Monday, August 01, 2005

Death of MLB Showdown - Part 1

I want to talk about the death of MLB Showdown.

MLB Showdown is a trading card game, designed by Wizards of the Coast. It’s a baseball card game, similar in concept to the old Strat-o-Matic baseball game, but with actual baseball cards and a collectable scheme of booster packs and starter packs.

The game is the only game where I played some role in its design and layout. It also recently died, that is to say its latest release, the 2005 Trading Deadline release, is the last release of the game you will ever see.

I am saddened by the death of this product. I also think it’s death taught me a lot about the gaming industry and both the good and the bad of a company called Wizards of the Coast.

I know a lot about how and why MLB Showdown failed and thought it might be interesting to write down what I know. I am going to break this post up into several parts, as I have a lot to say.

First of all a disclaimer:

There are some who will say that some of my criticism of Wizards in these posts is jealousy, specifically because I no longer work at Wizards of the Coast, and therefore my criticism is rooted in that. Well, that’s a difficult accusation to defend, I’ll just say that my job now pays better, has more prestige and makes me happier than any gig I had at Wizards. Not to say I didn’t enjoy working at Wizards, I did, I enjoyed working there a great deal, but I’m happy where I am now too.

So yes, I’m going to criticize Wizards in my posts, but I am also going to praise them. I am the first to admit Wizards has great people in it, great ideas in it and still has my overall respect and admiration.


The game was released in the late spring of 2000 and was originally designed by Tom Wiley. I don’t have much to say about Tom Wiley, I did not know him well. I watched him demo the game a few times to kids one day and he seemed genuinely proud of his game.

Wiley developed the pitch/swing die roll mechanic that is largely the trademark of the game and he came up with the idea of the strategy deck. It was RE Dalrymple, a play tester for the original release of the game, who came up with the Showdown brand name.

The interesting story behind the Showdown name is it was originally disliked by many people at Wizards. Now however the name ‘Showdown’ will be extended to new games that will actually replace MLB Showdown. These will be non-sport games.

MLB Showdown was released with much fanfare and ballyhoo. It was released during WOTC’s “hey day”, the company was still knee-deep in riches from its Pokemon trading card game.

Because Wizards was ‘fat’ from the Pokemon earnings, the company’s optimism and its expectations were vastly inflated. I saw earning projections for such horrible IPs as the X-Men TCG that Wizards’ produced that were outrageous and thus fell far short of expectations. WOTC just kept thinking they could crank out smash hits back then, when in reality Wizards really hasn’t had a “hit” in years and survives these days solely off of the revenue from Magic the Gathering and the few pieces of change that D&D delivers on an annual basis.

MLB Showdown suffered from inflated expectations as well, and indeed, in retrospect, it’s a miracle the game survived as long as it did. WOTC expected huge sales numbers for MLB Showdown and while initial base set sales were arguably quite healthy, the bloated expectations surrounding Wizards at that time, made MLB Showdown a disappointment in the eyes that matter most in the company.

One of MLB Showdown’s saving graces however was it received some fairly strong reviews from the gaming community as a whole (as opposed to other IP related games Wizards came with in 2000, which were universally panned). The game also out-performed any other Wizards product that year, other than their core stable of product. In short it was the strongest ‘new game’ , totally outperforming even strong intellectual properties such as Bugs Bunny, the Looney Tunes game associated with Bugs was an outright flop.

The game also seemed to open up a new channel, the baseball card store. This wasn’t nearly pervasive as people might think most Showdown sales were channeled through regular gaming stores and online sales. However, it was enough of a ‘new’ opportunity that once coupled with the fact Wizards license with Major League Baseball could extend for five years, meant Showdown would continue into 2001.

So at the end of 2000, despite a lot of problems and despite a slew of product being shredded and destroyed because it was left 'unsold', Wizards decided to continue with the brand in 2001.

This was a significant decision, because when the numbers were all tallied, the fact of the matter is, MLB Showdown cost Wizards money. It not only was *not* profitable it was taking money away from Wizards. Also it was a significant decision because MLB Showdown was not liked by many significant personas in Wizards.

Many of the ‘high minds’ at Wizards felt there was no cross-over between an average ‘gamer’ and an average ‘sports fan’. Indeed, many exhibited downright disgust that Wizards was attempting a sports-related IP. In their minds, it was breaking the ‘heart’ of what Wizards was, or at least was in their minds.

To this day, some of the antipathy towards sports related games still exists within Wizards and while those people are few in number and are by far, a small minority, I can tell you some of them are downright happy that Wizards decided to finally pull the feeding tube out of MLB Showdown.


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