a casual fan, and especially so if you are not a fan. I’m a huge baseball fan and a huge video game fan that’s been playing The Show since its very first iteration, and even I don’t buy The Show every year. Free, however, is a much more compelling proposition. How many non-fans are going to turn on their Xbox on Tuesday and see MLB The Show, a game they’ve always heard good things about, and be intrigued enough to hit the download button and give it a shot? I think the number of people doing that could be pretty high.

Playing a sports video game can be a great introduction into a sport and can teach it to you in a compelling and engaging way. I learned about various defensive schemes from playing Madden. I learned the teams in the Premier League from playing FIFA. I almost know how to ollie from being introduced to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. I even learned how to throw a liar ball from playing Mario Super Sluggers. Throughout my life, video games have been a gateway into a more tangible real-life interest in a subject. I don’t think I’m alone.

A 2015 study tried to examine a possible association between playing sports video games and involvement in real-life sports. The results showed that “a long-term predictive effect of sports video game play on increased involvement in real-life sports.” MLB is in the business of getting people interested in baseball. If playing MLB The Show makes someone more likely to have an interest in baseball, of course they would want to put the game in the hands of as many people as possible, especially those that aren’t already fans.

Not only will a bigger and more casual audience be introduced to the game, but they may also be introduced to Fernando Tatis Jr. for the first time. The cover athlete for this year has the skill and personality to be the face of baseball. Even his puppet version is tremendously impressive.

It’s a great year to have a rising star and team on the cover. Tatis is back from shoulder injury just in time for the release of the game. For new fans, there is a realistic pathway of being introduced to Tatis through Xbox Game Pass, to watching his real-life highlights, to becoming a life-long Tatis fan. At least that is how MLB is drawing it up.

A lot is riding on this year’s version of MLB The Show as it’s surely going to be played by more people than ever before. More importantly for MLB’s goal of growing the game, it’s going to be played by more casual fans as well. With an exciting cover athlete and a release on a quickly growing subscription service, everything is lined up for MLB The Show to have its most influential season yet.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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cries in PC


Wait a month or so: GamePass cloud based streaming just entered beta testing via *browser* so you won’t need anybody’s console.

It already works fine via Android devices and TVs (FireOS, too).

That might have a little something with MLB accepting the big fat check from Microsoft to put the game on GamePass; a chance at the billions doing their gaming on android, PC, and iOS.

Here’s the current list of games available via the cloud:

And yes, MLB21 is there since day one.

First month is just a buck so trying it out is the next best thing to free.


It’s unlikely that MLB the Show will be playable at any kind of reasonably competitive level using cloud streaming though. Most of the high level players today use monitors instead of TVs to decrease latency for pitch recognition, and streaming from a cloud platform adds significantly more latency that using a TV. Cloud gaming has come a long way, but it will always have a few extra milliseconds of latency compared to hardware gaming, which is a huge problem in MLB the Show.


Better than nothing.
Game has single player mode, no?