Being unlicensed means you can be uncompromising, says Ricci Rukavina. It also means you're unaccountable, especially to those heavily invested in a sport built with violence and blood, who bristle at any association with them.
Rukavina's studio, Kung Fu Factory, sparked controversy when it released a trailer for Supremacy MMA, the fighting game it plans to deliver in late spring. The video ends with a fighter cavorting on a blood-soaked plywood floor, writhing in pain, his shattered leg wobbling grotesquely.
"Licenses typically don't have gameplay as a No. 1 priority," Rukavina told me. Kung Fu Factory is, as many studios say, making the game its fight-fan staff wants to play. "They don't have the gamer in mind. It's always ‘oh, you can't do this, no the fighters can't look this way, hey, we're going for this rating. All of that got to a point where we said let's make our own game.'"
That makes the reaction from MMA fans among the gaming community a little intriguing. Many hardline devotees panned the game, not necessarily for the gameplay, or its roster of fighters, licensed or lack thereof, but for that unapologetic depiction of brutality.
MMA's orthodoxy holds that, yes, in the 1990s, the sport shot to early notoriety on the promise of no-holds-barred violence - disclaimers preceded pay-per-view bouts, groin shots were found in them, states banned them outright - but now it has been cleaned up, primarily by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Still, outlaw or underground labeling is usually shunned and resented, like a criminal cousin showing up at a family function.
The idea this sport teeters on the lip of legitimacy, enough that an unlicensed video game could harm it, is more than a little paranoid. Still, Supremacy MMA remains controversial because its title presents it as a representative of a sport, but its more extreme content is a stylized, unrealistic presentation that, if it were depicted as a fighting game only, few would have a problem with.
That's where Jens Pulver, the first lightweight champion in UFC history, sees Supremacy MMA fitting in. Pulver will appear in the game. He's also a gamer with an unimpeachable resume - multiple 80-level characters in World of Warcraft, a multiple prestige player across the past four Call of Duty releases. The MMA in the game's name connotes a fighting style only, not the sport at large, he says.
"If you want to learn about MMA itself, that's when you go get a simulation game, like UFC Undisputed - which I'm in," Pulver told me. "But when you play an MMA game like this, what I want you to understand is that it's a fighting game, and MMA is the style. When we were doing Tekken and Street Fighter back in the day, tae kwon do, [other] martial arts, that was their style.
"To me, it's a fighting game," Pulver said, when asked if it belonged to the sports or fighting genres.
As for the idea that Supremacy MMA's gritty gameplay and presentation could create a false impression for MMA at large, "If people were just blind enough to go buy this game and go, ‘Oh, this must be what the UFC's like,' well, where have you been in the last eight years?" Pulver said.
"I mean, we've got Madden, and then a game like NFL Blitz, or NBA Jam," Pulver reasoned. "In NBA Jam, your head catches on fire and you do a 720 before you dunk. It's farfetched. But it's a video game, and that's what everybody knows it to be."
I agree there's no comparison in the gameplay of Supremacy MMA to that of UFC Undisputed or EA Sports MMA. True, there are no dragon punches or energy attacks, but it's still a game that calls on an arcade fighter tradition that unapologetically discards simulation quality. Rukavina himself says that ground combat, a distinguishing feature of mixed martial arts, is minimized in this game because in a video game it slows down the action and many don't find it engaging.
But it's those three letters in the title that rile people up. Maybe it's because so many professional leagues have three letter acronyms, that people react to "MMA" as a sport identifier first, and a combat style second.
The title "Supremacy MMA," which could easily sound like the name of a real-world fight series, justifies the hypothetical argument so many MMA fans use against the game: Some parent who has no concept of the sport sees MMA in the title, picks it up for their kid (ignoring the game's almost-certain M rating) and is horrified that this is the sport he's so interested in.
If it ever happens, it's a highly anecdotal occurence. What this controversy reeks of more, to me, is a sport that's a big enough business to be harmed, and young enough to have multiple constituencies presuming to speak for what it means: Fighters, fight promoters and fight fans. Video games are just another medium where these constituencies are asserting control without getting their messages straight. And as challenger sports nearly always have an us-against-them chip that comes from being disrespected or not regarded as big-time enough for something - a TV contract, a video game, a star on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Supremacy MMA isn't toeing the line of being presentable to polite company.
"It's in a publisher's interest to get that rating," Rukavina said, of the T that UFC Undisputed and EA Sports MMA have gotten. "It usually translates to more sales."
It's not a game that worries about ruining someone's business, in other words. Still, Pulver sounded almost stung by the allegation this title would hurt his sport, or that his appearance in it would legitimize someone's misconceptions of it.
"I love MMA," Pulver says. "It's been my life. I won a world title in it. I love video games, too. This is a game, and a game is supposed to be fun."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.