This final-four matchup is absolutely wild. In one corner, you’ve got a titan of baseball video gaming, a game that needs absolutely no introduction, a game whose main star everyone can name. In the other corner, we have a game that was included to function as a tutorial for a new console, a game mode that is quite literally just 20% of the overall game, a game that was never destined for greatness. Wii Sports was added to this tournament almost as an afterthought; there were far more deserving games (or so I thought) that we had to leave out of the tournament simply because Wii Sports was unique and we wanted a diversity of games in our tournament. I clearly could not have been more wrong about where Wii Sports sits in the pantheon of video gaming. Even so, it is truly the Cinderella going up against one of the blue bloods of the tournament. Backyard Baseball was a huge part of so many of our childhoods, to the point where when I say the name “Vinnie the Gooch,” most of you reading this can hear his voice in your head, and he’s not even one of the 30 original players. Backyard Baseball inspired many kids to go out and play in their local little league, and there’s no doubt about its place in baseball video gaming history. Now it’s up to you to determine which game should move on to the championship round.
Considering these final four games clearly hold a special place in all of your hearts, as you’ve voted them to move on to this point, we decided to change it up for these articles. We won’t be reviewing the games or comparing them anymore, now I’ve just asked a few of our writers to tell us why they love these games. Why these games are special. And hopefully you can share in that love too and tell us below why you love these games.
Let me take you back to 2006 in my life. Your family just decided to relocate from New York to San Diego. You don’t know anyone and haven’t made many friends at your new school yet. You and your brother argue frequently due to the stress. Your parents get you and your brother a Wii for the holidays. The games are simple and easy to pick up. They’re short, so you can pick one up whenever. For a time, all stress is gone.
Wii Sports doesn’t have major league teams. It doesn’t have your favorite superstars. It doesn’t have any familiar stadiums, season-long franchise modes, or World Series trophies. What it does have, more than anything, is baseball at its purest that can bring together the whole family.
First, the controls are extremely simple. Everyone is familiar with the motion of throwing a baseball. While virtually every video game isolates many age groups, whether it be kids who are too young to understand the controls or too old to understand the buttons, Wii Baseball is universal. It can be played (albeit with a varying level of skill) by anyone old enough to understand the game. For many of you, I’m sure this is the first time you got to play a video game side by side with your parents (and played a game in which they were actually competitive), which is a truly special experience because it’s not many video games that bring the whole family around one screen. I have extraordinarily fond memories of my parents, my brother, and I taking turns trying to dethrone whoever was on their game that night.
Part of the joy comes from the fact that you can put yourself in the game in a way other baseball games can’t match. It’s one thing to create a player and live out a fictional career. It’s another to hold the controller and swing it like you are pitching and batting. When you strike a batter out, it’s because you threw the ball—not just pressed a button and moved a joystick. You actually wound up and threw. Wii Sports Baseball is still the closest thing we have to full-on VR baseball.
I’ve written mostly so far on the joy that Wii Sports Baseball brought my family, but it also had an excellent single-player mode for a kid without many friends. For one, the single-player mode had a climbable ladder of difficulty—each Mii you play against has a different skill level and you can keep playing short, single-player games until you’ve dethroned Sakura, the “final boss” as it were. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent trying to hit her ridiculous splitter or even just get her out at the plate. When I got tired of losing to her, I could spend hours trying to hit 10 straight home runs or get 30 hits on 30 pitches in the super-fun training mode.
Writing this article has made me think about why exactly Wii Baseball was so fun for both me and my entire family. I understand why games like MVP Baseball are so popular. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved MVP Baseball; I put HOURS into that game. But when you remove real MLB teams and real MLB players, you’re left with something that is just pure baseball. It brings you back to your simple, unadulterated love of sport. It doesn’t matter who is playing. You don’t need to know the names of every player. It’s just baseball. And that’s what’s so fun about it. When you play a game with licensed teams and famous players, there’s inherent bias towards one team or the other in who you want to win. You get emotionally invested in your franchise losing because that’s your favorite team. But if you just get to play baseball without the stress…it’s in those moments you remember why you love the game so much.
