What The UFC Video Game Gets Wrong About Choking People

What The UFC Video Game Gets Wrong About Choking People
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When you see a good fight in motion — real or simulated — there’s a grace to it. It’s like watching a dance where you see the will and wit of two people intertwined. At its best, it is a like watching abstract art. EA Sports UFC is not that.

EA Sports UFC is a lot of things. It’s a lifestyle simulator and a sports game. It’s an attempt to recreate the insane energy of a sport that I and many other people love. It’s EA trying to get people excited about a new franchise. But I don’t feel excitement when I play it, instead I feel dull confusion.

Some context: For the last seven years, I’ve trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I choke, armbar, throw and omoplata people for fun. I know the rush of hitting that perfect kimura, the physical and emotional pain getting caught off guard. I know what grappling looks and feels like.

When it works well, a submission is a graceful, fluid thing — something done by an expert in one motion. In UFC, a submission is a disjointed and segmented process done by a robot wearing human flesh. While I was playing UFC in the office, I tried to break it down to one of my coworkers at Deadspin. The conversation went something like this:

“OK, so to start a submission on the ground, you have to hold R1, then do a quarter circle up left or right from a dominant position.”


“From there, you initiate a dual-analogue QTE where you counter the opponent’s movement with the right stick, while at the same time hitting a series of left-analogue prompts which brings you through successive segments of the move.”

“This doesn’t seem fun.”

“Yeah, it’s not.”

It’s a problem of abstraction. What UFC is trying to do is show how nuanced, specific and complex the movements of a submission are. The key to pulling off a flawless move is in the tiny details (make sure your weight is here, pinch your knees together, move your hips for god’s sake). But the closer the characters come to approximating that complexity, the more confusing and alienating it becomes.

The same holds true with how the fighters move. While EA spent a lot of time and effort making the texture of the skin and striking look convincing, the characters transitions look stilted and alien. On the ground, a real person’s movements are subtle — they breathe. In execution and feel, UFC is right in the thick of the uncanny valley.

I’m not laying the blame squarely on the people that made UFC. They’re in the unenviable position of having to solve one of the gaming’s most difficult problems — making grappling intuitive, believable and inviting to the ever-growing population of MMA fans. How do you show off nuance without making a product that’s just obtuse? How do you make a game that anyone who watches the sport can get behind?

MMA is growing bigger and bigger every year as a sport, and this game will not be the last. I hope that with time, it will learn to be a little more human.


  • Ok so you’ve trained in MMA and you play an MMA game, noting that the finer details aren’t there. Welcome to my last 20+ years playing games that involve Karate.

    I watch a game that involves any Karate, *any* game almost, and I can pick it to pieces. Games ranging from THQ’s UFC series, to the simpler Streetfighter 2’s (which surprisingly got a lot right), to Tekken (which again got an AMAZING amount of Kyokoshin right with Jin Kazama, so much so I was astounded, yet ‘simulation’ fighting games, were getting simple things wrong such as the basic ‘Heiko dachi’ or ‘parallel stance’. When they would do punches, the arms would be 100% extended straight, never slightly bent to allow for follow through force or control. Legs would never be varied in position dependant upon the style of kick. Front kick would always be straight, rear kick, straight, side kick, straight, roundhouse, straight. Never would you see a slight bend in the knee to indicate control or strength.

    It’s the curse of knowing exactly what you’re into. It’s the curse not necessarily of being an *expert*, but of being knowledgeable. Imagine my uncles frustration as we watch the latest Hollywood movies, or the latest crime show on TV, he spent 20 years in Melbourne working in the Police force, he even worked on some of the cases glorified in the original ‘Underbelly’, which he calls ‘soap-opera bullshit’. He picks apart tv shows with police in seconds, calling them out on their bullshit procedures (ruining them for me in the process lol), all because of his knowledge.

    But, at the same time, he enjoys them, as I enjoy my martial arts games. Because it still allows us some escapism despite our knowledge. Sometimes, we just have to accept, they’re *not* going to get these little things right. The Kankyu kata is never going to be effectively represented in a games cutscene no matter how they try, the true destructive power a simple front kick can deliver in comparison to that of the over glorified flashy roundhouse kick (thank you JCVD) is not likely to be shown because it just doesn’t sell as well as one that looks, well, flashier.

    And breathing techniques, kata, etc, well, they’re gonna be looked over from time to time, for the flashier parts so that the bigger package can be sold. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad product, just that intense enthusiasts like you and I are gonna pick it to pieces. Not that we don’t have a right to, they’re aiming the product at us, but they’re also aiming it at the casuals. But I do feel your pain mate.


    Yeah, shit happens. Those in the know just have to deal with it and move on and hope the next ones better.

    • Even if it’s not “right”, we’ve basically got striking “figured out” in games, though. We can make belting people in the face entertaining.

      Grappling, on the other hand, is a whole new problem and no one has gotten it right yet. There must be a way to do it that isn’t utterly dull and arbitrary, but we haven’t found it yet. I think it warrants an article or two discussing the difficulties, and the disconnect between real life and in-game representations.

