Minor Leaguers Are In MLB The Show 2020, No Pay Needed

When the MLB The Show 2020 video game is released next month, it will attempt to include full minor league rosters for the first time. Users will be able to pitch with MacKenzie Gore and promote Wander Franco straight to the majors from high Class A, or play with either player in the minors.

For the casual fan, such an addition is likely to barely noticed, but for more hardcore fans, the presence of not just top prospects but all minor leaguers will be another reason to buy the game.

This is not the first year where minor leaguers have appeared in the game—the 2019 version of The Show had a mix of real and invented minor leaguers. The addition of full minor league rosters leads to an obvious question: how can the likeness of players not on 40-man rosters be allowed in a video game?

Normally, video games pay a licensing fee to the players’ union of that professional sport for the rights to use the likeness of players. There is no MiLB players union, so the attempt to negotiate deals with each and every one of the thousands of minor league players would seem to be impossible.

A similar issue led to the elimination of Electronic Arts’ NCAA Basketball and NCAA Football video games. Former UCLA forward Ed O’Bannon was the title plaintiff on a class action lawsuit filed against the NCAA, Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company. The suit stated that the fact that the players names were not used did not absolve the NCAA and EA Sports of needing to compensate players, since other aspects of the avatars in the game were based on the actual players (such as height, weight, jersey number, position, skin color, physical attributes and playing attributes). The games had attempted to get around the issue by listing the players by number without their actual names.

Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company reached a settlement in the class action suit and paid $40 million to collegiate athletes who were represented in the various games. 

In the case of MLB The Show, Sony pays MLB, the MLBPA and MiLB for the rights to use MLB teams logos, nicknames and the players likenesses as well as MiLB logos and trademarks. It also pays the MLB Alumni Association for the rights to use the likenesses of former MLB players.

Minor league players not on 40-man rosters will not receive compensation, however. When they sign their first pro contract with their MLB team, they sign away their rights to profit from video games, baseball cards and other uses of their publicity rights. That agreement means that when MLB provides a license, it can convey the rights of minor leaguers and include them in the game. (To use MiLB team logos and trademarks requires a separate deal between the video game company and MiLB).

The Players Uniform Contract for minor league players states that, “Player’s name, voice, signature, biographical information and likeness shall belong to Club and they may be used, reproduced, sold, licensed or otherwise disseminated or published by Club or its licensees, assignees, and/or other designees directly or indirectly in any medium whatsoever for any purpose (including but not limited to broadcast, in print, on trading cards, posters and other merchandise of any kind, in electronics, audio, in video or in connection with any media), in any manner and at any time including after the term of the Minor League Players Uniform Contract, that Club desires.”

MiLB players forfeit their right to be compensated for their likeness being used in a video game the minute they sign their standard Minor League Player Uniform Contract. Once they are added to the MLB roster, they are then paid for being in the video game, since MLB players are represented by the MLBPA.

Theoretically a player could balk at that part of the contract and try to get it removed before he signs. But in reality it’s called a uniform player contract for a reason. Few, if any, minor leaguers have the negotiating leverage to negotiate a change in these details. In fact, the only example anyone seems to remember of where it was removed was Michael Jordan’s contract when he signed with the White Sox in 1999. Jordan had a little more pull than the average minor leaguer, and he wasn’t about to sign away the millions of dollars his publicity rights were worth.

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