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 Baseball may 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.
That lasting cultural impact wasn’t preordained, with the game coming from a studio new to sports creations and embodying neither the hyperrealistic trend of modern sports titles nor the complete zaniness of classic arcade machines. The original wasn’t a commercial success, and the franchise survived thanks only to conviction and an optimistic outlook from a studio head. And within a too-short period, the franchise peaked before its quality cratered, as later entries and expansions into consoles moved away from the loving qualities that helped the first games pop. Those initial titles were simple, accessible, and incredibly fun, and two decades later, fans uphold them as a cult phenomenon.
Mirkovich is an illustrator and animator by trade and a sports obsessive and gamer by blood. As the oldest of five boys, he grew up playing all manner of literal backyard sports, as well as sports games in arcades, and while spending part of his childhood on a military base in Korea, he came to see sports as a fount of interpersonal connection that drew together kids of various backgrounds.
Similar to the game itself, the underlying motive behind Backyard Baseball’s creation was simple. “That’s a thing, kids playing sports,” Mirkovich remembers thinking. “I’ve seen movies about it, so it’s got to be a genre. Why isn’t there a game in that genre?” Youth sports movies had experienced a renaissance in the early ’90s—including The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, and Little Big League—though Mirkovich’s greatest influence was an older film. His initial idea resembled a story line from the 1976 film Bad News Bears, as it would involve controlling a team of characters from the neighborhood over a full season and thereby traversing a preplanned, antics-filled journey.
Mirkovich consulted with others at the company to sharpen his idea before formally pitching it, and it shifted to the typical sports-game structure, with options for single-game and season play and a more concentrated focus on the actual baseball. Even though the updated idea moved away from Humongous’s standard slate of adventure stories with an educational goal, it still catered to the same young audience the studio targeted with its Freddi Fish and Pajama Sam franchises. “[Other] sports games were kind of moving past kids, getting more buttons, more everything, you know?” Mirkovich says. “Bigger and bigger, and harder and harder for a kid to play.”
But Humongous had never made a sports game before, and Mirkovich says that for at least six months, maybe a year, his pitch proposal sat, undeveloped, on studio cofounder Ron Gilbert’s desk. Then the Seattle Mariners started winning. Humongous was headquartered in Woodinville, Washington, about a half hour northeast of the old Kingdome, and as the Mariners surged in 1995 to reach their first postseason, baseball fever infected the office. It wasn’t just that the local team was winning; the Mariner bandwagon was a fun ride, too, with stars Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Edgar Martínez sparking interest in the club. Suddenly, Mirkovich says, a baseball project seemed an appealing idea, and one day, he showed up for work to hear Gilbert announce, “You know what? I think we want to make this baseball game.”
Three men were in charge of innovating for the company’s first sports game: Richard Moe, a programmer who admits he was “more of a Dungeons & Dragons guy [than] a sports person”; Mark Peyser, a graphic designer and self-described sports outsider; and Mirkovich, who shared an office with his two coworkers and supplied the game’s athletic expertise. Their overarching goals were twofold: keep the gameplay realistic, or at least as realistic as a game depicting 7-year-olds launching 400-foot home runs could be, and insert as much whimsy as possible. For the former goal, Moe’s team twisted the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) motto into KISASS—keep it simple and sophisticated, stupid. “We could have easily taken shortcuts and made, you know, the results of a hit be a random number and it goes to a random predefined position,” Moe says. “But we didn’t want to shortchange the experience because we wanted this to feel like a real simulation.”
The equations weren’t all standard baseball fare, though, as the programming team had to simulate fantastical elements on a baseball field, too. The most obvious are the power-ups, inspired by those in Mario Kart, which Mirkovich calls a “game changer” in terms of amplifying the title’s kid-friendliness. By completing in-game achievements like turning a double play, players could earn special, single-use bonuses, such as an unhittable fireball pitch or an automatic home run swing, called the Aluminum Power bat. Peyser, the Mario player who sparked this feature, says that discarded ideas for additional power-ups included the opportunity to swing a tennis racket and the placement of a target in the outfield, like a garbage can, that would be worth 10 runs when hit.
