It was little coincidence that THQ and Ultimate Fighting Championship waited until Oct. 19 to announce an eight year extension to their exclusive video game pact. That was the day EA Sports MMA released.
EA Sports MMA and UFC Undisputed are a rare pairing, being directly competing licensed sports titles with different ship dates. So you had to figure EA's coming-out party meant open season to its nemesis. And the announcement fit the character of the rivalry well; Dana White, the voluble president of the UFC, has chosen to publicly nurse a grudge with EA Sports, going back to a slight he says the publisher gave the emerging fight promotion when it sought to do a video game earlier in the decade.
So there was EA Sports MMA on stage, smiling and waving to the prom, with that exclusive UFC pact up in the rafters like the bucket of pig's blood in Carrie.
In the two weeks since, some have been quick to bury EA Sports MMA as a one-and-done experiment. The UFC is the top-of-mind brand in mixed martial arts, and where EA Sports MMA's combat and career system was praised, it brought in fewer real-world fighters (60) than UFC Undisputed 2010 (99), many of them much less visible.
The game, like its Fight Night cousin, is at its strongest when you're creating a fighter and taking him through a career, or fighting with him in EA Sports MMA's innovative online modes. That's a longer and more nuanced sales pitch than something that says the game has the biggest stars, which conveys authority. Unsurprisingly, sales were not eye-popping. That didn't stop one analyst from writing EA Sports MMA's obituary not even a week after it was born.
"EA's recently released 'MMA' appears to be more or less DOA at retail, while UFC recently announced an extension of its licence with THQ, likely putting an end to EA's efforts to expand into the mixed martial arts genre," wrote an analyst for Cowen & Company in a research note Oct. 25.
That struck me as premature and shortsighted, even if I had read it among the freelance noise offered by enthusiasts in comment boards. This isn't Facebreaker. EA Sports gave up its NASCAR product and rededicated some of those developers to building a game from scratch over the past two years. The largest chunk of its investment, that development cost, has been spent. Sure, it'd be foolish to chase a big pot with a bad hand just because you put a ton of money in, but EA Sports is hardly holding crap cards. It's not holding a pair of kings, either, but it does have something with a potential to pay out down the line.
Let's not forget that UFC Undisputed is on its second title, and its third is coming in 2012. It's a head start, but one that can be caught. And mixed martial arts is not like the NFL or Major League Baseball. It's an emerging sport in which the UFC is a huge player, but not the only one. The potential to win new fans across all age ranges is much stronger than the establishment sports. Many of these new fans may not know or care who the top stars are and to those, the EA Sports nameplate may be just as legitmising as the UFC's.
If EA Sports is looking to get rid of an underperforming licensed title, it'd have more reason to sack its NBA franchise, which is a more expensive licence, will take more work to get into fighting shape, and after its embarrassing cancellation is now damaged goods in the eyes of most everyone - and all that's without NBA 2K, a product much further ahead of its competition than UFC Undisputed is from its.
In fact, NBA Elite, or whatever it will be renamed, may do more to slow or stop EA Sports MMA's next offering than UFC Undisputed. That project has been shipped to MMA's home turf of EA Sports Tiburon, where NCAA Football, Madden and Fight Night also are made. Though manpower fluctuates and Electronic Arts gave a boilerplate statement that it's looking to hire, it's still a lot under one roof.
But I hope EA Sports MMA hangs in for another round, and I think it will. The general mood, one I endorse, is that its grappling system is more simplified and intuitive than UFC Undisputed - though for some UFC has a stronger strike mechanic. That's fine, but the clinch and ground game - especially submissions - are what separate mixed martial arts from boxing. The consensus also seems to be EA Sports MMA's submission gameplay is better than Undisputed's, which this year ditched button-mashing for a "shine system," that didn't appeal to many.
A competitor in the mix has already pushed UFC Undisputed to a two-year development cycle. Its next set of improvements will no doubt answer what EA Sports MMA did well. Sports gamers need alternatives. But they are especially important to an emerging sport with a young console history. It's ironic that EA Sports - whose exclusive licence agreements have long made it cartoonishly portrayed as a brake on innovation - is in the role of providing it here.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.