When it comes to sports, one of the biggest personalities around right now is that of Dana White, the forty year-old president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. While he should be thought of as the business genius who took over a small-time fighting league and made it into the juggernaut it is today, Dana is becoming equally famous for his smack-talk and his countless number of demeaning rants aimed at everyone not affiliated with the UFC. Best known for his hatred of competing promotions and, at this moment, locked in a media back-and-forth with Tom Atencio of Affliction Entertainment (an up-and-coming promotion), he is taking on all who would challenge his authority…including Electronic Arts.
UFC 2009: Undisputed has been one of the biggest video games of 2009, and is quickly approaching two million units sold, while boasting general approval from critics (myself included). Sniffing out a market it is yet to capitalize on, Electronic Arts, the world’s largest game publisher, has announced its own venture into the MMA video game market, with a yet-to-be-titled MMA game slated for 2010. But In a move that may spell doom for EA’s in-development sports-fighting hybrid, reports have surfaced that any fighter who offers their likeness to EA may be facing a ban from the UFC.
Let me start by saying that this whole story is generally unconfirmed, but somewhat substantiated. The story itself broke on a MMA forum and, shady as that sounds, the allegation was confirmed by a legitimate agent in the sport. Because this is something that would be kept on the down-low by all relevant parties, we will probably not see an honest statement from anyone involved. The conundrum being that Dana White is not going to admit to forcibly monopolizing a genre, fearing potential fallout from both the PR and HR department. Agents and competitors, meanwhile, are not going to call him out on it, due to the fear of being put on the @)*%list of the biggest fighting label in the world.
At this time, there are more than a few fighters interested in making an appearance in EA’s game. Randy Couture, a former champ who has had more than a few shouting matches with UFC brass, was the first to announce that he will be making an appearance (which is certainly irking Dana, as Randy sat out Undisputed). While licensing agreements are not my specialty, there are also rumbles of other current UFC fighters that could sign on to the title. For example, Peter Moore of EA Sports discussed their pursuit to include current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida. In addition to Machida, there are numerous UFC contenders who have the rights to their own likeness, and could join EA’s ranks. Part of the problem for the UFC also comes from the sheer number of former stars that have left for greener pastures (and paychecks). The turnover rate for fighting promotions is incredibly high, and the UFC is no exception. At this time there are dozens of established fighters who made a name in the UFC, only to leave for groups like Affliction or the Japanese DREAM organization, which would technically let them avoid Dana White’s wrath. Couture let slip that former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia will be a member of the game’s cast. In addition to Sylvia, there are other former UFC champions who are still competing like Andrei Arlovski, Tito Ortiz and Vitor Belfort. Even outside the UFC, there are loads of personalities that could be included, such as Incredible Hulk lookalike Bob Sapp, former Pride Heavyweight Champ Fedor Emelianenko and much of the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion (many of them fall outside the UFC's weight classes).
Despite the availability of talent to sign to the game, the possibility of a ban poses a serious problem for EA. While there is plenty of talent untouched by the UFC, there is no debate that they remain the promotion to be in, both from a financial standpoint (in spite of their well-publicized stinginess), and in terms of security (UFC is one of the few promotions that it would be a surprise to see fold up overnight). Because of this, threatening a ban holds a great deal of weight, especially if any given fighter’s current promotion shuts down. The most obvious victims in this, outside EA, would be fighters sitting outside the UFC, looking in. One such fighter would be Seth Petruzelli. Best known for his TKO victory over internet brawler Kimbo Slice, Petruzelli is a warrior looking for a home right now. While he first came to fame on the UFC-centric reality show The Ultimate Fighter, he was cut free after consecutive losses in 2006. He later joined the now-defunct EliteXC, and has not fought since the promotion’s liquidation. For a guy like Petruzelli, there really aren’t many places to go and, ironically, with Kimbo appearing on the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC would be his most likely pursuant for a possible rematch. While Petruzelli isn’t a guy who strikes fear into the opposition, he is an identifiable fighter and, as such, fits the hypothesized bill for EA’s MMA game. Almost ten months removed from a paycheck for actual fighting, Petruzelli, and many others caught in a similar situation, would face a difficult decision over taking a handful of cash from EA while incurring Dana’s wrath, or holding on to that slim chance of a return to the UFC.
Even for established current members of the UFC like Mike Swick or Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, the risk of angering Dana may beat out the cash reward from being included in the game. The individual fighters, in a lot of ways, are at the mercy of the UFC’s upper management. If two fighters are both up for a title shot, all else equal…why wouldn’t Dana choose the guy who didn’t appear in EA’s MMA game? What’s more, guys who sign on for “that other game” could even have their matches downplayed, bumping a Headline fight back to the Main Card (or, for the newer fighters, they could get bumped from the Main Card to the Undercard). Dana White may or may not actually be willing to do this. Either way, for any given fighter, they may end up looking at a net loss, should they go along with EA.
There are a lot of hypothetical ways this could play out for EA. The worst case scenario would be precisely what Dana White wants; a complete absence of UFC competitors, and a refusal from all UFC hopefuls. EA would still probably get a few odds-and-ends thrown in there, like a Choi Hong-man or a Mirko Cro Cop, who can get by without the UFC…but the game would still be devoid of even the defectors, out of fear that they may need to return to the UFC one day. The result would be something similar to the days of Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, which had a totally fictional group of players, outside the title’s namesake. Another possibility would be EA talking to the fighters and “making an offer they can’t refuse.” By flashing enough cash to as many high-profile fighters as possible, they could make a ban on fighters impractical to the point where the UFC just couldn’t do anything. However, a company as budget-conscious as EA would probably be reluctant to throw what would total several million dollars at a problem that they could supplement through laziness and nickel-and-diming. Finally, EA may completely abandon the inclusion of real-life mixed martial artists and choose to focus totally on a sort of career mode. By taking a long-term approach to MMA games, EA could try and build a reputation on its gameplay alone, allowing them to keep a relatively low budget (and possibly increase their chances to turn a profit), while progressively building the series over time, eventually giving it a reputation that would allow fighters to gravitate towards it.
Truly, this could shape up to be one of the greatest cross-industry rivalries of all time, assuming Dana White really is bumping chests with one of the world’s biggest publishers. In terms of capital, EA is a Brock Lesnar-like heavyweight while the UFC is…well…a five year old kid (about six to seven times the size). Keep in mind, for example, that EA dropped $860 million to buy Bioware and Pandemic Studios, not that far off from the total value of the UFC. EA has the cash to force whatever it wants through and because of that, the proverbial ball is still in their court. The only option for gamers, though, is to simply wait and see what happens.