I'm not sure what's less surprising: The fact that Brett Favre came out of his fake retirement to sign with the Minnesota Vikings, or the fact that EA Sports signed mixed martial-arts legend Randy Couture as a featured athlete in its upcoming debut, EA Sports MMA. Fight fans had been speculating for a while about the five-time UFC champions eventual appearance in EA Sports game, if for no other reason than the unique circumstances that surround the announcement: Couture still has two fights remaining on a UFC contract (including his next fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira fight at UFC 102 on August 29), making him perhaps the only UFC fighter who will appear in EA Sports MMA, barring some future talent shake-ups.
Last Saturday, I went down to San Jose for a press conference in which EA Sports president Peter Moore announced Couture's involvement in the game. The event was held just before a Strikeforce promotion at the HP Pavilion. The show was sponsored in part by EA Sports, as were a couple of the fighters on the card. Just ahead of the show, I got a chance to sit down with both Randy Couture and Peter Moore to talk about EA Sports MMA. I started with Couture, whose entry into the fight game actually came as a result, of all things, from a real-time strategy game.
Q&A WITH RANDY COUTURE
GameSpot: So how did the deal with EA Sports MMA come together? I understand it started with Command & Conquer, right? [Note: Couture played Commander Warren Fuller in 2008's Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3].
Randy Couture: Yeah, with my sports agent, Matt Walker. [EA] approached him about me playing a character in Command & Conquer--me and [female MMA fighter Gina Carano, who played sniper Natasha Volkova in the game], and that led to talks. We'd been discussing video game options. We had just spoke to some other companies, and Command & Conquer opened the door with EA, and if there was any interest with them in doing an MMA game and being a part of it, and that's--the ball just rolled.
GS: What was the C&C experience like? What did you do? How long did it take?
RC: It was a one-day shoot. Played the character, you know, you do the theatrical clips in between the game play now, and I played one of the characters, Commander Walker. It was cool. It was fun. You know, got costumed and the whole thing…
GS: You memorized your lines and all that?
RC: Yeah, to some extent.
GS: Cool. Can you tell me about what your involvement with EA Sports MMA has been so far and what it will be in the future?
RC: Well, I think initially just discussing layout for the game. I don't know anything about code or any of that stuff, so my contribution would be miniscule in that. But I obviously know the sport, and I think as an athlete in the sport I've always kind of focused on game-planning, studying video, training, sharpening particular tools, and the progression. As you go from fight to fight you get better in certain areas. I think those are all things that [the developers] liked and wanted to try to incorporate as more of a cerebral approach to mixed martial arts.
It's not just two guys out there brawling and beating each other up, but I think that's something that they… want to capture in the game. Obviously they're very, very good at what they do, so I'm excited to see how that comes out. You're going to actually get to travel around and go to different regions of the world to focus on specific pieces of the MMA puzzle and all those sorts of things. So, I think it's going to be very interesting.
GS: And you mentioned you'll be doing motion capture in October, correct?
RC: I think we're doing some motion capture stuff in October for the game specifically.
GS: Have they given you any sort of plans of what they're looking for from you?
RC: I've had no guidelines to that. Yeah, we're just setting up dates to do some of that now.
GS: I'm wondering if you have seen UFC 2009 Undisputed and, if so, what you thought of it?
RC: I haven't seen it. I've seen commercials for it and some of the broadcasts of the fights that I've been at. So, I've seen kind of dynamically, you know, what it looks like with CGI and all that stuff, and it looks pretty good. But, you know, I'm not a huge gamer. I don't know--probably showing my age there--but Atari came out when I was a kid, and we were pretty excited about Pong. So, you know, this whole age is completely different.
GS: During the press conference [EA Sports president Peter Moore] said he thinks video games are a great way of growing a sports popularity. Do you have any expectations in that regard for EA Sports MMA and what it will do for the sport?
RC: Well, I think it's a very intriguing thing, you could have kids in a lot of countries who maybe have never even seen it on TV, but they're really interested in a fighting game or a combative game, and the fact that they can interact with people in other countries like the US, where it's obviously hugely popular, is only going to create interest. And then they're going to want to go out and actually see the sport that they're playing on the video game, where otherwise they may not have gotten exposed to it.
GS: The question was asked of Peter Moore in the press conference, but do you have thoughts on Dana White strong-arming UFC talent into not appearing in this game?
RC: It's not really for me to comment. Dana's running a business and doing the things that he thinks he needs to do to run that business. And I'm a fighter. I'm going to fight. They're going to set me up with fights, and you know, I've fought hard to keep some of my ancillary rights and some of that interest for myself, which is what allowed me to be in a position to do this game in the first place.
GS: Obviously, signing you is a big deal for EA Sports, as was signing Fedor Emelianenko a few weeks back. How familiar you are you with Fedor? Have you met him?
