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Mapping pinball trends for the casual enthusiast…

OPINION: Big League Chew

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Perhaps I’ve just been spending too much time within the friendly confines of minor league ballparks this summer, but I think it’s time for the pinball industry to revisit sports themes: baseball in particular. In the current climate, it is going to need a licence attached to it: the participation of Major League Baseball and its players association. I think Stern is up to the task. Games with sports themes have not fared well in the recent past, however I think now is the time to give the theme another trip to the plate, so to speak, despite the built-in trouble areas that exist in getting sports-themed machines off the ground.

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Gottlieb’s 1970 Add-A-Ball Batter Up. Courtesy of pinrepair.com

Sports have a rich history in pinball, with an inordinate amount of woodrails and electromechanical machines carrying sports imagery. Gottlieb’s wedgehead lineup of sports games reads like an ESPN2 weekly broadcast schedule.  However, sport themes released in the DMD era have not fared so well. Take note, I’m talking about competitive sports proper, not recreational activities. As much as White Water and Fish Tales could be a fly in the ointment in my argument, I have considered them more recreational themes, and not sports themes. Taking a brief look at DMD era games and their Pinside Top 100/200/300 rankings (as of September 2, 2014) it reads like one of the worst gameroom lineups in the history of pinball:

Tee’d Off (Gottlieb 1993): Ranked 239
World Cup Soccer (Williams 1994): Ranked 53
Shaq Attaq (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 278
No Fear: Dangerous Sports (Williams 1995): Ranked 95
Frank Thomas’ Big Hurt (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 172
Indianapolis 500 (Williams 1995): Ranked 42
Mario Andretti (Gottlieb 1995): Ranked 283
Flipper Football (Capcom, 1996): Ranked 272
Space Jam (Sega, 1997): Ranked 287
No Good Gofers (Williams 1997): Ranked 32
NBA Fastbreak (Bally 1997): Ranked 108
Striker Extreme/NFL (Stern 2000): Ranked 296
NASCAR/Grand Prix (Stern 2005): Ranked 181
NBA (Stern 2009): Ranked 241

(Williams SlugFest, a DMD game that dispensed baseball cards, was extremely successful, but was not included in the above list, because, after all, it is not really a pinball machine in the strictest sense…it was a weird cross between a pitch ‘n’ bat and a redemption game)

There are notable exceptions in that list, and they all seem to be Bally/Williams titles. No Good Gofers is a fantastic comedic take on golf and is the highest ranked game on the above list, and Indy 500 well deserves its top fifty rank as it is a solid game with some unique Nordman-esque features. World Cup Soccer ‘94 is on everyone’s list of fun and affordable DMD games for both fledgling beginners and collectors with extensive lineups. (Plus, it is the cheapest John Popadiuk title available, so that boosts its in-demand status.) Baseball only appears once with Big Hurt, which was licenced through the Frank Thomas and Reebok camp only, and not endorsed whatsoever by Major League Baseball. Past that, it gets really dicey. Exactly half the games on the list fall into the bottom twenty percent of all games rated on Pinside, which is an extremely amazing, albeit pathetic, feat. Perhaps pinball players are not all that keen to have sports mixed in with their pingames, or maybe designers are so handcuffed by trying to stay true to the rules of the featured sport that it ends up skewing the overall flow and play of the game.

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Williams’ NBA Fastbreak.

Stern already had a kick at the can with two sports licences, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. As I was compiling the above list, I was surprised to see that it was only five years ago that Stern released their NBA title. To me, the game seems much more dated than it actually is, probably due to its licence association with the older Williams NBA Fastbreak release. Why Stern released their own version of an NBA-themed game after Fastbreak appears to be unfathomable, but it was the result of downsizing. The game was originally slated for overseas export only, but once downsizing occurred, a decision was made to produce the completely developed NBA game rather than spend money developing something else. This must be the reason why the design and execution of the game feels wholly incomplete. A few years earlier, Stern’s NFL football-themed machine was an uninspired repackage of Striker Xtreme, their soccer-themed game, whose translite featured a different NFL team, depending on the hometown team of where the game was shipped (or the buyer’s personal preference). Both the NFL and NBA games were met with indifference by the pinball community and exist as lazy attempts at letting the theme make up for lack of unique design elements. Because of this laziness, both games now reside at the bottom of the Pinside Top 100/200/300.

