Examining the History of MMA in Gaming and the Expectations of EA Sports UFC

When it was announced that EA acquired the UFC license from THQ in an effort by the latter company to get some quick cash and, hopefully survive, it led to many questions. Would Yuke’s be retained as developer? With EA having their own MMA game, would they just re-assign the developers of that to the UFC game? In time, all of those questions were answered. The EA Sports MMA engine wouldn’t be used, and Yuke’s wouldn’t be part of EA’s vision for the game. While that meant that their fantastic MMA engine would go to waste (and surprisingly hasn’t been licensed for use in a new Bellator game), it also marked the beginning of a new era in MMA gaming.

Before EA got the UFC license, MMA in gaming had three distinct periods — the earliest days with MMA modes in pro wrestling games, the Anchor/Crave era, and the Yuke’s era. The Gruesome Fighting mode in Fire Pro Wrestling S: 6-Men Scramble on the Saturn, and Fire Pro Wrestling G on the PlayStation gave Japanese gamer’s and import gamer’s a chance to dabble in MMA gaming in 1999 on the PS1, and all the way back to 1996 for Saturn owners. While lacking a license, it featured an octagonal cage that was later changed due to legal issues, as well as a character very similar yet legally distinct from Ulti-Man, and a roster of combatants heavily-inspired by MMA fighters of the time, like Bas Rutten, Minou Suzuki, Maurice Smith, Don Frye, and Rickson Gracie.

The Gruesome mode was a bare-bones MMA mode with very few positions offered up, but evolved in the final game (Fire Pro Wrestling Returns on the PS2, and available as a PS2 Classic on the PS3) into something that could be used to have MMA, K1, and PRIDE fights. It’s also perfect for a hybrid pro wrestling/MMA style like the kind Brock Lesnar has used in WWE since his 2012 return, or something more akin to the worked-shoot groups like RINGS and the UWF/UWF-I. Unfortunately, the Fire Pro series wasn’t seen in the U.S. until the launch of the Game Boy Advance in 2001.

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While Fire Pro Wrestling was the first pro wrestling franchise to incorporate MMA, it wasn’t the only one. Aki’s Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 did so in 2000 and like Fire Pro, used largely a roster heavily-inspired by real life, but only featuring licensing for All Japan Pro Wrestling’s roster at the time. The MMA mode gave you a variety of options for rounds, point deductions and completely changed the core gameplay with just the change from wrestling to MMA rules. Some wrestlers used the hard A-grapple-to-B strike combo — now the norm for the MMA-inspired roster — and you could do a variety of strikes from a standing and mounted position.

Grounded foes in the mount could fight their way out of it, and there’s a real sense of force to the blows executed from that position. Players in the top position who are feeling particularly smug can do something no MMA game or mode since has had — actually taunt the opponent. You’ve got a variety of taunting options while in the mount and, like the strikes you do from the mount or while standing in a grapple, depend on the direction. Only with taunting, it’s using the analog stick while the strikes themselves are determined with the D-pad.

This mode is definitely primitive, but the silky-smooth animations for the takedown and transitions from a position into a move have held up quite well. The struggle of actually applying and hanging onto a submission are retained, and many of the moves used for this mode later made it into WWF No Mercy on the N64, even if the MMA mode itself didn’t. It’s allowed the game to age shockingly well since, once again, you can craft hybrid wrestling/MMA characters very well and make the MMA-inspired Brock Lesnar, or even MMA-only Ronda Rousey fairly easily. Aki and Human were very forward-thinking with their approaches — especially Human as they wound up with an MMA mode in a game nearly four years before the concept hit the U.S.

