Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Life in The Show, Volume 2

Eric has his Little League baseball team, and me? I’ve got the Playstation 3. So in the spirit of one downsmanship, I will be tracking my year on the virtual field, playing MLB 10: The Show, a masterpiece of a baseball video game and the pinnacle of the form.

One of the characteristics of a great baseball video game is its use of attributes. Power and contact for hitters, velocity, control, and movement for pitchers, these are the tweaks that let the gamer replicate a given player’s real-life style. If you want to be a slap hitter the way Juan Pierre is on the field, or an all-or-nothing slugger like Adam Dunn, the game should let you.

Well, MLB 2010: The Show goes a long way towards doing that, and here are a bunch of examples of players and plays in which real-life style translates to in-game replication, as I’ve experienced them in online play:

  • Alfonso Soriano hits nothing but pop-ups to the left side, and occasionally one will leave the yard.
  • A 78 m.p.h fastball from Tim Wakefield feels like 98 after a banquet of knuckleballs.
  • Trevor Hoffman’s change-up is nigh unhittable (okay, maybe this is more circa 2009 Hoffman’s style).
  • Felix Hernandez’s pitches are hard to hit even when they aren’t perfectly placed.
  • Albert Pujols hits everything hard, all the time.

Results aside for a moment, for the real baseball video game nerd, everything comes down to style. Real baseball is a symmetrical ballet of movement and stillness, and the perfect video game should be too. From the game to the individual, the idea is to inhabit the bodies of these players and perform in the context of the game the way that they might on the field.

When baseball video games switched from generic players to granting individual players attributes according to their actual skill, the games began to sparkle. Suddenly, Glenn Davis was a power hitter, and Kenny Lofton a speedy slap hitter. From those first days, the desire for verisimilitude sucked in its first real breath, and each incremental step forward has been to satisfy the desire to control not just any team but the real team. Maybe there were some of us who were happy to hit with robots and children on the original NES, but for the most part the baseball gamer craves exactitude.

(The question I love is this one: will we ever reach the point when a video game will be literally indistinguishable from a video broadcast? I dream about that day.)

Well, at this point I am ready to re-annoint, for the millionth time, The Show as the best, most realistic baseball video game in the history of the world.

Why do I feel so strongly about this replication of real life? Because of Ichiro.

The Mariners can’t hit for beans, in real life or in the game, so the most important hitter on my team is the best one: number 51. And seeing as how I’m following the team pretty closely this year, I’ve had a chance to watch him hit, spraying grounders and glancers, whiplash hits and squigglers, from the opposite field to the pull field, with every variation in between. The real pleasure of MLB 10: The Show? Ichiro hits with the same variety in the game.

In one game against the Yanks, controlled by an online opponent, I experienced just such a variety:

1st at bat: Ichiro hit a low hard line drive past A-Rod at third base, who didn’t have time to react. Went for a single.

2nd at bat: Ichiro blooped a double that fell just barely out of reach of Thames in left field on a high inside fastball.

3rd at bat: I decided to guess fastball and yank one as far as I could. It worked, and Ichiro pulled a home run, just like the home run he hit against the O’s on May 13.

That rundown could have been The Day in Ichiro sections from Every Day Ichiro. I love The Show.

Read Volume 1 of Life in The Show

Life in The Show, Volume 1

Eric has his Little League baseball team, and me? I’ve got the Playstation 3. So in the spirit of one downsmanship, I will be tracking my year on the virtual field, playing MLB 10: The Show, a masterpiece of a baseball video game and the pinnacle of the form.

I picked up my copy of The Show with little hesitation on the day it was released, at my local neighborhood big box store. It’s the centerpiece of my video game collection and the one game that can’t–barring some apocalyptic fundamental change–disappoint me year to year.

Dodging the blue shirts to grab my steal-proof copy empty box, I presented it to the girl at the front, who went searching for the actual game. On her way from the cash register to the Actual Game Bin, she forgot what game I was buying, so I had to declare aloud my commitment to the baseball franchise.

It was worth it. The Show is as purty as ever, with the detailed improvements that a veteran of baseball video games can really geek out on, like more lifelike throwing animations and more dynamic fans who actually–gasp!–reach down for ground balls skittering along the wall in foul territory.

