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Fan Confidence: Does PitchFX Dream of Electric Sheep?

Sports, like most recreation, is a fantasy. We watch others play a game and project ourselves on its proceedings. It isn't always the explicit desire to be the baseball player, but instead the desire for the team to do well. We define ourselves as part of the team, it becomes larger than a group of players and coaches who literally win, but also the larger system that supports the team. It isn't the players that go unchanged every year, or in most cases even the owner. It's the fans who provide the chain of ownership over time.

One way we interact with baseball is through the games we play. These simulations provide a temporary reprieve from the reality that our teams will generally not win. We can provide control in these games that we wouldn't otherwise have.

Yes, it's the Cubs, but the commercial gets the appeal of sports simulation. I'll admit to playing various Madden games to guide the Bills to the Super Bowl. No, it's not the same thing, but it gives at least an echo of what the real thing might feel like.

Baseball has a long history of simulators. It's interesting to note that most baseball games put the player in as the manager, and the objective is to control all of the players to a championship, instead of playing as a singular player. Part of this might be that most people root for teams, not players, but part of this might also be early simulators, which would influence later ones, were made in a time when kids and adults had the opportunity to play baseball nearly every day. Stickball, company leagues, and the amateur game were all strong parts of American culture up through the 50's, but have faded away since.

Most old baseball games were based on the arcade and pinball machines that were already popular. The games were largely for a single player, and rather simple. Players might inject a ball into the machineworks, and after that the simulator would do the rest. Baseball pinball machines started appearing by the 1940's, and it's amazing they had any lasting power due to the widespread pinball bans in America.

A more advanced type of simulator started to appear in the 50's and 60's: card and dice games. The most famous of these is Strat-o-Matic, but it was hardly alone in the market. Robert Coover wrote an excellent novel about an obsessive who built his own card and dice game, to the point of collecting years and years of history on his imaginary game.

These two styles of simulators have both survived to the present, both bolstered by computers, but both also still catering to different audiences. The pinball machines have been replaced by games like MLB: The Show, which aim to more closely represent the on-field product as observed by a non-participant. This type of baseball video game certainly requires a degree of strategy and input, but like many modern video games the presentation attempts to replicate the act of participation-as-watching. Hardcore baseball simulators in the lineage of Strat-o-Matic still exist, both from the original Strat company, as well as a whole slew of competitors, but they, too, have upgraded to computers.

These games don't replace baseball, they enhance it. Computer simulators have made it even easier to play with friends, or to obsessively play the game alone. We want to win at these games, and because we have the control, we can. It's a nice reprieve from reality.