The baseline setup also required tinkering to accommodate other Backyard quirks, like the variety of field surfaces (cement, dirt, grass, and more), whose eccentricities gave gameplay the extra half-twist it needed to separate from the standard electronic baseball experience. Cement Gardens reimagined a child’s accessories as bases—a used pizza box for home, a frisbee for first—while the Sandy Flats surface slowed kids’ foot speed and Tin Can Alley’s massive outfield walls, molded out of a cityscape, suppressed home runs and turned each game into a small-ball experiment. Even the game’s fields possessed a personality, but its greatest draw were the personalities belonging to its cast.
The first Backyard Baseball game included no professionals, but rather a roster of co-ed cartoon creations. The Humongous team ultimately settled on a plan for 30 players to fill two lineups and allow for alternate selections, but that total seemed a scary proposition for Peyser, the game’s design lead. “My heart is starting to sink thinking of the workload,” he recalls—until that brainstorming session, he hadn’t even known how many players were on a single baseball team.
He began with embryonic sketches—little doodles and “concept drawings of kids”—to formulate a style that matched the game’s youthful tone. In these early character mockups, Peyser borrowed principles from the Peanuts comic strip, building bodies with “mostly primitive shapes” and keeping flourishes to a minimum. An early model for Kimmy Eckman, the first player he drew, carried more than a passing resemblance to Peppermint Patty. “I was thinking more in terms of, ‘I want tall kids, I want short kids, I want fat, I want thin, I want all these different physicalities,’” Peyser says. “I looked at [the Backyard] cast as a series of shapes, just trying to get diversity in every dimension I could.”
Personality-wise, the team drew on both fictional and real-world inspiration for its creations. It modeled Lisa Crocket off MTV’s pessimistic, bespectacled Daria and Maria Luna off the Looney Tunes’ cutesy, hug-loving Elmyra. Pete Wheeler was a creative descendant of Forrest Gump—“not too bright, but fast,” Moe remembers with a laugh. Meanwhile, Kenny Kawaguchi was based on a former classmate of Peyser’s who excelled at sports while in a wheelchair. Like Moe, Reese Worthington had asthma; like Moe’s wife, Ashley, and sister-in-law, Sidney, the Webber twins liked tennis more than baseball.
Those personality profiles manifested in a variety of ways. They showed up in the design, of course, and in the accompanying character movements on the field; animator Lara Schneider remembers molding the characters’ movements to match their personalities. A shy character would “be kind of hesitant to come up to bat,” she explains, and “maybe [a] particular character is a really slow runner, or likes to dillydally, or you know, likes to tip-toe or do ballet as she prances on to home plate.”
Those traits also appeared in music. Because Mathis was working with only 30 main characters instead of a whole league’s worth, he was able to craft individualized theme songs for each character, which played when their informational cards were clicked or as they rounded the bases after hitting a home run. The character bios gave Mathis a sense of each one’s “vibe,” he says, “which I know is kind of a squishy term, but there wasn’t really a science to it. I tried to capture the aspects of their personality if I could.” Headphone-wearing rocker Achmed Khan’s melody paid homage to Van Halen’s “Jump,” melancholy Crocket’s song was a disjointed trombone number, and “neighborhood clown” Kiesha Phillips’s tune evoked a late-night TV theme.
Others received even more elaborate compositions reflecting their character tics. Pete “had a drawl that was sort of cowboyish,” Mathis says, so his theme music was a “wandering, weird, piano honky-tonky kind of piece, but it was slow, like an old cowboy kind of bringing it in at the end of the day.” Kenny had wheels, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, so his tune embodied a “rocking, racing kind of a theme, because that’s what he was; he’s kind of a hotrod.”
The running theme through all of the character elements was a desire for the distinctive; the designers wanted all 30 players to stand out with at least one unique characteristic, or what Peyser calls the “soft focus of caricature.” These idiosyncrasies sprang forth as the developers forged a fictional ecosystem to match real-world neighborhoods.