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Stern’s Striker Xtreme: “NFL LE”, with a Pittsburgh Steelers translite.

With Gary Stern’s frequent assertion that his company is “Made in the USA” and with baseball-mad Chicago being his home base, it is curious as to why Stern has not optioned Major League Baseball to partner with. The appeal of baseball is certainly on-par with that of basketball on an international level, with international sales traditionally being a key factor in theme selection. However, there is a fantastic market for such a game here in North America alone. While football relies on tailgating in parking lots, I would argue that much of baseball’s pre-game drinking takes place at sports bars, with Wrigleyville in Chicago being the penultimate example: a row of drinking establishments all vying for pre-game patronage. What better place to put one of these machines than in a sports bar catering to the pre-game crowd?  Especially given the recent resurgence of the bar as a bastion for pinball. I’m sure Major League Baseball could get a few of these machines into the stadiums themselves, as well.

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Jaleco didn’t pay the league, now Ryne Sandberg has to play ball in a generic, cheap lookin’ Cubs uniform.

A Major League Baseball pinball machine would run into the same problem as the NBA machines before it: it would remain “current” only for a season or two before: a) free agency takes over, moving players to the highest bidder, and b) uniform sales falter, forcing teams to consider a change in colour or logo. Whereas themes like AC/DC and X-Men seem to remain timeless, team logos, colours, home cities and player rosters change so quickly in the business of sports today, that it automatically puts a timestamp on a product such as this. One could argue that the DMD player and team appearances could be tweaked, at least somewhat, in code updates…but we all know Stern’s recent track record with that. To erase the team names or star players from the machine, in effect short circuiting the need for a licence, isn’t an option.  A generic baseball theme just wouldn’t cut it. It will always feel cheap and incomplete, like when you see a top athlete in a deodorant commercial playing his sport of choice wearing a generic white uniform and not the uniform of the team he plays for. The deodorant company obviously didn’t have the dough to licence the team logo through the league, and their commercial ends up looking like a top player playing sandlot ball.

Themes of this nature are a hard sell right out of the gate.  What is the crossover of people who REALLY enjoy baseball and REALLY enjoy pinball?  When Stern released Mustang, there was an overwhelming number of people who took the stance: “I’m not a car guy, I’m not buying this machine.” Contrast this with the announcement of AC/DC, Metallica or Star Trek: while pinball collectors/players may not be a fan of that particular genre of music/film, it seemed that they still reserved judgement and played the game before making a final call. You hear far more stories of people stating, “I don’t like ACDC/Metallica music but I bought the game because it plays great”. I think you would have to be prepared for people to dismiss the game right out of the gate with the MLB theme attached.

00-base01With all the problem areas stacking up, it appears that the MLB theme wouldn’t be all that good of an option for Stern. However, I am intrigued by the fact that John Trudeau is now working for Stern, and has a semi-rich history with the theme of baseball. Trudeau designed the Chicago-area favourite Chicago Cubs Triple Play for Premier, a veritable staple in the basements of Cubs fans and in the corners of Wrigleyville bars alike. He also did the stripped-down, “street level” game Silver Slugger, also for Premier. Further, he was commissioned, by Fox Sports, to design a table for the 2005 MLB All-Star game. It looks as if a physical game was never actually built, but instead the design served as a blueprint for a CGI animation backdrop that appeared in both commercials and lead-ins for the annual meeting of baseball’s greatest stars. Even though the table looks to be a mix of old and new pinball elements (heck, it has both numeric 4-player scoring AND a DMD!), it looks as if the table’s physics are correct in its design. Mr. Trudeau recently stated in an interview that he’d like to take another stab at a baseball pintable, which is a good sign. Besides being one of the true workhorses in the industry with a flair for innovation, Mr. Trudeau’s designs tend to be synonymous with Americana–from the drive-in meta-theme of the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the All-American muscle car theme of Mustang–making him the perfect candidate to take a stab at America’s pastime.