Some would argue, accurately, that there isn’t all that much different with this year’s version, and that perhaps I put down my hard-earned for little in the way of innovation. I, however, budgeted for the 2010 version just as soon as A-Rod spit his gum out and jumped onto the World Series-winning pile, so I’m pretty happy with the cosmetic upgrades.

After a hiatus last year, I’m back into the online gameplay in 2010, as I usually reserve the long-form Road to the Show mode and Franchise modes for late in the year and the offseason, as a form of relief from the online format. For now, though, in the fresh new early season, it’s human versus human.

The year in The Show started off choppily in 2010. There were quite a few glitches to dance around in the first week of play, particularly in the online iteration. Simple online match ups quickly led to frustrating freezes and whacked out statistics. First, it was the intentional walk glitch, which brought the sleek supercomputer to its knees and required a reboot every time I tried to give someone a free pass. The rub was that whovever shut down their system first would get credit for the win, so there were a few times that, in my stubborn refusal to cede a win, I left the system running in its frozen state while I walked the dog, trying to wait out my equally frustrated opponent.

There’s also the typical annual imperfection of the online play. The Show is a timing game, and the briefest bit of lag can mess up a pitch or a swing. In the past, like in the early days of The Show on the PS2, you’d get online with a gamer who seemed to be tapping into The Show’s servers via dial-up from in an Internet cafe in Manila. Buster Keaton films have been smoother. This isn’t so much a problem these days. Now it’s more the occasional blip that comes unexpectedly when you’re trying to strike someone out with the bases loaded, and you end up chunking a fastball to the backstop or right down the pipe.

My team this year, for the most part, is the Seattle Mariners. They are also my newly adopted bandwagon team for the real season, so it makes sense because a) there’s that emotional affinity and b) I like their defense. The Show’s 2010 version seems to have a ramped up RANDOM-O-TRON that guides fielding play so there are way more glancing balls, blatant gaffs and balls scooting under gloves than in the past. The 3rd-ranked Mariner defense goes a good way to mitigate the negative impact of the new defensive crazy.

There’s a problem with my online play this year, though: I totally stink. Back in 2005, the typical sports gamer hadn’t yet discovered the hidden gem that was The Show. I was literally something like the 90th best player in the country. By now though every Madden addict fresh from football season picks up a copy of The Show and commits his fast-twitch motor skills and Mtn Dew-fueled attention to the National Pastime. I don’t stand a chance, and I’m currently fighting my way back to .500, ranked–and I’m not making this up–72,126th.

My highlight so far? In my only game playing as the Red Sox, I threw a no-hitter with knuckleballer Tim Wakefield against what was no doubt some frustrated ten-year-old with an itchy swing finger. The gimpy servers never did log the game, though, so my achievement–the first no-hitter I’ve thrown in a baseball video game ever–is currently lost in the data cloud, floating like a Wakefield knuckler in digital purgatory.

My favorite pitcher is, expectedly, “King” Felix Hernandez and his hammer down curveball and 97 MPH heat. My favorite hitter? A glitch in the Matrix has granted Jose Lopez Team MVP status. He gets the job done, verisimilitude and sabermetrics be damned.

As for The Show, it’s just getting started. I’m just gonna play it one game at a time, give it my best shot, and Good Lord willing, things’ll work out.

The Way You Look Tonight

I’ve made the switch from Times New Roman to Garamond for my every day typing. There was something about Times New Roman that made the words seem intimidating as they appeared on the screen. As if each serif, each dark line was saying something about my soul. It got to a point where I almost didn’t want to write because I didn’t want to see any more Times New Roman on the screen before me. Now I feel reenergized. It’s hard to explain.

This has led aesthetics to dominate my recent thinking. I’m starting to realize how easily affected I am by the way things look. It’s as simple as the difference between a sunny day and a cloudy one. For many years I considered myself impervious to the effects of weather. Then I realized that my music tastes were totally affected by it. Now the same thing is happening with fonts, I guess. And it goes beyond my own writing. Aesthetics have a huge impact on how we consume sports.