Accordingly, in an industry overrun with white male protagonists, the Backyard creators also aimed for racial and gender diversity. Half of the game’s 30 characters are girls, and the same proportion is nonwhite. “One of the things that we wanted to do was make a game that’s approachable,” Moe says. “There’s [a] relatability that comes from saying, ‘Hey, that kid’s kind of like me,’ or ‘Hey, I know someone who's like that.’ I think especially for the kids market, we wanted to make a game that made them feel, ‘Hey, we can play sports, too.’”
The girls were just as likely to possess athletic talents as the boys. The game’s best double-play combination, for instance, involved two black girls, one of whom—the backward-hatted, gum-popping Stephanie Morgan—was the biggest baseball fan of the bunch. “We had these stereotypes in our minds, and then we twist them around a bit, like let’s make the baseball nut be a black girl,” Moe remembers. “We kind of had a bucket of kid types and a bucket of ethnicities and genders, and we kind of threw it up in the air and let it all mix up.”
Humongous also deviated from the norm not just by including minority-race characters, but by drawing them as polychromatic. “It’s always bugged me when, in a cartoon film or TV show or something, it’s like, all the black characters will be exactly the same color,” Peyser says. “Like, ‘Oh, and this is the black color.’ That just seems so dumb.” A child playing the game might not notice the shading variation between Stephanie and Ricky Johnson, but Peyser hoped that better reflecting the real-world “spectrum of skin tone” would make the game more authentic.
The commitment to gender diversity, meanwhile, extended beyond the confines of the Eckman Acres diamond. Just a few years after the first woman did play-by-play for an MLB game, Backyard announcer Sunny Day was a black girl. It’s possible that she’s the only female broadcaster in the history of sports computer or video games.
“She was my favorite,” says producer Aimee Paganini, who worked on the Backyard series for a decade starting in 1998. “I loved her. I thought she was smart, sassy, funny, and in control.” Moe can’t remember how the idea of a female announcer originated, just that “once it was brought up, we said of course. … The idea of the wannabe newscaster, wannabe TV personality character, I mean, why couldn’t that be a little girl?”
While not as enamored of wacky metaphors as her announcing partner, Vinnie the Gooch, Sunny still recited a host of memorable catchphrases, from her chipper “hi ho!” greeting at the start of a broadcast to her ecstatic “Goodbyyyyyeeeee, basebaaaaalllll” home run call. True to Backyard form, even the announcers evinced distinct personalities: Vinnie was supposed to be a young Howard Cosell, voice actor Dolores Rogers recalls, while Sunny was a know-it-all ahead of her years.
“My idea was that she was a huge sports fan and it was not cool,” says Jen Taylor, the voice of video game heroines Cortana (Halo) and Princess Peach (Mario), who received her start by voicing Sunny in Baseball. “This was the one place where it was cool for her to be a sports fan. … She’s a really fun, precocious kid. … She organized those games. She put them all together. It was all on her. And her little blazer? I mean, come on.”
While the cast at large was the star of the Backyard series, the true standout—the Polaris amid the fictional cosmos—was Pablo Sanchez, the greatest player and the most beloved, both at the time and two decades later. Recently, Paganini says, her local barista learned she had worked on the Backyard games and announced, “I love Pablo”—which is representative of the kind of encounter Paganini experiences regarding the character. “Everybody’s like, ‘Pablo Pablo Pablo,’” she says. “They always bring him up. I mean, they’ll remember some of the other players, sometimes, but when they talk about the heart and soul of it, they’re talking about Pablo.”
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE GREATEST BASEBALL PLAYER OF ALL TIME pic.twitter.com/u4XcQtBKS7— SB Nation (@SBNation) August 18, 2017
That unmatched enthusiasm makes Pablo’s origin even more surprising: The game’s creators conceived of him as a gag. His character design implies as much, as even in a cast of caricatures, Pablo looms with the most cartoonish proportions. His head approximates Charlie Brown’s, big and round with a goofy grin looped across. (That’s right—the best fictional baseball player in history was made to look like the worst.) Pablo’s hat is taller even than that oversized head. He might also be the shortest character in the game, and he waddles more than sprints. Character sketches specify that his “shirt curls around top of pot-belly,” with one outline reminding that he’s always drawn with an “‘IN-Y,’ not an ‘OUT-Y’”—a vital clarification, as his belly button is always visible.