      • Indeed, however striking, comes down to the level of understanding you put into it. You can understand the impact sense or you can understand the artform behind it. One can inherently argue you have ‘choking’ figured out in games to the point where the basics are covered, it’s the complexities that haven’t been, that’s the same as striking. Where does the leg bend, where does the arm bend precisely, at what angle, why can they not have a method in place to have you screw up punches and give less power etc. It’s all part and parcel of the frustration of sometimes knowing that little bit more. I’m not trying to sound like an elitest douchebag, god knows there’s plenty I DONT know about in this world, but I really do understand what he means when you see something and say ‘They really could’ve done better there…’

    • Don’t you think basketball, hockey, baseball, football (soccer), golf, NFL, etc. players have been down this road before as well? Sports simulations have faced these issues for years and still manage to be enjoyable. Don’t forget the fact that it is still just a game.

      Focus on the gameplay and not just the lack of realism. Give them enough tries and they will get better, as the aforementioned genres have.

      • That’s exactly right and I agree. It’s the point I’m making. Soccer players absolutely, when I hear soccer fans, people who have played for years raging at how the ball never ‘returns to your feet’ when you dribble the ball, how ‘the ball NEVER curves like that’, how passing is ‘NEVER that simple’, a thousand little things. You’re 110% right, as time goes by they improve incrementally til they hit the sweetspot. But, I’m glad there’s a whole range of you guys out there who can understand where the author, and by extension me and others are coming from as well 🙂 we’re all in the same boat together lol. I totally agree, at the end of the day, it’s a game. If you want the real thing, go out and do the real thing. Some omissions just have to be accepted.

        • Quite right.

          If anything, getting too realistic in emulating the real sport has been a slight downside of some titles IMO. When NBA 2K14 decided to completely omit the option for using buttons in favour of a realistic analogue stick movement (move it down then flick it forward just as you do when moving your arms/wrist back before flicking the ball forward in real-life) they lost players like me who preferred a quick pick up and play option. NHL went down that path as well, but at least they still have hybrid controls providing a mix of the two.

          On the other hand, some games got infinitely better from their attempts at mimicking the real-life movements required for a sport. For example, when Tiger Woods went with the analogue swing rather than the tried and tested meter format used in the past, it finally made golf games much more interesting and controllable. I also think Fight Night did the same when they eschewed the button approach from previous boxing titles and went with their now famous analogue format.

          • Yep much the same as the UFC games ditching button mashing in favour of the better analogue system like fightnight has. When you’re doing grapples, it feels, ‘better’ somehow.

  • I use to be an air traffic controller and, let me tell you, Flight Control is NOTHING like the real thing.

    • I hear you guys have the highest rate of suicide in the world per profession!? Is that true!?

        • Pretty amazing career though. I was once allowed up in the tower at Fairbairn in Canberra back in the early 90s. Not quite a civilian airport setup but still very impressive from memory.

  • Yeah it irks me sometimes when I play – I’m blue in BJJ been training 3 years so I know a bit myself… but then I kinda just get over it and think yeah but its fun – What other game can you feel the rush of catching someone when their stamina is low and they shoot for a takedown you look for the sub and get it?! Theres no other game like it and the rush of online is still there so its decent enough for now

    Im sure just as THQ put a LOT more effort into the ground game through their series, EA will follow suit with much more complexity one would hope! I’m still pissed there arent simple move like an americana… WTF lol only 23 submissions or something?! That’s nowhere near enough and they just put the flashy stuff in – Thats probably the most annoying part for me

  • Interesting article, I’m sure quite a few people have had similar frustrations in the past. One thing about ‘chokes’ is that they are actually strangulation but Brazilians have trouble pronouncing strangulation so they call them chokes. (Choking is when your wind pipe gets blocked off, strangulation is you blood supply getting blocked off.) It will be an interesting day when a video game company makes a game with 100% accurate martial arts in it.

  • You right, simulating the ground game is going to be a tough gig for any team.

    In jiu-jistu, particularly with the gi, moves are often set up in quite a methodical fashion. The finish comes from a bait-and-trap set 2-3 moves earlier, a sneaky hand position that goes unnoticed by an opponent who loses track of the danger while they’re focusing on something else.
    I think the EA game DOES actually do a pretty good job of representing the setting up a submission across multiple steps. Hitting something like an arm triangle using the multi-staged ‘gate’ system feels like a solid representation of isolating the arm, getting the head to the mat, transitioning into side-control ect.

    The thing that I think is missing from the game is the “flash” submission which is probably the hardest to recrate and then properly balance for a development team.
    MMA is so dynamic that most of the best MMA grapplers (guys like Joe Lauzon, Jim Miller and Charles Olivera) are guys who are really good at diving on whatever’s presented to them. That style of grappling is entirely absent from the game and will have to be added to future games in the series.
    It will then be up to EA to find a system that feels dynamic without feeling cheap, a real fighter knows that if he gets caught in a sudden armbar its often because he overcommitted his arm, if you get caught in the same way trying to execute a canned guard-pass animation then that can be pretty infuriating.

    The problem with the ground game in EA Sports UFC is that while it does a pretty good job of representing a methodical finish that a guy like Maia or Werdum might set up, the actual grappling before that point doesn’t in any way represent that style. It’s too flimsy and too difficult to control the action. At the same time the flash finishes that normally come out of dynamic scrambles are also missing entirely….. so from a grappling perspective the game ends up pleasing no one.

    I suppose you just have to look at it as needing to be a “fun” representation.
    Kinda like the one button hacking in Watch_Dogs, it’s not real but it’s what’s best for gameplay.
    If anybody is missing the technicalities of grappling then the best place to go is probably their local gym.

  • I’ve trained in martial arts since high school and almost immediately took up brazilian jiu-jitsu. That’s more than a decade.

    And I just don’t care.

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