Wii Baseball is simple. It’s easily the least involved of any of the 16 games in this tournament. But the beauty of this game is in its simplicity, in its ability to consistently deliver a challenge, and its ability to bring people together. It’s a game that means a lot to me, and I think it deserves its spot among the best baseball games out there, even if others may not think it’s No. 1.
Backyard Baseball 2001
I need to preface this with the statement that I actually somewhat prefer Backyard Baseball to the 2001 sequel, so this will largely focus on the series; I’ll be sure to add some points about 2001, though.
I touched on this above when I was talking about Wii Sports Baseball, but there’s something fundamental that makes a game like Backyard Baseball superior to your average baseball game; it’s not reliant upon the establishment that is Major League Baseball to be good. I know what you’re thinking: Backyard Baseball 2001 had real MLB teams and child versions of real MLB players. But being a particular team does nothing more than change your logo and colors. Being the Yankees doesn’t give me the entire Yankee team and it doesn’t put my home games in Yankee Stadium. If anything, it furthers my point, which I’ll explain below. With respect to MLB players, it’s the one thing I don’t really love about this game. I find the game becomes too easy when you have Randy Johnson pitching, Mike Piazza catching, and lineup featuring any number of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Larry Walker, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Nomar Garciaparra, or Barry Larkin while your opponent may be starting Dmitri Petrovich (no disrespect Dmitri, but I don’t remember seeing your MLB credentials).
MLB games are fun because you can live out a dream of your team winning the World Series or playing out your hypothetical MLB career. In a game like Backyard Baseball, you get to play out a much more personal dream. Most of us have never played baseball at a level above maybe high school or college; hell, many may not have even played that far, so it can be hard to connect to a hypothetical MLB career. But they likely played little league. They remember the weeknights, the orange slices, the “we want a batter, not a broken ladder” chants, the sunflower seeds, the aluminum bats, the awkward gangly kid (like the lovable Pete Wheeler or Ernie Steele) playing on the same team as the super athletic kid (any of the MLB kids), the dad who is way too into his 8-year old’s success (Stephanie Morgan), the coach in flip flops, and the joy of playing alongside your friends. Sorry, I didn’t expect the list to go on that long, but nostalgia is a powerful animal. And that’s what this game specializes in.
When I play Backyard Baseball 2001, I’m transported back to the early days of playing baseball. It’s just one group of kids up against another group of kids in an empty sandlot. And anyone who is playing can remember how badly they wanted their team to be the best in the league; to play for first place and call themselves a league champion. While an MLB game can help you achieve a different baseball goal, only Backyard Baseball can capture that.
And hey, even with the MLB licensing, it still works within the little league setting of the game. As far back as I can remember, our little league teams were named after real MLB teams (with the shirt and hat to match), so playing with real MLB teams, as opposed to the fictional team names from the original Backyard Baseball, really ups the nostalgia factor for me.
To this day, one of my favorite aspects of Backyard Baseball is its ability to capture diversity in society; you can fill your team with white kids, black kids, Asian kids, Hispanic kids, boys, girls, able-bodied and handicapped kids. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter what you look like; all that matters is what you can do on the field. Everyone has their role to play on your team, and everyone can play in this league.
I don’t want to be that guy who has to say this, but there are some problems with the game. Some players are impossibly slow, including on defense, and it can really drag the gameplay down when one of those players hits a ball in play. The announcers are so good that it’s actually distracting to the game at times. I get it. But man, is it worth it to see Pablo Sanchez carry your team to a championship on the sandlot. Speaking of Pablo Sanchez, when you’re thinking about the most iconic baseball games, who is the most iconic baseball video game character ever? Mario? No, he’s not specific enough to baseball. Jon Dowd? No, he’s only really known in niche circles. It’s Pablo freakin Sanchez. There’s nobody I’d rather have at SS (except MAYBE Jeter, and that’s with my Yankee goggles on).
So there you have it. Nostalgia is awesome, and Backyard Baseball 2001 does nostalgia better than anyone. It teaches kids not just that they should be getting outside and playing baseball, but that anyone can play, no matter their skin color, their gender, their height, their level of athleticism, nothing should stop them from playing some baseball. And most importantly, Pablo Sanchez is the GOAT and that status is worth some serious recognition. The defense rests.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)