RC: Oh, I've had dinner with him. I've met him on several occasions. I was actually hopeful that he was going to sign with the UFC and I'd get a chance to fight him. But that didn't happen that way, and I wasn't terribly surprised. I know there's a lot of stumbling blocks in those negotiations, so you know it is what it is. He's a very nice guy, very interesting guy, and obviously a very technical fighter.
GS: But you'll see him in the game.
RC: Yeah. It'll be--I hope I'll be able to fight him in the game.
GS: Do you have any expectations for the ratings that you'll have in your game, your specific fighter ratings?
RC: I have no idea. I don't know how any of that stuff works.
GS: Well you're obviously one of the stars, so I'm sure you'll have some say over how you're portrayed.
RC: Yeah, well, I'm sure, again, they'll be a pretty true to the game and—the sport, I should say, and it'll come out the way it comes out.
GS: How do you feel this sport has changed over the, say, the past five years?
RC: Well, I think it's garnered a lot more acceptance. People understand [the sport] a lot better now. We were step-children in a lot of ways. Most people looked at us like we were dangerous or somehow criminal because we got in a cage and fought. And I think people understand the training. They understand the dedication, the tactics, the technique and all of the things that go into being a fighter in mixed martial arts, and so it's created a whole new landscape for us.
GS: Thanks for your time, Randy.
Q&A WITH PETER MOORE
GameSpot: So, before we get into MMA, I want to talk a little bit about Fight Night.
Peter Moore: Sure.
GS: Fight Night Round 4 hasn't sold as well as a lot of people have thought it might and I'm wondering what you attribute that to. Do you think it was the wrong time for Fight Night 4 because of the continuing rise of mixed martial arts?
PM: Well, I think there's a couple of things. First of all, one of the great things about Fight Night for us is [that] it's a game that sells for a long time. It's not like our regular [sports series] because there's no true season. So, we'll still be selling Fight Night Round 4 till the day, if we ship Fight Night Round 5. In fact, Fight Night Round 3 was still selling very well on what we call 'catalogue titles'. So, it's not the one where it needs to explode like Madden or NBA [Live] or NHL out of the gates and then come back down again. I think there's probably an argument to be made as well that now [that] the UFC game shipped--probably a lot of people in the early going probably [enjoyed] that, and more credit to them. But eventually, they'll move on. And so the great thing about shipping early in the year is we'll see solid sales of Round 4 all the way through. We'll get a spike for holiday, and it'll keep selling. As I say, the only thing that stopped Round 3 selling is we shipped Round 4.
PM: And the other little thing is we don't have a year on it. So, it has this kind of perennial sense on the shelf for retailers. All we could do is put the right marketing behind it. I thought we did some very cool marketing with [Muhammad] Ali and [Mike] Tyson. And then secondly, put [out a game well-received by Metacritic], which at what?--88, 89--we're at.
GS: It was well-reviewed. [Note: The PS3 version of FN 4 is currently rated at 88 on Metacritic; the Xbox 360 version is rated at 87.]
PM: Yeah, very well-reviewed. And if you played it, it's a blast. So, within our control that's what we're doing. It will continue to sell for the next two years. We're not in the least bit worried.
GS: You mentioned in there that you're looking to do a fight game every year, so you've committed to a Fight Night game in 2011?
PM: We have not announced anything, but you know…
GS: Okay. But that's the schedule you talked about in the press conference.
PM: Yeah. I haven't announced Madden 11 yet either, but you know.
GS: Oh, really? There's some news.
PM: [laughs] Maybe that'll happen.
GS: All right. Let's talk about MMA for a bit. EA Sports finds itself in a strange situation in that you aren't the major license holder this time around. How does the approach change when you aren't the one with the license?
PM: I mean, licenses are fun, but you know licenses aren't the be-all and end-all. I don't know if you've ever played FIFA, but you know it's a good example. We had some great licenses with FIFA, but back in 2003-04-05 and 06, Pro Evo Soccer, which had what I'll call "inferior licenses," was a better game. We've admitted to that--it was a better game, and they were outselling us. So, whilst licenses are a very important part of what attracts a consumer to reach and look, they're not the be-all and end-all. Metacritic becomes more and more important--word of mouth, what is the game, and then you do your demo. And then, as you see, you get the quality of the game right and differentiate, then we've got a chance.
Our goal [with EA Sports MMA] is to help grow the sport [of mixed martial arts], and you know better than most probably in that room, how a world-class video game helps actually grow the sport. We look at the research we've done on Madden--and the NFL will attest to this--is that Madden over the last 21 years has helped fan involvement and make young people fans of the NFL. They'll say, "My first taste of the NFL was playing Madden."
We've been around long enough now so you've got coaches in the NFL that were playing when they were kids. So, you've got this kind of cultural thing that's bigger than the video game that actually introduced. My son played high school football. And I'm from Liverpool, but I've never played a down of football in my life--not that type of football. But you know he'll say, "I could recognize a cover two defense because I saw that in Madden '96 on the PlayStation," or something.