And yet, his shadow is the largest in the game, his home runs the most titanic, his theme music the most likely to inspire an impromptu dance party. Pablo truly is Backyard Baseball’s heart and soul.
That connection runs deeper than just Pablo’s starring role; just as the game itself was inspired by Bad News Bears, so too was its most talented player. In the 1976 film, the protagonists’ team rosters two out-of-shape Mexican boys with the rare line of dialogue and the even rarer appearance in the lineup. What if, Peyser wondered, those players had been the best on the team, but the Bears never benefited because the coach judged the boys’ books by their distinctly unathletic covers? “We thought it was funny, that the best player would be the least-likely-looking player,” Peyser recalls. “So, it kind of started as a little bit of a joke. I think it was a great thing to do, though. It made a compelling character.”
The hope was that children would ignore Pablo at first, then gradually discover his prodigious talents through repeated play. “It would only be, ‘Oh, man, I got stuck with the little kid again!’” Peyser says. “And then you’d play with him and you’d realize, ‘Holy wow, he’s awesome!’”
Two issues emerged with this deceptive plan. First, the creators decided to display skill ratings for each player, and the character nicknamed the “Secret Weapon” stood out with a perfect score in hitting, running, and fielding, plus a near-top mark in pitching. Second, it took only one swing to notice that his skills weren’t so secret; when testing rudimentary versions of the game around the office, “it was instantaneously obvious that Pablo was the superstar. Just automatic,” Peyser says. “That’s when you realize, ‘OK, well, that whole secret thing was a dumb idea.’”
Other parts of Pablo’s invention are indebted to the mid-’90s Mariners—Backyard’s heart and soul again mimicking the broader game at each beat. His compressed batting stance was a simplified version of Edgar Martínez’s, while Alex Rodriguez—who in 1996 finished second in AL MVP voting as a 20-year-old—attracted the Humongous crew to the idea of a young, Latino luminary. “I don’t think you can draw a straight line from Alex Rodriguez to Pablo Sanchez, but I think there’s a wiggly line that connects those two,” Peyser says.
One of the most memorable aspects of the Backyard universe’s most memorable character is his theme song, whose background sparks its own tale of poetry and cultural fusion. Like with the other characters, Mathis’s approach began with a consideration of Pablo’s personality. “He’s sort of unassuming. But he's kind of regal, you know?” the composer says. “He’s above smack-talking and stuff, right? He's just having a good time and playing a great game, and I was like, man, he should have something really majestic.” Mathis started with a paso doble’s trumpet riff, but just lifting that sound was “too direct, too uninspired,” and also too traditional for a modern player. So he added an R&B-driven bassline and blended in a flamenco’s guitar, and he hit a musical home run as towering as a typical Pablo blast. “The elements all just seemed to really cascade and support each other,” Mathis says. “What can I say—I mean, it’s one of my favorite pieces from the title.”
The developers’ largest misstep came when lending their star a voice. Although a hidden line of dialogue revealed that Pablo speaks English, he was written to communicate almost exclusively in Spanish. But the casting call in Woodinville didn’t turn up any Latino voice actors, so the part went to an auditioner who had taken language classes in school and sounded authentic to the non-Spanish-speaking casting crew. As the game was being finalized, a Colombian programmer working on the game heard Pablo’s dialogue and exclaimed, “Oh my God, that’s a white dude who’s trying to speak Spanish,” Moe remembers, but by then, it was too late in the production process to change.
Like with all the best athletic legends, parts of Pablo’s backstory are shrouded in mystery. None of his creators remember how he received his name, for instance, and they’re split in their memory of how the Secret Weapon became not just the best baseball player, but the best all-around athlete in the neighborhood. Moe, for one, remembers an indirect approach. “It wasn’t the intent to make Pablo be the dominant character across everything, that’s for sure,” he says. “We didn’t think he’d turn into the phenomenon that he did.”
