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MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode fixes the biggest issue with sports games

Over the past 10 years, sports game developers have grappled with how to make compelling single-player content. Of course, Franchise modes where players can simulate seasons as their favorite teams are a major draw, but the genre’s biggest names have also been looking to offer something else that isn’t an endless simulation. While modes like FIFA’s The Journey and Madden’s Longshot offered unique and extremely narrative-driven takes on that idea, MLB The Show 23’s Storylines mode is the best take yet on compelling single-player sports games.

MLB The Show 23 - Storylines: The Negro Leagues Season 1 | PS5 & PS4 Games

The latest edition of Sony San Diego’s annualized baseball game features a new mode called Storylines: The Negro Leagues Season 1. Players can make their way through challenges based on “Negro League Legends,” such as Leroy “Satchel” Page and Jackie Robinson, learning more about them in the process through informative videos made in collaboration with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. By coupling these bite-sized challenges with engaging educational stories and event recreations, Storylines stands out as a sterling example of what a great single-player sports story looks like.

Contextualizing the basics

Storylines is a straightforward mode. It features eight different stories focused on Paige, Robinson, Andrew “Rube” Foster, Hilton Smith, Hank Thompson, John Donaldson, Martin Dihigo, and John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil. Upon choosing one of these athletes, players progress through eight episodes, each of which has unique challenges, like pitching for one inning without giving up a run. What makes it special, though, is how it’s all packaged together.

Challenges are introduced with videos hosted by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick, who gives educational context and backstory for the players, and sometimes even the specific gameplay challenge you’re about to complete. These documentary-like videos are effectively scripted, using their short lengths to tell tight stories, and presented with sleek and colorful art.

Art of the players featured in MLB The Show 23's Storylines mode.

I learned a lot about all-time great baseball players I didn’t know about, like Paige, and I will likely go back occasionally to view these videos long after I’ve completed Season 1. Storylines also allow me to play Negro American League teams that have historically not been represented in baseball simulation games, like the Kansas City Monarchs and Chicago American Giants.

The gameplay experience of pitching an inning well isn’t different than what I do in Road to the Show or March to October, however, the way Storylines recontextualizes basic gameplay makes it feel new. One particularly memorable challenge in Paige’s storyline tasks players with pitching a no-hit inning while the rest of the players on the field kneel next to Paige, something that happened in real life.

The bite-sized nature of each episode makes Storylines an excellent mode to boot up when I only have a couple of minutes to play MLB The Show 23, and completing a storyline rewards me with a player card for that athlete that I can bring into Diamond Dynasty. While modes like Madden NFL 18’s Longshot tried to be cinematic and gameplay focused, they felt detached from the rest of the experience. Afterward, players could only bring protagonist Devin Wade into Franchise mode and use him in the intentionally repetitive simulation mode they avoided by playing Longshot. There’s a reason narrative content like that has completely disappeared from Madden games.

Satchel Paige pitches while other players kneel next to him in MLB The Show 23.

Ultimate Team modes are derided, and I don’t like them either, but they can captivate people by quickly giving them bite-sized challenges and tangible rewards. MLB The Show 23’s Storylines does something similar with a single-player experience that’s entertaining and educational, and respects the sport’s history, rather than only concerning itself with microtransaction-filled player engagement.

Big sports game franchises aren’t able to change much year-over-year. The same applies to MLB The Show 23, which, while a solid simulation, doesn’t stand out much from what came before. That’s what makes this game’s introduction of Storylines both compelling and disruptive. It offers something fresh without needing to change the gameplay fundamentals radically. If you pick up MLB The Show 23, make sure you give Storylines: The Negro Leagues Season 1 a shot.

MLB The Show 23 is available now for PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch. It’s also available on Xbox Game Pass.

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Tomas Franzese
Gaming Staff Writer
Tomas Franzese is a Staff Writer at Digital Trends, where he reports on and reviews the latest releases and exciting…
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