Exclusive Interview | Mookie Betts Discusses R.B.I. Baseball 16 Cover

Boston Red Sox slugger Mookie Betts is celebrating a stellar first season in Major League Baseball (in which he batted .291 with 18 home runs, 77 RBI, 92 runs scored and 21 stolen bases) with a virtual honor. The 23-year-old center fielder is the second younger cover athlete in the history of MLB video games. He graces the cover of R.B.I. Baseball 16, which MLBAM will release this spring for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and Mac (via Steam), and mobile Android and iOS devices.

“It truly is an honor,” Betts said in an exclusive interview. “Every kid dreams that he’ll someday grace a cover like Griffey and Jeter, but we all know that’s a pretty farfetched dream. To now have a cover that will forever be etched in time is pretty special.”

Jamie Leece, vice president of games at MLBAM, said Betts was chosen because he’s among the game’s best young stars. And the way he plays and impacts the game, both offensively and defensively, is symbolic to many of the new features added for R.B.I .16.

“Much like the way Red Sox fans clearly were drawn to his play and personality, we knew Mookie would be natural fit for RBI fans as this year’s cover athlete,” Leece said. “Whether he’s creating scoring opportunities from the lead-off spot, hitting home runs, stealing bases or making the play in the outfield, Mookie’s ability to use those all-around skills to impact a game are the same facets of R.B.I. 16 gameplay we felt would make for a fun and competitive way for fans to play a MLB video game.”

MLBAM unveiled the cover art today before thousands of Red Sox fans at the team’s Winter Weekend. Betts finished 2015 – his first full season with the Red Sox — ranked among the American League’s top 20 hitters in many offensive categories, including batting average, stolen bases, OPS (on-base plus slugging), slugging percentage, runs scored, and hits.

Betts is one of a growing number of rising stars who weren’t around when the original R.B.I. games paved the way for today’s realistic video game simulations.

“They’ve done a great job bringing back a game with such great history,” Betts said. “I was just a wee little kid when the game went away, but there’s been growing excitement around it in clubhouses since it came back in 2014.”

Speaking of clubhouses, there are several around the league that still have the original R.B.I. arcade machine. As for the Red Sox, gaming is part of the game.

“We have a bunch of gamers and a competitive clubhouse, so video games consume a lot of our down time,” Betts said. “I haven’t seen his skills yet, but rumor also has it DP’s (David Price) gaming ability is just as good as his arm.”

Baseball fans have a choice of games now, thanks to Sony’s MLB: The Show and MLBAM’s R.B.I. They offer different experiences for gamers.

“R.B.I. is such a playable game,” Betts said. “You can pick the game up and play right away without a crazy long learning curve, and that’s important for the casual fan and gamer.”

Leece said MLBAM’s primary focal point for this year’s game was to improve the gameplay experience across the board, while continuing to deliver a new package of updated graphical elements.  

“We refined hitting, pitching and fielding while remaining true to the game’s ‘pick up and play’ mechanics,” Leece said. “We also added new designs to each of the ballparks with improved grass and field views and lighting for both day and night games. We hope our fans will agree that it’s the best-looking R.B.I. Baseball they’ll have played.”

Leece said a redeveloped defensive artificial intelligence (AI) will introduce new fielding capabilities, including dives, wall catches, and fake throws.

On the offensive side of the game, Leece said baserunning is more realistic thanks to the inclusion of Statcast technology. That’s especially good for Betts, because the video game baserunners’ abilities will be driven by actual 2015 MLB season metrics.

There’s also an improved batting engine with variable perfect timing. Leece said for the best outcome, gamers should swing earlier on inside pitches and later on outside pitches.

Speaking of pitching, MLBAM has reworked the game’s pitching strategy AI, so a pitcher who features a wide range of velocity will mix speeds more often.

As for advice to anyone who picks the virtual Red Sox to play with, Betts said: “This is your last year to hit bombs with Papi, so enjoy every one!”

Mookie was actually born Markus Lynn Betts. And those initials, “MLB,” were purposely chosen by his parents, Willie Betts and Diana Benedict, to match the big league abbreviation. And his nickname, “Mookie,” which he has used his whole life, came from his parents watching NBA player Mookie Blaylock shortly after he was born.

Betts’ uncle, Terry Schumpert, played 14 seasons in the Bigs, so baseball is literally in his blood. But there’s also a connection to his NBA namesake. Betts played basketball for John Overton High School and was named MVP of the district his senior season.