Alternately, in Mirkovich’s telling, Pablo emerged naturally as the destroyer of Backyard worlds once the series expanded past the diamond. The same 30 characters appeared in each game to further the friendly neighborhood vibe, and while the lowly baseball players were granted skills in other sports, the characters’ base attributes couldn’t change: A fast player stayed fast, for instance, and a strong pitcher translated as a capable quarterback. Because Pablo already had such multifarious talents, he had to dominate everywhere. “We just said, ‘We like how Pablo is, we’re going to keep him that way,’ and it kind of filtered through the rest of the games,” Mirkovich says. “He is that guy. There was always that guy in your neighborhood that was amazing. So why not have that?”
So Pablo became the best soccer striker in the neighborhood, and later the best quarterback and point guard. In the two decades that followed, he also expanded his cultural impact: The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective projected Pablo’s real-world statline (and also speculated on his potential steroid use), and the Cespedes Family BBQ duo—the internet’s foremost Backyard hype men—created a fake documentary trailer in his honor. In a 2016 game, Twins minor leaguer Daniel Palka used Pablo's theme for his own walk-up music.
The Acclaimed Successor
At his technological birth, Pablo was the best player in his town. Within three years, he was out-slugging the best players in the world in Backyard Baseball 2001, which reached shelves during the 2000 MLB season and featured the logos and nicknames of every MLB team in addition to child-sized versions of 31 baseball stars who mixed with the 30 standard Backyard characters as roster-building options.
Humongous’s first partnership with a professional league had come with the inaugural edition of Backyard Football in 1999, which included eight pro players, but for its second baseball title, the studio expanded its ambitions and added one from every MLB team to widen the game’s national appeal. The only exception was the Cincinnati Reds, who were honored with two players—Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.—after the latter was traded from the Mariners as the development team was finishing the game. “I don’t think any of us could have stomached to leave him out,” animator Haldi says. “We were already losing him, right? To the Reds.”
Professional leagues were excited to work with a company whose audience skewed so young, and future Backyard games also featured pros from the MLS, NBA, and NHL. “We had such a unique relationship because nobody else was doing what we were doing,” Paganini says. “We were the only voice to the young kids from those major leagues.”
For the 2001 baseball game, the negotiations with MLB and the MLB Players Association were painless. “It was a great game. It was fantastic,” remembers John Olshan, who oversaw the MLBPA’s licensing agreements from 1999 to 2007. The MLBPA liked that Humongous’s two chief priorities were simulating realistic baseball action and highlighting each player it designed. “What our research showed was that fans want to engage with the players,” Olshan says. “If you promote the players as well as the league, that increases fan connection. Backyard put a lot of personality into the [MLB] players.”
Many of the pros were obvious selections: Derek Jeter got the nod for the Yankees, Randy Johnson for the Diamondbacks, and cover athlete Cal Ripken Jr. for the Orioles. For other teams, though, the choices weren’t as easy. Lacking a true standout, the Twins were represented by outfielder Marty Cordova, who hit just 14 homers in the height of the steroid era in 1999 and never made an All-Star team, and was selected only as a well-rounded complement to the sluggers who were locks to appear in the game. The MLBPA didn’t object to any of the picks. “They had really good taste in the players they chose,” Olshan says. “They chose guys who were wholesome and kind of represented the game in a great way at the time.” For some of the pros, “at the time” is the operative phrase; since the game’s release, around a third have been implicated in the sport’s various steroid scandals. Asked about that dissonance from a 2017 vantage point, Paganini protests with a laugh, “We didn’t know that then!”
After the player selection came the design and animation phase, during which the Humongous artists enjoyed more creative freedom than their counterparts at traditional sports game studios. “If you were designing the characters for Madden, you’d have to pretty much make them look the way they do in real life,” artist Tom Verre says. With the Backyard game, though, it was “all about taking something that was identifiable about the major league players and just bringing it into that Backyard Baseball style.” That meant emphasizing the gap in Ken Griffey Jr.’s front teeth, Randy Johnson’s beanstalk legs, and Nomar Garciaparra’s lengthy pre-pitch routine. It also meant ensuring that the characters looked like smaller versions of their adult selves, rather than just how they looked as kids. “I had pictures of [young Derek] Jeter wearing full baseball gear, taking swings, and then when I drew that real-life-kid version of Jeter, nobody recognized him,” Verre says.
