Nick Mirkovich and Erik Haldi spent the 2001 baseball season dealing with biting trash talk. The two computer game designers were co-owners in an industry fantasy league in which every team owner came from gaming studios that had licenses with Major League Baseball, and all the big names were represented. Microsoft and 2K and EA had rosters, and so did a relative minnow amid those giants: Humongous Entertainment, Mirkovich and Haldi’s employer, and a company that had produced educational computer games for children for five years before branching out into sports.
Competing in a standard fantasy baseball league against opponents with “big staffs and these big data analytics,” Haldi says, the Humongous Melonheads were the underdog. But Haldi and Mirkovich knew the sport, and the two Mariners fans shrewdly drafted Seattle second baseman Bret Boone, who wound up finishing his career year with 37 home runs and a league-leading 141 RBI, and added middle relievers to shore up their team’s late-season ratio stats on their way to the title. “Everybody talked trash [all] year until we won, and then no one said anything,” Humongous animator Haldi says. “It was really kind of funny. The little guy, the little cartoon game, won the fantasy league.”
Maybe their competition shouldn’t have been so surprised. With Backyard Baseball, that initial sports project in 1997, Humongous had already exhibited a mastery of one kind of fictional baseball, and with Pablo Sanchez, that project’s greatest star, it had already proved that the little guy was actually the best bet to win.
Twenty years ago this October 10, the first Backyard Baseball game hit shelves. Over the next few years, Humongous turned one game into a franchise, adding soccer, football, and basketball titles at the property’s peak popularity and placing atop the sales charts for all computer games, not just sports titles, in the early 2000s.
Cast against 2017’s complex and gritty gaming landscape, Backyard Baseballmay seem anachronistic. The original game is point and click, requiring only the left half of a computer mouse, and consists only of bright colors, sporting a palette of pinks and yellows, as the sun always shines; even its buoyant background music evokes a stroll to the ballfield on a sunny day. “It’s a little bit old-fashion-y,” composer Rhett Mathis says. “I wanted to capture a little sense of the nostalgia of baseball. That’s why there’s brush drums and finger snaps and an upright bass. It’s kind of classic.”
Twenty years later, the title is a classic, too. The original allowed players to build a roster from a cast of 30 fictional child athletes, while a baseball sequel more than doubled the player pool with young versions of MLB stars. Amid the broader series’ success, the 1997 and 2001 Baseball games still resonate particularly strongly and inspire passion, loyalty, and boundless nostalgia from the now–young adults who played as children. August’s MLB Players Weekend, in which players could customize their uniforms with nicknames and creative cleats, recalled Backyard Baseball, leading a pair of official team Twitter accounts to take advantage of the comparison. The Phillies narrated a win over the Cubs with strange lines from the Backyard color commentator, while the Athletics displayed their lineup card on a familiar clipboard.