The author of a kick-ass new book about MMA discovers that EA Sports: UFC is nothing like a real cage fight — except when it’s exactly like one.

Kerry Howley
Dec 15, 2014 · 8 min read

By Kerry Howley
Illustration by Victor Kerlow

EA Sports UFC
Electronic Arts)

One of the first mixed martial arts fights I ever watched, I watched alone, in a part of Iowa City that seemed less like a college town and more like a place where people stage MMA fights in bars. I was in Iowa City because I was a graduate student. I was alone because the sloppy amateur fights on display at this particular venue were nothing my friends would agree to endure.

Before every bout, the announcer gave each man’s name, hometown, and the martial art with which he would like to be identified: wrestling, jujitsu, judo. Occasionally, the announcer said someone’s name, gestured toward the brightly lit side of the octagon, and we stared in silence at dust dancing in the light; the fighter had, at some point between arriving and hearing his name, lost his nerve.

One fighter who did show up was a fat kid with a goatee. He called his martial art not wrestling or Muay Thai but “Farmboy Bullshit,” which I found charming. This was a time when I spent much of my waking life with fighters who trained four, five times a day, who were studying Portuguese to better learn from Brazilians, who were wholly invested in what degree of torso-twist would achieve the perfect Kimura lock. Farmboy Bullshit, I knew, was doomed. Watching him lose was like watching a man fall to a seizure. His defense was so incompetent, it was as if the attack were self-generated.

“Violence is easy,” is a platitude we offer to children and wayward adolescent boys, an exhortation to “work things out” rather than “resorting to” — and we are always “resorting to” — confrontation. As an empirical matter, this is wrong. Violence is scary, and therefore hard. For the most part, people find either face-saving or humiliating ways to back down. Most spontaneous fights are only seconds long, as people do not actually want to be in them, and find dramatic stopping points at which to exit. Here, for, instance is former light-heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz describing his first street fight, undertaken before he had any training, in his illuminating autobiography, This Is Gonna Hurt: “We were standing face-to-face and then all of a sudden he slapped me real hard in the ear. I started crying and I ran home.”

When we cannot stop ourselves, we look for someone who will stop us. Students who throw punches are most likely to do so in the presence of a teacher, and prisoners in the presence of a guard, which is to say, in view of someone they know will save them from the chaos they’re initiating. As Randall Collins documents in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, “Fighters are mostly fearful and incompetent in the exercise of violence.” Unbearable tension leads them to look for a way out, and if they cannot find a way out, it leads to ugly, terror-stricken slobberknocking, which is to say, Farmboy Bullshit. It does not, in nature, typically lead to a perfectly executed triangle choke.

The principle complaint concerning EA Sports UFC, and the one that has led to its reputation as a disappointment among gamers, is that it is enormously complicated. “Each new series of moves is more complex than the last,” complains one reviewer. “I never had time to digest what I was doing.” The game, reports another, “does not cater to button-mashers.” Scolds a third, “People want to pretend to be George St. Pierre, without having to train like him.”

I should pause here to confess that EA Sports UFC, which at least one frustrated reviewer calls the most complicated game he has ever encountered, was the first video game I played since Metroid for the original Nintendo in, I’m guessing, 1994. I played the UFC game with a controller map I’d printed and spread out across my coffee table. This was barely sufficient to get me through the training portion, which actually tells you which buttons to push, and when. “What is LT?” I asked my husband while pounding every button at once. “Can you Google LT? What is LT with an arrow pointing down? RB? What is RB?”

I was enormously pleased with myself when I learned how to make Ronda Rousey throw a hook and a roundhouse kick. I never learned how to defend against a takedown or submission, so on the ground I struggled helplessly as Miesha “Cupcake” Tate torqued Rousey’s arm until she tapped out. Even when I took the time to learn submission defenses and attempts, I could not deploy them in the moment, against a moving opponent. It was as if I hadn’t learned anything at all. In this, the game resembles the actual experience of learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

This brings us to the matter of Ronda Rousey’s hair. The game designers have obviously invested countless hours in getting right the shading of roots, the pull of the strands against the rubber bands in each section of ponytailed tresses, down to the tight, shaded bun at the crown of her head. The game is universally praised for its graphics, which are noted for their realism. This is interesting, both because the game’s most engaging effects are somehow off, as with the ring girls’ monstrous teeth, and also because hyper-real detail inevitably pushes the player out of the game. As any cartoonist can tell you, it is easier to identify with abstract characters than with characters realistically drawn. The intense realism of Ronda Rousey’s hair makes it hard for me to believe I am her. But perhaps the point is less to identify with Ronda Rousey than to tell her what to do.

Before becoming familiar with mixed martial arts, I had never watched a televised sporting event among strangers, never understood the particular pleasure of holding my breath alongside 50 fellow spectators. My first experience of this was at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Iowa City during a pay-per-view fight. While I enjoyed fight night at Buffalo Wild Wings, it was extremely disturbing to me that people were shouting advice at the screen. “Elbows!” some guy in an Affliction T-shirt would shout. “Knees!” It was extremely disturbing to me because… who the fuck are you? By what right did portly Iowans with wing grease on their faces shout direction to professional fighters? Was it their contention that, say, wrestling champion and Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt Demian Maia was drawing a blank, just waiting for someone to come up with “elbows”? It was explained to me that this was just what fans did, part of the ritual, the ignorant shouting advice to the proficient. I am still struggling to accept this.

What I am suggesting is that the pleasure of EA Sports UFC is the pleasure of this fantasy: You can tell Ronda Rousey to throw an elbow, and, through the television screen, she will listen to you. Then, you will lose, because you are not, in fact, proficient in MMA, and you don’t know what you’re doing. Perhaps you will proceed to write a review about how EA Sports UFC is a bad game.

I do not mean to argue that the game cannot be improved, only that improving it would involve precisely the opposite of what the reviewers seem to want: less literal graphics, and a repertoire of martial arts moves and countermoves that is vastly more difficult to master. Ronda Rousey’s hair should not have such perfectly realized highlights; it should not have highlights at all, and indeed, it would be preferable if Rousey were represented as a stick figure or, perhaps, a funny animal.

The game would, in other words, refuse to indulge our fantasies about violence, refuse to assure us that in a moment of noble conflict, we will rise to the occasion, powered by “heart” and some moves we learned on the family farm. The barriers to successful fighting technique should start well before any avatar is to ascend to the octagon, such that making it into this space would require years of gameplay, over which time our avatars would age and incur possibly devastating training injuries. Homesick fighters would pine for their mothers and abandon fight camp. Girlfriends would leave, pets would die, corner men would fail to show, and fight doctors would reveal themselves to have highly suspect credentials. There would be the task of self-starvation in the service of cutting weight, and the attendant risk of kidney failure. There would be the impulse to fake a knee injury and flee the venue. There would be the uncontrollable urge to do as Tito Ortiz claims to have done before every fight throughout the long arc of his career: weep.

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Thanks to Bobbie Johnson, Sarah Sloat, and Lawrence Levi

Kerry Howley

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Author of fiction/nonfiction hybrid Thrown (Sarabande, 2014)



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