Difficulties arose when players didn’t exhibit a particularly identifiable trait. “I think Shawn Green was the one I had trouble with because he’s just sort of this guy,” Verre says. Even though they could experiment more than designers at other studios, they still had to create realistic depictions of those players. “With the Backyard kids, you’d just be goofy with them,” animator Michael Baran says. “When Dante [Robinson] swings the bat, he spins 360 before he stops.” That kind of animation wasn’t feasible with, say, Cordova or Green, who already had established, if staid, mannerisms.
The design team succeeded in creating a set of player renderings that both meshed with the Backyard ethos and didn’t stray so far from reality that the MLBPA would be irritated. None of the designers from the 2001 edition remember much interference, which wasn’t a given, Olshan says, as the MLBPA had disapproved of player designs in other companies’ games when they looked physically inaccurate. Verre remembers receiving only one complaint from the players association about a character portrayal—that of then-Angels slugger Mo Vaughn, who in initial drawings was too “round.”
When translating the pro kids’ skills to the Backyard ballfields, the hope was to “not make them feel too overwhelmingly popular against the Backyard kids,” Haldi says. “We wanted to keep the Backyard kids relevant and desirable in the middle of a bunch of pros.” They accomplished this goal partly by exaggerating the pros’ deficiencies, which explains why Mark McGwire is so slow and Randy Johnson is such a poor hitter in the game. But largely, they didn’t need to take extraordinary measures to keep the fictional characters relevant. “Kids had their favorites already,” Haldi says. “They weren’t going to let go of their favorites, the Pablos and the Achmeds and the Kieshas that were really good players. Kids still played with them all the time.” Indeed, even in a clubhouse full of future Hall of Famers, Pablo existed at the far end of the bell curve.
On some level, it’s a surprise that Baseball 2001 exists at all. None of the 1997 game’s developers remember the original game selling particularly well at first; a 1998 New York Times profile of Shelley Day, Gilbert’s other half atop the Humongous hierarchy, didn’t reference the Backyard series at all. Mathis remembers attending a meeting after the first game had come out in which studio higher-ups were concerned about the “lack of performance of Backyard Baseball and whether we really should make a second sports title,” he says. “And I remember Ron Gilbert goes, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not going to give up until we have at least three of these out there.’ … I still kind of look back at that and marvel, because I don't know why Ron believed that. But he did. And that's what did it.”
The next year, Soccer was a hit, and then Football and Baseball 2001 were, too, and more sequels after. The series allowed Humongous to top the “education software” charts and, more broadly, matched or exceeded sales totals from other top computer game franchises like Civilization and RollerCoaster Tycoon. Within five years of the first game’s release, the franchise exceeded 5 million total copies sold, and in December 2001, as Backyard placed basketball, baseball, and football titles near the top of computer game sales lists, an executive with the studio’s new parent company said, “The Backyard franchise has surpassed our wildest expectations, and shows no sign of weakening anytime soon.”
The series impressed those in the industry by succeeding not just as a kids’ game but as a sports title, amid a crowding market for gamers’ attentions. Humongous received a Kids’ Choice Awards nomination in 2002, and representatives of the professional leagues raved about the partnership. “There were some games that we licensed at the time that looked phenomenal but were cold, and [Baseball 2001] wasn’t,” Olshan says. “It was fun. Just what I really liked about it was the feedback that we got on it. Kids loved it. Players’ kids loved it. I talk to people who are like, 'Oh yeah, that was my introduction to baseball.'”
Olshan adds that the games’ biggest fan was Alex Rodriguez, who, in addition to partially inspiring Pablo, appeared as the Mariner representative in 2001. In the mid-2000s, Rodriguez appeared on the cover of a console edition of the game, and at the next season’s All-Star game, Olshan asked the MVP if he needed any briefing on the game before a press event. “And he just looks at me and he starts reeling off facts about it. I was impressed,” Olshan remembers. “One of the biggest stars in the game just right off the tip of his tongue knew so much about this product.”
