- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

In real life, RFK Stadium is lined with construction crews and is still 56 frenetic days away from its first Washington Nationals game of 2005, an exhibition against the New York Mets on April3. But in the world of video games, RFK already is a gleaming jewel featuring a pristine green field and a sellout crowd.

Like the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball, the Nationals will claim their rightful spot in forthcoming video games, such as EA Sports’ MVP Baseball 2005 and ESPN MLB 2K5 from Take-Two Interactive. The virtual creation of RFK and the Nationals, however, was anything but simple and came perilously close to not happening during the D.C. Council’s roller-coaster deliberations of financing for a planned ballpark in Southeast.

Developers of both games already were bracing for a late decision on the final relocation fate of the Montreal Expos, given MLB’s penchant for missing self-imposed deadlines. In November 2002, just weeks before 2003 versions of the video games were to be completed, MLB announced plans to stage 22 Expos games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, sending realism-obsessed developers rushing to create digital versions of Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

The Washington experience proved even more tense. Just as designers were putting the finishing touches on RFK Stadium for the 2005 games, council chairwoman Linda W. Cropp inserted legislative language that would kill the stadium project without half of the funding for construction coming from private funds. MLB responded by suspending all business activities of the Nationals and openly threatened to move back out of Washington until the poison-pill component of the legislation was amended.

“All of us on the [development] team got quite a scare in mid-December when the city changed the financing plan,” said Chien Yu, project manager for ESPN MLB 2K5. “That was right in the middle of our crunch period when we were putting the finishing touches on the game, and it was almost unthinkable for us to have to revert to the old team or be left in limbo for weeks while the council decided.”

Said Ben Brinkman, associate producer for EA Sports: “We were constantly on the sports [news] sites, just hammering the refresh button so we knew what was happening as soon as we could.”

Timing dramas aside, the virtual RFK Stadium in both MVP Baseball 2005 and ESPN MLB 2K5 is a reasonable representation of the real thing. Working from old photographs and seating diagrams from the days of the expansion Washington Senators, designers accurately depicted RFK’s basic look as the original multi-purpose stadium that spawned copies in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The famously sloped roof is in the games, as is the lack of lower-level seating beyond the outfield walls.

Missing, however, are the distinctive orange, burgundy and gold seats at RFK, and the EA Sports game curiously shows an electronic out-of-town scoreboard forming part of the right-field wall.

By contrast, the Nationals’ uniforms are completely accurate because each game, as a licensed product of MLB, had access to artwork of the team’s official look. Rosters are accurate as of mid-January, meaning more recent moves such as the acquisition of pitcher Esteban Loaiza will need to be handled through updates due later this year.

The arrival of the Nationals in video game form comes at a rapidly changing time for the industry. EA Sports recently shocked the video game business by signing an exclusive deal with the NFL that will block creation of any competing football titles from another company. MLB quickly responded by inking a somewhat similar deal of its own, and the NBA is expected to follow soon with its own exclusivity pact.

After this year, Take-Two will become MLB’s official third-party supplier of licensed video games. That means only manufacturers of video game hardware like Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony will be allowed to join Take-Two in producing baseball games with team logos and player names. The provision will allow for future versions of the MLB series from 989 Studios that is developed by Sony for PlayStation2. But there will not be a MVP Baseball 2006 from EA Sports unless it finds a way to partner with one of the hardware makers and maneuver around the Take-Two contract.

The frenetic deal making happened as the EA Sports and ESPN games were in a vicious battle for supremacy. Though EA enjoys a sizable lead in prominence and sales, the ESPN-branded titles last year began to levy a direct challenge to their rival by dropping the price on most games to $20 — about half the cost of EA titles — and producing a level of game play preferred by some hardcore gamers.

EA executives have not declared their intent for baseball beyond 2005.

“Right now, we have the best game. Beyond this year, we don’t know what’s going to happen yet,” Brinkman said.

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