So, our goal is absolutely, yes, we'll get the right fighters and we recognize the power of UFC and [are] not, under any circumstances, blind to the challenge we have. But I believe getting the right fighters, getting geographic diversity, which I've said several times as well, making a great game, and then putting the authenticity that EA Sports always does into the game itself gives us a, no pun intended, fighting chance to compete with a game that maybe has a different license.
GS: Considering the critical and retail success of UFC, coupled with the MMA's skyrocketing popularity, do these factors change your expectations of this EA Sports MMA from a sales or critical standpoint?
PM: Well there's no forecast of sales against this yet. We're still a fiscal year away, obviously next year. But I think we see, I think we feel validated, if you will, that this is a sport that EA Sports needs to get involved in. The strategy of having a fighting game with the power of Fight Night and then having MMA on alternate years gives us a nice rhythm to what we do. And we're not, as I said in the press conference, under any illusion that we'd want to be able to churn out an MMA game every year. We don't think that that's the right thing to do. We need to be able to invest in building differentiation and quality. But the strategy for us in the broad fighting genre is Fight Night and MMA alternating years.
GS: Am I reading in too much of the fact that EA Sports is here with Strikeforce tonight in San Jose to think that a Strikeforce licensing deal might happen?
PM: Yeah, I think you are. I mean, we're big fans of what [Strikeforce promotion founder] Scott Coker has done. I think he's obviously, at this point, turned into a very legitimate contender, if you will, to UFC. At the same time, we're also working with other circuits around the world, importantly, and to bring different styles and even different ring types… into play. So, yes, you're probably reading too much [into it].
GS: A few weeks back you announced the addition of Fedor Emelianenko to the roster, and today you've announced Randy Couture. Can you talk about these two fighters and how important a roster is to you?
PM: We call it a "Fight Night approach", actually, which is a little different than we typically do this. You know, our other games are organizational-based: NFL, MBA, NHL, FIFA. And in this particular instance, [with] Fight Night, the recipe we had was to develop our own IP, if you will, which is the title, and then actually find the right individuals to contribute on a one-on-one basis. And so we certainly have found great success in doing that with Fight Night, and we intend to do the same thing with MMA--find the right fighters and maybe work with some surrogates and have them, you know, as modes in the game or something. But this is EA Sports, MMA. It's not Strikeforce. It's not Dream. It's not... Pride or anything else that might be either alive or dead right now... So, it's something that we intend to build. That gives us a lot more flexibility in what we can do with the game, quite frankly, as well.
GS: Signing Fedor was obviously a huge win. From an outsider's point of view it seemed that the deal was down to the wire in that there were rumors that he might sign with UFC. Can you talk about how that process went from your point of view?
PM: Well, I can't get into the details, but obviously we're huge fans of Fedor. Between him and Randy, those were the two that you would go after and go after hard as, if you will, "tent poles" for the title. And regardless of whatever negotiations he was having or where he was going to fight, we were very clear that we wanted Fedor in the game, and our team went and did that deal, and that's turned out very, very well for us.
Now I think we're getting all of the underpinnings in place when you have two world-class fighters like Randy and Fedor, you have the opportunity to build your title around that and there'll be more to come. There's a lot of fighters out there that have image rights that allow them to do video game rights separately than where they may fight, and so our ability to get after them and start building out our roster. You've got two very, very strong fighters who are world recognized in Fedor and Randy, and it's a great start for us.
GS: I know you've addressed this question several times today, but I'm wondering if you see EA going after UFC talent in the future?
PM: We go after talent, period, and so we seek great fighters that can actually sign a deal, and that's very important. We are, under no circumstances, a company that goes and tries to encourage people to break deals that they have. If they've got a deal where their image rights [are] locked up with UFC, then that's the case. If there's a deal where we can legitimately and legally sign them, then you bet we'll be talking to them. But [UFC president Dana White], a smart guy, has got a lot of his fighters with their image rights signed up, and we, of course, wouldn't get involved in that.
GS: All right. Final question, and this one's about wrestling. With Midway's financial troubles the TNA wrestling license is presumably out there for the taking. I know EA has done wrestling games in the past with the WCW (like WCW Mayhem). Any chance of getting into a wrestling game again?
PM: You know, in today's economy, you really have to make some tradeoffs as regards where you deploy your resources. We've got a strategy now that, as I said, feels like Fight Night--MMA--Fight Night--MMA on alternating years. For us to get involved in a third combat sport might be challenging for us. And while we have a lot of wrestling fans, believe me, they're within the EA Sports ranks, there is no plan right now to get involved in wrestling.
We really need to be focused on creating two world-class games, every single year having one of those shipped. And a third game might be a little bit of a stretch from where we have talent. You don't want to dilute the quality of what you're doing to try and get breadth. And I think our real focus right now is the sport of boxing, the sweet science of boxing, and the hugely attractive and growing sport of mixed martial arts.
GS: All right. Thank you, Peter.
PM: My pleasure. Appreciate it.