With the UFC's stranglehold over the mixed martial arts scene in the United States, can a video game that doesn't feature Dana White and his crew of superstar fighters like Brock Lesnar and GSP still manage to find success in the market?
If you're a polygonal pessimist, all you have to do is look at the recent struggles 2K Sports faced when it attempted to compete head-to-head against "Madden" without an NFL license. The results were a one-and-done title that was critically acclaimed, but fell far short of sales expectations.
But now the field has flipped and it's EA Sports who is trying to play catch-up to an established brand and a UFC series that has already sold over four million units in its first year for publisher THQ. To make matters even more intriguing, the executive producer of "EA Sports MMA" is Dale Jackson, one of the brains behind the "Madden" series, so he knows all too well about the fight between rival companies, both past and present.
But when it comes to comparing "UFC" to "MMA," he thinks that, unlike the professional football genre, there's plenty of room for both games.
"I think that there's a whole world of MMA out there aside from just one license," Jackson told me before the big Strikeforce fight in Chicago over the weekend. "I think a solid gameplay experience is what will help open people's eyes to it, whether they're a fan of the sport or not. We want to help grow the sport with this game.
"When it came to 'All-Pro Football' versus 'Madden,' we were talking about the players and the league license. By just having a few legends in 'All-Pro,' it just wasn't the same experience as an NFL game with the NFL players. It wasn't the experience people expected. We are going to have world-class fighters in 'MMA.' It's not like there isn't talent outside of the UFC, and these guys are going to be well known because they are going to be on prime-time television on CBS. And while some of the fighters might not be as popular in the U.S., these guys are huge superstars in other countries right now, and we'll be taking advantage of all of that."
EA SPORTS MMA
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And to start, not only has EA Sports signed a deal with Strikeforce to appear in the game as a premiere league, they've also inked deals with some of the league's top fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, Brett Rogers, King Mo, Jake Shields and Jason Miller.
To Jackson, though, it's not just about having the big names, it's about distinguishing each of their fighting styles so that no two cyber combatants play alike. That means gamers can expect some big overhand shots from Fedor and some huge power shots up the middle from Rogers.
"What you can expect is that someone who is trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and focuses mostly on the stand-up game and focuses mostly on being a stand-up wrestler, they are going to play as you'd expect -- they are going to try and keep things on their feet," Jackson said. "And when they get on the ground, they can get themselves out of trouble with position changes or some small submission attempts. But they're not going to be able to set up submissions three moves ahead to make things happen.
"We also have a ton of counter moves in the game. I can't put a fine enough point on the ability to catch a kick and do anything from that. Catching a kick is the start of a lot of moves, not the end of it. Catching a kick and only being able to take someone to the ground is a travesty. That's not what 'MMA' is all about. It's about trying to stay in your game plan if you want to. It's about being able to fight where you want to take the fight to, and we're going to allow that by trying to make sure we have the right branches in there at all times so you can try to keep the fight where you want in order to try and be successful."
Also included in the game are southpaws, the ability to switch stances and fighters from both the top and the bottom positions simultaneously throwing punches without the need to wait for the initial punch animation to play out.
The great thing about this game is teaching people what it takes to fight for real. A lot of people don't know how to really fight. It's not just about going out and throwing punches. This is a legit sport with a lot of strategy involved, and I hope it helps give people a better appreciation of what we go through as fighters.
”-- MMA fighter King Mo
But fighter King Mo only wants to see one thing: "My patented Super Mo punch," he told me. "The great thing about this game is teaching people what it takes to fight for real. A lot of people don't know how to really fight. It's not just about going out and throwing punches. This is a legit sport with a lot of strategy involved, and I hope it helps give people a better appreciation of what we go through as fighters."
King Mo, as well as a few other fighters signed to "EA Sports MMA," has already traveled to EA's development studio in Orlando in order to be photographed for the game so his likeness could be captured down to the slightest scar. "The characters are all hand-modeled using high-res photographs," explained Jackson. "We're also using some skin techniques that are being used in some high-end feature films right now. We have surface scattering, which allows light to go through the top layer of skin and bounce off to the outside so you get more realistic-looking skin. If you just slap a picture of skin on someone, it just doesn't look good, it doesn't look real. So we have some real high-end techniques being used. There's a lot more technology into making these models look good than what the average gamer realizes.
"People rely too much on 3-D modeling and then they don't do what they need to do after that to make the characters look good. We've actually had better luck with the hand modeling and the high-res photographs than the 3-D modeling, and if you look at 'MMA' right now, the likenesses are about as good as anything I've seen in a game."
And judging from the limited amount I've seen of "EA Sports MMA" so far, I'd have to agree with Jackson as the sharpness of the character models is striking at first, and the more I stared at the real photos and compared them to the fighters on screen, I was left stunned by the likeness.
Jackson then showed a teaser of things to come, flashing a few never-before-seen scenes of various fighting locations throughout the game, including a shot from Brazil, a Thai gym and a dojo in Japan.
"The international nature of MMA is huge to us, and you learn different things training in places where different martial arts are more focused on, and that's part of this game," explained Jackson, before immediately clamming up when pressed for more detail. "This is just a taste of things to come."
One thing Jackson would talk about, however, is the inclusion of Photo Game Face for when gamers are creating themselves in career mode. "Putting you in the game is a big part of this game. It's important that you feel like a fighter, and we're going to make sure we give you that experience."
And when asked how busted up I can make my fighter's face (I'm a sucker for scars and bruises), Jackson guarantees I'll appreciate the final results. "When we get into showing damage later on, you'll see some cool stuff like that. We didn't show it with the Fedor/Rogers demo out of respect for the two fighters. We didn't want to show them all bruised up or cut up before they go out and fight for real. We started with the 'Fight Night' engine, and if you saw their damage, you have a good idea of some of the stuff you can expect from our game."
Adds King Mo: "I don't get hit enough to bleed [in real life], but it will happen in the game."
As for the rivalry brewing between the UFC and EA, one that is so fierce Dana White threatened to ban any fighter who appears in the EA game from ever fighting in UFC, Jackson says that he has a lot of respect for both White and the UFC. "They built the sport in the U.S. and helped make it popular, so as a fan of the sport, I've loved being able to watch it all of these years.
"Now I want to be a part of it. I want to make a great game that helps bring even more fans to the sport. I think gamers will have a real MMA experience for the first time with our game. I think they've had a fighting experience before, but now they'll have a real MMA experience and you'll want to play it as a gamer, whether you're an MMA fan or not."