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The year 2000 saw the release of the first officially-licensed MMA game — Ultimate Fighting Championship for the PlayStation, Dreamcast, and Game Boy Color. The console versions were impressive for their time, with the Dreamcast version‘s graphics holding up quite nicely. The game engine was used for the UFC at first, and then later a pair of PRIDE FC games on the PS2. The PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox also used it for lesser games that lacked the polish of the Dreamcast version and somehow looked much worse, with a weird shine on all of the character models. This low point saw the license become bargain bin fodder as it became a Global Star release under Crave selling for just $20 new. The release of the PRIDE game in North America came along at the wrong time, as the company had very little traction in the U.S., but the company was a big enough deal in Japan that a sequel released there featuring the gaming debut of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

Unlike the wrestling games of the time, the rosters were fairly minimal, and you certainly didn’t have 50+ characters to choose from. Gameplay was also fairly limited, and while it allowed you to have an MMA match in a game, it did so in the broadest sense — the “music between the notes” portion of fighting wasn’t there. You were able to fight from only a couple of ground positions, submissions were a simple “press two buttons to lock them in, press the same two buttons to avoid them” affair, and you had a basic life bar as is common in fighting games.

While it allowed fights to end on things like body shots and leg kicks, it was clear that more depth was needed as the sport evolved and the bar was raised from just a few positions being used in a fight to more intricate positions becoming the norm. The core gameplay between the PRIDE and early UFC games was the same, only with a couple more minor transition and blocking animations being added for the PRIDE game, as well as the use of the PRIDE presentation with uber-flashy entrances and a ring instead of an octagon.

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The rise of popularity in UFC thanks to the Ultimate Fighter reality show in 2005 saw the PPV business reach unbelievable heights in 2006. Despite the company riding high, they had no games out on the market to capitalize on its popularity. Fortunately, THQ signed the company up and released UFC Undisputed 2009 — actually in 2009 as opposed to the usual sports games numbering being a calendar year ahead. Yuke’s engine showed that you could have an MMA game on more modern tech with far more positions featured, and more nuances to the gameplay. The manual for the first installment featured so many ground positions that they had to be broken up into a flow chart showing how each one led to the other.

It was daunting if you were used to the older games, but overall easy to learn. The quarter-circle motions for small transitions, and half-circle and beyond for bigger ones were tough on the hands, leading to a simplified press up or down for minor or major transitions system in UFC Undisputed 3. This allowed the same level of gameplay depth, but made it easier to remember in the heat of battle. EA MMA mixed things up a bit by keeping much of the depth while also making it easier to execute before UFC Undisputed 3 hit the market, and giving players a stick-heavy control scheme if they so desired. Both EA’s Fight Night and Yuke’s WWE games had that kind of setup, but it felt alien in an MMA game.

Personally, the more traditional button-heavy setup was easier to remember on the spur of a moment. Some of that was due to muscle memory, but a lot was just due to intuitiveness. Pressing up on a stick to punch makes less sense than hitting a face button after two decades of fighting game playing.

The submission aspect of a fight is going to be interesting because the UFC Undisputed 3 setup with a cat and mouse game inside an octagon didn’t quite work well, while earlier “spin the stick around” efforts allowed for flash submissions, and led to a lot of sore thumbs. EA Sports MMA has two different setups that worked reasonably well. Leglocks and armbars involved hitting a face button over and over, but also doing so carefully — just mashing a button would gas you out. Chokes involved rotating the left stick carefully and, much like picking a lock in a game, involved paying attention to rumble. When you feel the vibration, you keep pressing in in a certain direction to cinch the hold on tighter, or if you’re in the hold yourself, to escape. This made escaping chokes really thrilling, and getting a win with one seemed like an accomplishment. The arm and kneebar setup also worked well, and when you’ve got a game coming up with Ronda Rousey as a major part of the roster, you’d damn well better have a good way to lock on some armbars.

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While MMA as a whole isn’t viewed as a bloodsport like it was by some in the late ’90s and early ’00s, bloodshed is still common and nasty injuries can occur. Checked leg kicks leading to instant fight endings were possible in UFC Undisputed 3, and could lead to some vile endings — nothing like the Silva-Weidman II finish, but still nasty for a game. Bloodshed is a part of MMA and something the games have all dealt with in a realistic manner.

