There is something truly amazing about the sport of boxing. In many ways, watching two competitors in minimal garb, trading gloved punches in a cordoned-off area is about as primal as it gets. It’s that kind of purity that has sustained the sport’s popularity for almost the entirety of human existence. Yet, for a sport based in such simplicity, the ‘Sweet Science,’ as it’s also known, has been nearly impossible to replicate in a video game due to the sport’s technical nuance and idiosyncrasies.
One of the earliest examples of boxing video games was a game called… well, Boxing for the Atari 2600. Developed by Activision and released in 1980, the game features a primitive top-down view of two faceless figures who duke it out for a round of 2 minutes, or until one of them lands a total of 100 punches; hardly a simulation of the world’s purest sport. Nintendo’s Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! in 1987 wowed gamers upon its release and, even today, is considered one of the best video games of all time. However, the sport of boxing was still looking for that true digital doppelganger as it approached the new millennium.
In the late 90’s, it was EA Sports who were way ahead of everyone else when it came to replicating the sport of boxing in video game form. Starting in 1995 with the influential Foes of Ali, EA embraced boxing wholesale in 1998 with the release of Knockout Kings 99. Featuring a roster that sported fighters ranging from legends like Muhammad Ali and Jack Dempsey, to contemporary stars such as Oscar de la Hoya and Lennox Lewis, the first Knockout Kings game featured cutting-edge graphics, smooth motion-capturing, and a decent control scheme that gripped players and set the tone for any game that would follow. It was a perfect balance between a sim and an arcade experience, and it catered to a multitude of gamers not just in the boxing realm, but fighting game fans in general.
In comparison to more modern titles, the original Knockout Kings was pretty bare bones, featuring only three modes: Slugfest, Exhibition, and Career. But with such engaging gameplay that was immersive in its time, the Knockout Kings debut was a hit and set up a handful of successful sequels that always built upon the game’s core fundamentals and sturdy foundation. Despite Knockout Kings’ success, EA still had a ways to go if they wished to perfectly emulate the action boxing fans would be treated to on a weekly basis. And though the four sequels they produced – Knockout Kings 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003 – did their job of constantly improving upon the already established formula, it became obvious that some serious innovation was needed to carry the boxing genre into the future.
Enter Fight Night 2004, a huge benchmark for the boxing genre. Gone was the button mashing of the past and in its place came what EA Sports called Total Punch Control, a robust system that utilized the right analog stick to throw punches. On top of that that, Fight Night 2004 implemented a new blocking system that included bobbing, weaving, and parrying, also involving the right stick. These innovations revolutionized boxing video games, making Fight Night the gold standard for any that followed.
Having had four titles and seven years to perfect their craft, Fight Night Champion would be released in 2011. Unlike previous installments of the franchise, Champion would be the realest, grittiest respresentation of the “sweet science” to that point in addition to being the most realistic and fun to play. Earning an M-rating from the ESRB – a first for EA Sports – the game would feature strong language and realistic damage models that put a magnifying glass on boxing’s violence and brutality whilst acknowledging the sport’s seedy political underbelly. The game has a huge focus on virtually everything that encapsulates the sport whether it be punching, timing, or movement. Every boxer, be they licensed or generic, have individual styles when it comes to the way they attack and defend, and whichever one they put the most emphasis on. Some fighters will be gritty knockout artists that will be aiming to knock your block off from the opening bell while others will be defensive masterminds that rely on counter-punching to win them rounds.
Champion’s eponymous story mode sees players control Andre Bishop, a promising middleweight prospect who wins this universe’s equivalent to an Olympic Gold medal before embarking upon a professional career that sees him tangle with DL McQueen, a corrupt boxing promoter who attempts to derail Bishop due to his refusal to work with him. After successfully navigating all the roadblocks that are put in his way and placing himself firmly on the road to prizefighting greatness, Bishop is set up by two corrupt cops on McQueen’s payroll for illegal weapon possession and is sentenced to five years in prison. It’s behind bars where Bishop is forced into bare-knuckle fights against White supremacists. After overcoming two of them within the span of minutes, Bishop is savagely beaten, nearly to death, and is at an all-time low in his life. By the time he is released from prison, Bishop has bulked up to become a heavyweight and, after laying a whooping upon a ranked boxer in his new weight class, embarks upon a road to redemption and glory.
Throughout Champion mode, players are forced to deal with a plethora of scenarios that range from having to knock out an opponent to avoid the scorecards of obviously corrupt judges, or using your left hand almost exclusively after breaking your right. The player also faces fictional fighters that cover the long list of boxing caricatures such as round-stealing journeymen, cardio tanks, and left-hook artistes. Announcers Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas add to the immersion by describing each of these scenarios in surprising amounts of detail.
A flashy, Hollywood-style story mode isn’t all the game boasts either. Fight Night Champion also contains a really good career mode that allows players to take an established boxing star or a created fighter and climb the ranks of their weight class in pursuit of three world championships per division, each based on the prizes of the real WBC, WBA, and IBF commissions (but with name changes to avoid licensing issues). Fighters must also find a balance between engaging in a rigorous training camp to quickly improve their fighter and making sure the player is 100% going into the next fight. Different gyms put an emphasis on certain aspects of the sport and can be used when going against fighters with different areas of expertise. Want to end fights early? Focus on that power. Having trouble showing up in the later rounds? It’s stamina you want.
Even at 10 years old, Fight Night Champion still has a dedicated community keeping it alive. While not reaching the crazy heights it used to when it comes to player counts, the online scene remains a place where a players can cut their teeth in a more competitive environment. Community creations constantly feature more recent boxers that players can download and use in any game mode they wish, including career. And since the game’s release, there has yet to be another boxing game that has reached the same heights Fight Champion reached in 2011 as the fighting game industry – EA Sports included — seems to have completely shifted their focus to the world of MMA. The independently developed eSports Boxing Club seems dedicated to become the heir to the throne and is expected to release an Early Access build sometime this summer. But for now, Fight Night Champion lives on as boxing’s last great foray into gaming. And until something else comes along and delivers, the community will ensure that Champion will never die.
It wasn’t the one-armed man this time, dammit!
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