Take a look at uniforms. Few subjects are less relevant from a tangible perspective. But few things affect the fan experience more. UniWatchBlog gets insanely high traffic (we know that because RBI once got a very brief mention that sent over approximately 17million visitors). In baseball, not even steroids get as much flack from fans as misplaced black trim on traditional jerseys.

Even Paul Lo Duca hates black trim.

But let’s take this even more inward. The readers of this blog are either well-meaning friends of Ted and I or people who consume multiple sports blogs on a regular basis. And your opinion of PnP is greatly affected by its design. For example, the giant picture of Fernando Valenzuela’s face on our header causes people to think this is a Dodger-focused blog. Regular readers know this not to be the case, but the image probably has the same skill for discouraging Giants fans from reading that Times New Roman does for discouraging me from writing stuff. The Rogue’s Baseball Index, looks old-timey — an aesthetic that carries its own baggage.

What do we look for with sports blog design? Should the visual feel of the site somehow match the tone of the content? Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods does this perfectly. It’s a slightly literary design with a classic-baseball feel. The content is the focus, framed in white amidst a background of dark grays and blues. Joe Posnanksi, meanwhile, opts for pure utilitarianism. His long, long posts are presented on a plain white screen, with plenty of space for his ample reader-polls on the side bar and his weird personal projects on the header.

But those are singular and powerful voices. Their draw is their exceptional content – bells and whistles be damned. What of sites whose appeal lies in humor or news or pictures? What of Deadspin? Deadspin leaves it in the hands of the reader. Here are 6,000 stories. Pick your favorite. Me? I think it looks cluttered. But then again, I like to pick and choose my stories. God knows I don’t want to end up looking at one of their regular slide-shows of nude male athlete self-portraits.

Mustaches were a crucial part of 19th century baseball's aesthetic.

I suppose the goal of a blog design depends on the goals of the proprietors. Do you want to nurture your reader a-la Wilker into a bookish dream-state? Do you want to build traffic through various clicks and links and options? Is your most recent post key? Or is it about the big picture? This is just the first layer of questions. We can peel them back to reveal even more. Does the number of columns on the blog matter much? Do certain colors have certain impacts on the reader? What about the width of the text? Do you like to read a narrow column or a wider one? How does subject matter affect these things?

This all may seem vague and irrelevant. But I don’t think it is. All of our beliefs as baseball fans are colored by colors and indelible images and uncanny associations.  Consider the way uniforms touch the way we remember eras: the classic 1950s and 60s, the colorful 70s, the unfortunate 80s, the surprisingly teal 90s. It goes into the design of our stadiums as well. They evoke the eras in which they are built and the teams they house. The difference between Cardboard Gods and Deadspin isn’t all that different from the difference between Fenway Park and New Yankee Stadium.

I’m curious as to what your thoughts are. Please share them in the comments. For what it’s worth, two of my favorite blogs, aesthetics-wise, are Beerleaguer and Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness. What are yours?

Reminders

August has been slow at Pitchers & Poets, but fear not. We’re getting back into the swing of things. Ted and I have a great new project underway (you’ll hear a lot about it in the coming weeks), and we’ve both settled nicely into the semblance of routine after cross-country moves.  Good things are coming so take this as a reminder to check back frequently, add us to your RSS feed, and engage with us on as many social media platforms as you possibly can.

You have been warned:

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Romancing the Zone (Rating System): Bonnie and Clyde, Digital Eyes, and the Impending Death of Conversation

I watched Bonnie and Clyde this past weekend, starring Warren Beatty and the ridiculously radiant Faye Dunaway. As is my natural inclination, it got me thinking about baseball. The classic film follows the likable but slightly bananas “Barrow Gang” as they rise to prominence as hold-up chiefs and brigands, then rise to mythology in the course of a few years.

