BeeZee’s Note: We’re going to start bringing you the best reviews in baseball video games this year. What better place to start than with the first video game completely devoted to fantasy baseball – 2K Sports’ MLB Front Office Manager. FBD interim bench coach Cory Humes of MVN.com stopped by to give us his review after playing the game for two weeks.
As someone who has played and enjoyed computer-based sim league baseball games such as Out of the Park Baseball and Baseball Mogul, 2K Sports’ MLB Front Office Manager has my name written all over it. I’m the kind of person who spends more time in fantasy drafts and on the trade block than actually playing out my team’s schedule in sports video games. It’s safe to say that I’m solidly a member of Front Office Manager’s target audience.
When I loaded the game for the first time, Billy Beane’s mug greeted me. As respected a GM as there is in baseball, Beane gave MLB Front Office Manager his seal of approval, going so far as to say that “it wouldn’t surprise me if the next generation of baseball general managers grow up playing this game.”
Immediately out to prove that I could one-up the Moneyball genius, I entered the game’s career mode without first reading the game’s instructions. I’m a hardcore baseball fan, so I’m very familiar with the rules governing the business side of the game. How hard could this video game be?
I created my character — a 25-year-old, sharply dressed portly fellow with a background in law — and chose to take a job with my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was greeted with my first e-mails and sent to work in mid-November of 2008.
The first disappointment came when I began searching through the Pirates’ farm system for familiar names. There was no sign of Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata or other prospects. Going a step further, it didn’t even seem as if there were any reasonable facsimiles for those players. My farm system was stocked with anonymous prospects graded vaguely for current talents and future potential on a standard 20-80 scale. My knowledge of the Pirates’ minors was useless.
Discouraged but not defeated, I took a trip to the winter meetings. I had arbitration hearings to hold and trades to make. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attempt some of the moves that Neal Huntington explored in real life. Jack Wilson, for example, has a full no-trade clause in the game that he doesn’t hold in real life. I was stuck paying him for 2009.
Still curious about the game play, I chose to advance the calendar to spring training. When I arrived in Bradenton, Florida, I was shocked to be missing half of the roster that I’d owned two game-months before. I had assumed that players whose rights I controlled (0-3 players with contracts renewing at the major league minimum) would be automatically placed on my team. Not so. The game had expected me to manually offer all of these players their $400,000 contracts that they had no choice but to accept, and they were sent to free agency when I skipped this step.
That’s where my first season ended. I couldn’t believe how in depth the game went: you really are expected to manage every aspect of the franchise’s baseball operations. Set scouting budgets for regions across America and around the world, allot resources for bidding on Japanese free agents, maintain full rosters and rotations from the MLB level all the way down to rookie ball, and more.
I decided to try again, this time taking on a team with a chance at being competitive in 2009. I signed on with the Chicago Cubs and was much more active during the hot stove season. I was able to ink CC Sabathia to a contract similar to the one he signed with the New York Yankees. I traded Geovany Soto for Troy Tulowitzki and acquired young players such as Cameron Maybin, Francisco Liriano and Pablo Sandoval. The game’s AI made sure that I paid a fair price for these up and coming stars, but as I gained experience, I was able to spend points to improve my skills as a negotiator.
After ensuring that my roster was well stocked, I proceeded to simulate a season. At first, I went day by day, actually making the simple in-game decisions myself (hit, bunt, hit and run or steal, and pitch, walk or shift defensive alignment). The Cubs got off to a hot start with me as their skipper, and I was able to track my players’ progress using advanced statistics (OPS+, runs created, etc.).
The day-by-day simming took a significant amount of time, though, and this is a game with an emphasis on management, not coaching or playing. I decided to try simulating chunks of the schedule at a time, but I found that the same team that had been red-hot through April and May turned cold in June and July. Moreover, the AI wasn’t giving my bench players at-bats (even though my depth charts were properly set). It truly seems as if MLB Front Office Manager is a game that you must obsess over in order to succeed.
My Cubs team slumped to the end of the season and missed the playoffs, and I didn’t bother continuing on to the next hot stove. My players were developing at seemingly arbitrary rates (players in their mid-30s would improve, while those in their late 20s could decline), and free agent salaries spiraled out of control. It would take hours to get an understanding of the fictional minor leaguers in the game, and even if that time was spent, a top prospect might not take a realistic path to the majors.
I was hoping that MLB Front Office Manager’s online mode would simplify the more tedious sections of the career play, in the process making the game a more enjoyable experience. That wasn’t to be.
Gamers are presented with a number of options that allow leagues to cater to specific desires. Play in a ranked or unranked league, or perform quick searches for leagues looking for more players. Create a standard league, choosing between rotisserie or head-to-head scoring and whether or not users must control their own lineups and minors, or allow the AI to auto-manage those facets of the game.
League managers can choose whether to use standard 5×5 fantasy baseball scoring or substitute in more sophisticated metrics (e.g. OBP instead of AVG). Decide on the number of teams in the league (a minimum of two up to a max of 30), and the advancement time of the game (1 hour, 6 hours, 12 hours, 1 day, 2 days, 4 days) after which league members must have their rosters set. You can hold a fantasy draft or start with MLB Front Office Manager’s default rosters.
Still, the online game play suffers the same fate as career mode. Players are asked to do a little too much in order to succeed. 2K Sports wasn’t able to hit the sweet spot in between the management in usual sports games and Billy Beane’s actual job. The game is realistic to a fault — it feels like work, not fun.
All told, I’ll likely give MLB Front Office Manager another shot, learning from my mistakes again. The next version of the game would benefit from a cleaner interface and less intensive task list, but Beane was right. You can gain a great understanding of what’s necessary to run an organization, and a new generation of gamers may grow up idolizing Brian Cashman rather than Alex Rodriguez.
Cory Humes is the content director for MVN and blogs about the Pittsburgh Pirates at piraterevolution.com.