The Yuke’s games showcased with deep cuts that looked vile, and blood splatter on both the person bleeding and the person they were fighting. EA Sports MMA showed it off without graphic wounds, but with more realistic-looking bloodshed on the fighters. While it pooled up in the Yuke’s games, in EA MMA, it was spread over the skin and wound up looking almost dried up at times. It was a powerful visual during a bloodbath when you’d have one fighter covered in blood and could see the opponent with it as well — but only due to the opponent. The next generation offering for UFC would ideally be able to have both the graphic wounds from Yuke’s and the more realistic-looking end result from EA’s game.

An MMA game without a career mode of some sort is almost impossible to imagine, and I hope EA’s UFC offering takes more from EA Sports MMA than it does the THQ-published UFC efforts. Those were largely a chore due to monotonous fights and the various activities between them, and while those elements were toned down in Undisputed 3, that game’s career mode didn’t beat EA Sports MMA’s. There, you went from camp to camp with different MMA legends at the helm and got to learn the mechanics of the game via a glorified tutorial mode that was actually a far better tutorial than the one used in the game. The voice over work was engaging, and each camp focusing on a different discipline forced you to learn new things. The inclusion of three fighting surfaces was nice, but didn’t really make much of a difference. The rule set changes did though, and it would be nice if as many options for both fighting surfaces and rules were kept in EA Sports UFC.

Online is important for an MMA game, and EA Sports MMA featured a pioneering feature that would be perfect to see brought back in the UFC Fight Pass era. They had weekly cards with players able to fight with a live commentary team provided by EA. This feature could tie into the Fight Pass by making it a Fight Pass exclusive to drive people to that service, or it could reach more people just by being something everyone who plays the game can enjoy.

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Entrances are a key part of the presentation of UFC. They were featured in the Dreamcast game and carried over into the PRIDE games with fantastic results. The debut effort showcased the walkout, lighting, and a somewhat basic set. Viewers of Strikeforce would be familiar with the sorta-pro wrestling but not quite pro wrestling approach to that setup, and it worked well. UFC went away from that as MMA’s popularity exploded, and they weren’t featured in the Yuke’s games until the third installment. In a bizarre move, the EA effort featured a ton of licensed music for entrances, and then only used truncated versions of a full entrance resulting in an underwhelming outcome. The third UFC game got the grandeur just about right and absolutely nailed the PRIDE mode. While it didn’t feature the more complicated sets of the PS2 PRIDE games, it did capture the essence of them well enough with transforming screens and a bunch of crazy lighting going on.

EA Sports UFC is going to have top the last Yuke’s effort for entrances, and that includes going with a realistic title belt. It’s a small thing, but something that only the third UFC Undisputed game and EA Sports MMA got right, and getting it wrong can make a game look very bush league — as EA Sports MMA was hurt by its terrible-looking belts for fictional companies, but had fantastic ones for Strikeforce.

The post-fight stuff can be as interesting as the pre-fight pomp and circumstance. I for one am interested in seeing how post-fight highlights are handled, because both Yuke’s and EA had top-notch versions. The UFC games featured close-ups of KO punches from a variety of angles — but you couldn’t do slow-mo or change angles manually. UFC Undisputed 3 basically featured what we now know was the share or upload functions, but allowed you to do full fights instead of just highlights. EA Sports MMA did the same thing but had the added benefit of being able to do real-time camera switching and speed reduction during post-fight highlights to really capture the brutality of a flash knockout.

There’s nothing quite like landing that perfect punch (or being on the receiving end of it) and then falling like a tree. Reliving that moment is glorious regardless of whether you were the person throwing the punch or taking it due to the sheer beauty of what you’ll see. With each console having live streaming integration and video sharing built in, EA Sports UFC should have the most advanced video sharing setup yet for an MMA game. Rayman Legends featured something I wouldn’t mind seeing in the PS4 version — the ability to pause the action with the touchpad, and then pinch and zoom to get a stunning close-up shot of a blow landing or sweat flying into the distance from a powerful punch. Hopefully, EA Sports UFC builds off of the EA Sports MMA foundation because that was the best overall setup.