Early in his career (in the movie, anyhow), Beatty’s titular hero would rob a small-town convenience store and bellow, “I’m Clyde Barrow, and this here is a hold-up!” No Nixon mask, bandana, or low-slung ball cap; no Unabomber sunglasses or hoodie. Just Beatty’s bedazzling grin and a doff of the fedora and he was off to the next town, to pull another job. Might as well hand out business cards, or an eight-by-five glossy. What struck me was that such a thing was possible back in those days. There was no concrete photo evidence of an act in progress, no surveillance cameras, no holograms on photo-IDs. When something went down–a bank robbery, for example–the sources that the wider public drew upon for enlightenment were subjective, first person accounts and witness testimonials. And those, we know well by now, lead to some crazy shit.

Bonnie and Clyde does a fine cinematic job of rendering this very phenomenon, the distorting effects of such unreliable sources. The Barrow Gang tracks its own progress through the lens of the media, reading newspaper articles to each other as they rumbled down country roads and picnicked beside lakes (with a few kidnappings and moy-dahs speckled in between). The newspapers, in bombastic prose, chronicled Barrow Gang bank robberies from Texas to Chicago, St. Louis and Missouri. According to the media, the Barrow Gang was a continental army, cutting the legs out from under the national economy. The American public was swept up in it, filling like the fabric of a hot air balloon with the flame heat of the newspapers’ bloviations. You can’t check facts, after all, if facts don’t exist.
Which brings me to the baseball hook. This week,word came down from the New York Times of the new digital eye technology, blowing open the Internet baseball conversation like the Barrow Gang bursting in on the local savings and loan. The multi-camera set-up will reportedly track anything that moves on the baseball field, in real time, and display the results as jauntily as a flash game. Every fielder’s speed and steps-taken will be counted, every square foot of a fielder’s range calibrated, every spat sunflower seed’s trajectory vectorized. Basically, the Great Unkowns of baseball analysis will soon be known; the White Whales will be poached. What lies just over the horizon–so close I can hear its mechanized joints lurching like Bigfoot screaming in the night–will strip the ballfield of its mystery. Players will be tracked like so many cod, caught, geo-tagged, and released into the wilds of free agency, emboldened by these oceans of data, or defenseless in the face of ’em.

If there’s one angle of the game that has eluded quantification and incited spirited consternation, it has been defense. Physics layered upon physics, the movement of the ball and fielders, range factors and expectations, good jumps and bad angles: it keeps sportscasters in business. This guy has the best first step in the game, that guy has a nose for the ball, this other fellow grows roots. Derek Jeter being the prime example, as old schoolers sing his praises and new-schoolers bemoan that praise. It’s a great argument, veritably political in the polarization, the play of regionalism and power structure. He’s a winner, screw the stats. Fielding stats are bunk anyway, I’ve watched him, I know. He’s the most overrated fielder in baseball history. Colorful threads in the loom of baseball discourse.

This new system could be the theory of everything, the unification of the big and the small, the micro and the macro. All questions could be answered, unraveling the textiles, the complicated, the confusing, but–to the human eye–the sublime and the satisfying tapestries that clothe of the National Pastime. Who belongs in the Hall of Fame? Just ask four-eyes over there in the corner with the dazed look and the reams of dot matrix print-outs spilling out on his lap.

Computers have taken over the world in part because they are mesmerizing tools, just fascinating to watch, and they answer questions that once seemed unanswerable. So that’s another kind of human majesty right there, and some of that may replace the emptiness that results from all of our questions getting answered. I love computers. I could watch the little digital eyes demo for hours.
But Bonnie and Clyde would never fly today. To be a bank robber in this modern world, you need a brain like a computer. Get cocky, holler out your name to a shopkeep, and you’re done before you started. To rob a bank today, you have to look into the Matrix, decipher its patterns, decode it, and deconstruct it; you’ve got to be postmodern. Braggadocio used to fill newspapers and books. Now it fills prisons (I know this because I’ve watched seven episodes of The First 48).
We may soon say the same of the general manager. Heck, we already do. But this next thing, this camera system, it’s the fucking Pinkertons, and the message board debates, the Jeter-gabbing and the Adam Dunn-bashing and all of that, those passionate unfounded conversations, they are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, telling stories and bathing in canyon pools while something smart and unstoppable tracks them, day and night, across the plains.

Bonnie and Clyde’s Hideout. Go nuts on this collection of photos and info.