Nearly every creator interviewed for this story shared an anecdote about younger present-day acquaintances expressing enthusiasm upon learning that they worked on the Backyard games. For instance, Paganini, who now works with a number of fellow Humongous alumni at Big Fish Games in Seattle, says she “blew the mind” of several coworkers who “grew up on our games.” Moe believes that this legacy results largely from Humongous’s underdog status in the sports arena, which forged the game’s persona. Had the studio “focus-tested to death,” the magic of the Backyard cast would have veered toward the blandness of other sports game lineups. “When you focus-test, my opinion is you tend to find the lowest common denominator,” Moe says. “There were plenty of other sports games where the characters or players had no personality. We didn’t want that. We wanted personality.”
Still, he finds the game’s retrospective fandom a surprise. “I don’t remember thinking that it was a big hit,” Moe says. “I certainly didn’t anticipate that it would get the critical acclaim that it's gotten and getting all this nostalgia coming back 20 years later.”
That nostalgia is important because it’s all that Backyard purists have left. After 2001 or so, each successive addition to the series—and there were plenty, for computers, consoles, and eventually mobile devices—felt less fresh, and a little less fun, as Humongous’s corporate adventures led to outsourced creative work and programming, a made-over voice cast, and an updated artistic sensibility. In the ’90s, “super cartoony was popular” in gaming character art, animator Schneider says, in the vein of classic Disney and Warner Bros. animations. But later editions morphed that doodled style; Pablo’s look went from unathletic caricature to fraternity president. That modernized, 3-D-optimized treatment is anathema to the initial creators. “It’s so real it’s unreal,” Schneider says.
“The characters we made were caricatures,” Moe adds. “They were not real. They were silly. And when you started to morph them into real kids, it became less interesting.”
The gameplay suffered accordingly, as the animations that once ran smoothly grew buggy and the atmosphere that was once as cuddly as Luanne Lui’s teddy bear grew more distant. “I don’t think the game was as good when it [wasn’t] the same labor of love,” Olshan says. “It became part of a more corporate company that had different types of pressures on the developers.”
A 2015 mobile game—the series’ first new output in five years—met with frustrated reviews (a representative offering: “Unfortunately not like the old game. Just not well made or fun to play”) and is no longer downloadable, though the millennial public still thirsts for an app worthy of the Backyard moniker. The franchise has fallen dormant, after its corporate owner during the app’s development, the Day6 Sports Group, was acquired by a European investment group last year. (Jim Wagner, Day6’s CEO, did not respond to requests for comment.) The Backyard Sports Twitter account was last active in February 2016, and the company’s official website no longer loads. A rumored feature film based on the series hasn’t produced any news updates since March 2016, though Stuart Avi Savitsky, an executive at Crystal City Entertainment, writes in an email that the project is “currently in development and we are actively working to move it forward.”
There might never be another entry to the Backyard canon, and any addition after that recent meandering history would struggle to approach the franchise’s long-ago peak in quality. But what heights it once climbed: whimsical yet sophisticated, easy to learn yet hard to put down. Its essence was simple, building on a ball, a field, a sunny day (or Sunny Day), and some friends. “Kids do get together and play sports, and play ball together, and for that small amount of time, they’re on the same team,” Mirkovich says.
After the Backyard pioneer’s family moved from Korea to the States, his family’s Washington home sat next to the “perfect” Wiffle ball field. “We called it a stadium,” Mirkovich remembers. “You had the home run area, you had the out-of-bounds areas and all these different, special rules you’d have to create—the frisbee is second base and the side of the house for first base and all these things. People would come from other neighborhoods to play on our field because it was that fun.”
“I remember a lot of that stuff,” he says. “Creating a field out of nothing. All that stuff is real to me.”
As part of the Backyard team, he helped create a town full of fields, out of whole cloth, plus players to run their bases. They’re all real to him, and to the proud developers at a now-defunct company, and to the millions of children who clicked a frenzied mouse as their favorite fictional athletes pranced toward home.