“This is bullshit!”
I don’t remember if I screamed it internally; I probably said it quietly under my breath.
When I picked up the controller to play EA Sports UFC I did what all fans do when they turn on a sports game for the first time, I went straight for my favourites to see who was ranked what, who had what rating. Who did EA think was the best pound for pound fighter in the world, who was the highest rated fighter?
“How the hell is Anderson Silva only 94 and Jon Jones is 97?”
“This is bullshit!”
This is Anderson Silva! The greatest of all time! The Pele of Mixed Martial Arts, the man who holds all of the records, the man who did what some thought was impossible. The man who fights in The Matrix. Goddammit.
Okay. Backtrack. I wasn’t that annoyed, but my jimmies were rustled to the point where this controversy formed the foundation of my first question to Jazz Brousseau, the Assistant Producer charged with showing me EA Sports UFC.
“Why the hell is Jon Jones rated three points higher than Anderson Silva? Come on man...”
It wasn’t really a question; more of a veiled fanboy threat.
“You can talk to the UFC about that,” laughed Brousseau, “they actually had the final say with all the fighter ratings.
“So if you’re not happy, you should tweet Dana White and let him know!”
I’m not going to tweet Dana White. I’m not going to do that because, on the whole, I am happy. Despite pedantic grumblings on who is rated above who, and why Anderson Silva isn’t the highest rated fighter in the game, I am about as happy as I could have expected to be with EA’s first crack at a UFC licensed game.
But only two hours previously, I arrived to the event caked in a thick layer of cynicism -- who could blame me?
For a long time it felt as though EA was hiding its UFC game in plain sight, releasing trailer after trailer featuring stylised footage -- apparently taken ‘in-game; -- that provided little insight into how EA Sports UFC would actually play. The questions began to pile up. How would grappling work? How would submissions be initiated? How would EA represent the delicate game of chess that is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? Would EA Sports play like its own MMA game or more like THQ’s UFC series?
And dear God why was EA so reluctant to release in-game footage?
Fair questions. Here are some answers:
Grappling works with the right stick, in much the same way that it did in THQ’s UFC Undisputed series, but it’s far more responsive and it looks and feels fluid. Submissions are initiated via a modifier and the right analogue stick, the game then transforms itself into a surprisingly accessible game of cat and mouse where players battle for supremacy and positioning -- much like it might in a real match. It’s relatively difficult to explain without the game in front of me, but suffice to say it is intuitive, it works across different stages and I like it. A lot. It’s difficult to make any final judgements given my limited time with the game, but it might have been my favourite aspect of EA Sports UFC.
But back to those bloody ratings.
Unlike most sports games, where developers have free reign over which athlete is rated what -- how fast Lionel Messi runs, how accurate Ronaldo’s free kicks are -- EA Sports were required to have UFC take a pass on each and every fighter’s statistics.
“There was a lot of back and forth,” explains Brousseau.
Not only were the UFC involved in helping shape the overall ratings of each fighter, there was also extensive discussion regarding every single individual statistic -- the numbers that govern knock out power, take down defense, submission skills, etc.
“It was very detailed. You would not believe the spreadsheet we had to send them.”
But according to Brousseau, the EA/UFC back and forth was a good problem to have.
“They were heavily involved in the making of the game. We felt that was a good thing, certainly for our first kick at the can with the UFC game,” he said. “It’s not usual to have a license be as involved or be as passionate about the development process. We meet with them weekly, they did sign offs on all of the content and it’s been a really good relationship. It’s going to benefit the game in the end.”
It’s an interesting insight into the process. Putting on the old tinfoil hat, a part of me wonders if the UFC having input into ratings is just another outlet for fighter promotion. It makes more sense to have new fans -- introduced to the UFC through the game -- believing the younger Jon Jones is a better, more exciting fighter than the 39 year old Anderson Silva, or the retired Chuck Liddell. It’s a good avenue for them to promote new, exciting fighters like Anthony Pettis or Renen Barao -- fighters that aren’t quite the PPV draw that Silva or GSP are, but probably should be.
But that’s an aside. Back to that video game…
EA Sports UFC is something of a chimera. The spectre of Fight Night is wholly present and striking battles between newbies have the potential to devolve into the ol’ rock ‘em sock ‘em robots thing. But again, much like Fight Night, managing your stamina is paramount. You’re more prone to flash knockouts if your stamina is rock bottom.
I learned this the hard way when Bigfoot Silva’s oversized paw clipped me and sent me flying to an early bath when playing as Alastair Overeem. Kinda hilarious considering that’s precisely what happened when those two fought in real life.
On that note, here are a few things I spotted during my time with the game, little details that -- as a huge fan of MMA -- really impressed me in terms of their similarity compared to the real thing.
The fact that I found myself shooting for takedowns when gassed or getting tooled in striking. It often became the desperation tactic it can be in the real sport of MMA. I liked that.
I also enjoyed that submissions were easy to access, but difficult to complete, and could be finished in less discrete moves if I was smart enough to put myself in the right position to begin with.
Things I didn’t like? That fact that I was knocked out twice by Vitor Belfort whilst playing as Anderson Silva. Vitor’s rating must have been approved before they banned Testosterone Replacement Therapy in Nevada.
Again, back to those bloody ratings. I almost wished I’d never seen them. I almost wish I’d never checked. Brousseau agrees with me.
“On a personal level, I’ve tried to champion not having ratings at all, he says. “I think that I’d love to get to a place where ratings are completely under the hood. And we speak more to the style of the fighter. Certainly in a game like UFC I’d like to get to a place where we don’t objectify things as much.
“MMA math doesn’t work.”
Brousseau is correct: MMA math doesn’t work. MMA math usually refers to the fact that saying Fighter A lost to Fighter B, therefore Fighter A has no chance against Fighter C, who Fighter B couldn’t beat -- or some variant of that. Long story short: styles make fights, and I think EA Sports UFC has done a decent job of capturing that.
Of all the sports you could hope to replicate in video game form, mixed martial arts must be among the most difficult. There are just so many intangibles to a fight, and video games thrive on established rulesets -- they thrive on consistency and the application of numbers. In his last two fights Anderson Silva was knocked out by what many perceived to be a lucky punch that landed when the seemingly invincible Silva was showboating. That was immediately followed by a rematch where Anderson literally snapped his leg in half in one of the most grotesque freak accidents I’ve ever witnessed in sporting history. No game could hope to capture that sort of random insanity. Not in any real sense. But EA and UFC have had a damn good crack at it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: EA, UFC: I forgive you for giving Anderson Silva a lower score than I think he deserves. I forgive you because you have created a video game I think I will enjoy very much.