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There are many unanswered questions about the game’s core mechanics, and just as many regarding its roster. UFC Undisputed 3 featured pretty much every major fighter outside of Randy Couture who wasn’t on the outs with the company politically, and even some like Tito Ortiz, who at times were. Now, with more ex-UFC fighters out in both Bellator and the World Series of Fighting, or in Brock Lesnar’s case, in WWE, the amount of “name” guys is dwindling. Brock is a major part of the UFC’s history as one of it’s biggest money draws, but a deal between EA and 2K/WWE would be less likely now than when Brock was signed up for WWE ’12 while under a UFC deal. Then, both UFC and WWE were under the THQ umbrella, and the games were developed by Yuke’s as well, so it was much less of an issue.

Earlier draws like Ken and Frank Shamrock will likely be excluded from this game, and it’s a shame that there isn’t an alternative game for MMA fans like EA MMA was then, because it means more fighters will likely be excluded from a game for quite some time. Right now, the roster is just full of obvious names who are reasonably current — outside of Chuck Liddell, the lone legend announced so far who is a no-brainer for inclusion since he’s still in the UFC in a non-fighter capacity.

Fighter sharing via facial recognition in EA MMA allowed for some incredibly-accurate fighters who weren’t in the game to be created, and it would be great to see that feature return, but with more advanced technology via the new Kinect and PS Eye, it should result in more accurate faces than before. While created fighter sharing isn’t a perfect way to get around missing fighters, it’s certainly better than nothing, and if past MMA and wrestling games are any indication, there will be plenty of call names included that come reasonably-close to real-life fighters.

The women’s roster is a big question mark outside of Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. It would be easy to presume that when the UFC signed up a slew of women’s fighters for the Rousey-Tate TUF season that they also signed them to licensing deals for the game, but that’s unconfirmed. If that wasn’t done and the women’s roster is “just” Rousey and Tate, then you’ll run into the same limited roster problem that Supremacy MMA had with its lean female roster. It will eventually get boring having the same fight over and over again simply due to a lack of options. Hopefully, at least the TUF roster will be featured along with some newer signees perhaps offered up as DLC. In the future, it would be great if they were able to have the Invicta branding in the game since that would open up the doors to having the whole roster in the same game.

They could even do a separate Invicta FC mode ala the PRIDE mode in UFC Undisputed 3, or simply have the roster for use inside the octagon. An Invicta mode would be a better overall setup since it would expose that company’s branding and roster to new fans, and provide them a chance to get some new eyeballs on their product. Given that the biggest fight in women’s MMA is Rousey-Cyborg, it would be an easy way to whet the appetite of fans for the real fight by having it be possible in this game.

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With the release of EA Sports UFC slated for May, the lack of information released about it is a bit worrisome. Gameplay footage has been in highlight form only, which makes it impossible to draw any kind of conclusions regarding the final product. The Ignite engine will be used, so it should definitely be the best-looking MMA game ever, and being on next-gen hardware raises expectations that it should be the best-playing one as well. If not, then fans looking for a satisfying MMA gaming fix may have to stick with the last-gen offerings, which is far from a bad thing. UFC Undisputed 3 was a dream game for both UFC and PRIDE fans, while EA MMA offered up an outstanding game that did things a tad differently, but also better than the UFC offerings in some ways.

With an all-new engine to deal with, it’s a good thing so much time was taken with this game because that gives me hope that it will at least turn out to be better than EA Sports MMA — and that has held up quite nicely despite so much time passing since its release. EA knows that there’s a lot riding on this game, and as the only game in town for MMA fans, they’ll have some high expectations to live up to based on not only their own MMA gaming past, but that of those who have come before them. Every MMA game brought something new to the table in some form or fashion, and now, they’ve got to craft something that doesn’t just equal the past games, but tops them as well.