00-base06With Trudeau at the helm, here’s my two cents, for free, on how to successfully theme the game. Just as Creature from the Black Lagoon is not actually about the Creature from the Black Lagoon as it is about the overall drive-in experience, I would NOT theme the game around the traditional rules of baseball, instead, I would suggest basing the game around going to the stadium to WATCH a baseball game. Just as you have to complete drive-in features in Creech (such as necking in the back seat of your car of visiting the snack bar), you could do the very same with the stadium experience: buying your ticket, finding your seat, visiting the concessions, catching a foul ball, watching the hotdog or pirogi race in the fifth inning, participating in the seventh inning stretch and so forth. Only in multi-ball, after loading the bases with three locked balls, would you participate in the more traditional rules of a baseball machine by hitting homers and scoring runs. Further, different modes could send you to different stadiums across the major leagues, like Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley Field…kind of like a cross-country baseball tour, exploring the elements that make each stadium unique. With this approach, you could almost get away without the participation of the players association, as specific athletes wouldn’t play as large a role as they would if the rules revolved around the pitching, hitting and fielding aspects of the game.

It seems like a risky move for Stern to return to the killing fields where they were met with underwhelming results in the past, but if anyone can pull it off, they can in the current climate. If there is one thing Stern likes to do, it’s fishing in the same pond: rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, etc. Needless to say, the MLB title would attract more than just pinheads: anyone with a Yankees or Red Sox themed mancave would jump at the chance to add a pinball machine decked out with the logo of their favourite team. Maybe there is something in place that prevents the MLB licence from being acquired? Perhaps the league wants too much control over the final product or maybe it is just too expensive to make the project financially feasible.  More than likely, music, comic book and film licences are easier to execute. However, it seems like an absolute natural fit for both parties, given that baseball and amusement machines have such a rich history together. With all the fanfare of Opening Day, it would be the perfect time to release the machine. So get cracking, Stern…only eight months remain until the first pitch of the 2015 baseball season…

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2 thoughts on “OPINION: Big League Chew

  1. Great article as ever, Rob. I guess one potential problem for Stern is that any baseball-themed game would immediately alienate pretty much everyone outside North Amerca (and possibly Japan), where there is zero interest or knoweldge of the sport. Money paid on a license would also be wasted in these markets because the license would have no recognition. The whole point of licenses is that they have to have global appeal.

    I don’t know what percentage of Sterns sales go outside North America, but I imagine it would be fairly significant – too much certainly to write off and limiting potential sales to North America

    Games like Creech are different because although they are all about the all-American experience, everyone on the pinball buying world understands the concept of snack bars and back seat hanky-panky…

    Having said that, I agree with you 100% about AC/DC and Metallica. I am no fan of either of those bands but I love the games, so maybe I am completely wrong about baseball…

    • Thanks for the reply, Paul. I’m wondering if the Australian contingent would be keen on a baseball pin. The country is brimming with pinball enthusiasm and is making fantastic inroads in baseball on the world stage. If the markets in Cuba, Dominican Republic and Venezuela were stronger, the theme would be a no-brainer. There is some discussion that baseball has lost its title as “America’s Pastime” over the past fifteen years or so…a pinball machine would be the perfect tool to try to right the ship.

      On a related note, over on Twitter, there was some discussion about MLB being out of touch with today’s youth, thus making it a bad theme to attract “youth” to the game of pinball. I disagree, inasmuch as quite a few themes that Stern has chosen have not been youth/family friendly…and they just announced a guaranteed bloodfest in the form of the Walking Dead. AC/DC does nothing to attract “youth”. Neither does Mustang. On the other hand, all of the minor league parks I visited this summer were loaded to the brim with families, kids of all ages. If memory serves, NBA Fastbreak came out at the same time the league was trying to rebrand its image to be more youth friendly, as well. I think the MLB is trying to steer their ship in the same direction.

      Lots of moving parts here, for sure.

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