Let's face it. While EA Sports is clearly the dominant brand in video game sports simulations, Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:ERTS) has lacked a real Madden-quality baseball contribution for several years. But this time around, EA has stepped to the forefront with perhaps its most competitive baseball game since the Tony LaRussa series back in the mid-'90s.

Re-branded in 2003, MVP Baseball 2004 has improved across the board. The graphics are more realistic, and the new presentation is simply better. For "franchise mode" addicts, the game also now includes a 120-year Dynasty mode, making full use of a team's real AA and AAA minor-league affiliates. In addition to an improved batter interface and fielding controls, the game also incorporates the right analog stick, prominently featured on the Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox and Sony (NYSE:SNE) PlayStation 2 controllers, for functions such as sliding (base running) and diving (when fielding).

As my Florida Marlins showed this past fall in winning their second World Series, defense makes a difference in baseball. And in this game, more than any other, a player's defensive attributes actually matter. For example, a player's ability to throw a baseball, along with how long you press the throw button, determines how hard and accurately the ball is hurled. Those inputs in turn determine whether a throw is off-line or on target, whether the virtual teammate has to leave the bag to field the ball, and whether a base runner scores or gets thrown out.

All of these detailed maneuvers make MVP Baseball 2004 the game to beat this year -- and that's saying a lot.

In recent years, EA's Triple Play series had taken a backseat in quality to the likes of 3DO's excellent High Heat series, Acclaim's (NASDAQ:AKLM) All Star Baseball, and most significantly, Sega's World Series Baseball 2K3, widely considered to be one of the best baseball games ever made.

EA's timing is impeccable. As always, the baseball field is a competitive one. Even Sony's own entry, MLB 2005 for the PS2, has improved considerably. But just as MVP Baseball has leapt forward, Sega's latest game, rebranded ESPN Major League Baseball, by many accounts may even have taken a small step back this year.

One thing is clear: EA finally came to play hardball. And while MVP Baseball 2004 might not follow EA's Need For Speed: Underground and NFL Street to the very top of the charts, it is a sure bet to help EA Sports regain some of the die-hard sports simulation fans it lost to Sega over the years.

David Gardner recommended Electronic Arts for Motley Fool Stock Advisor subscribers. To find out what else is in David's lineup of companies, check it out for six months with a money-back guarantee.

Fool contributor Jeff Hwang owns shares of Electronic Arts, as well as copies of World Series Baseball 2K3 and MVP Baseball 2004.