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So I Went to a Fight, and a Video Game Broke Out ...

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When Oregon's LeGarrette Blount falcon-punched Boise State's Byron Hout to begin the college football season (and end his own career) it made me wonder: Why don't we see that in NCAA 10? It's in the game, right?

Hell, yes it is. I've seen unranked and untelevised N.C. State and North Carolina squads get into a helmet-swinging brawl in 1993. Clemson and South Carolina's fourth quarter throwdown 11 years later - including cops on the field - left both schools sitting at home instead of going to bowl games. And we'll all be dead a long time before there is ever again anything like the unforgettably amazing Miami-Florida International gong show of 2006, which showcased state troopers, 13 ejections, a kickoff from the 10-yard line, and running back A'Mod Ned on crutches, striding forth into the maw of disaster.


Really, though, the answer here is so obvious as to be not worth asking: There's no way in hell the NCAA would license a product that featured fighting, no matter how awesome. And you can forget about it in Madden, too. Football is the most institutionally conservative and image-conscious of the major team sports, and clearly prefers to keep its violence well regulated and between the lines. Anything else is left for games like Blitz: The League.

Two licensed sports games, however, do acknowledge illegal or semi-legal aggression in some way: baseball has its beanings, and hockey, well, need anyone say more. In fact, the physicality is going into new realms in this year's NHL 10, says producer David Littman, himself a former professional hockey goalie who had brief appearances in the NHL.


But the violence isn't a gratuitous minigame, Littman said. It's intended to function as hockey fighting does in the real world: A means of policing opposing players' conduct, responding to intimidating tactics and relentless checking, or to fire up the home crowd and inspire solidarity on your team.

"For me, fighting has a place in hockey because it does have a calming influence," Littman says, making a case that many have - without fighting in hockey, massive guys with sticks would seek dirtier, and more injurious, means to dissipate aggression. "We have that authenticity in this game. If you're being checked all over the ice by the other team, and being run out of your own building, you can bring out your fourth line, start a fight, win it, get the crowd back into the game, and it takes away the effects of that intimidation."


Is the NHL cool with this? Absolutely, Littman says. "We work very closely with them [and the NHL players' union] throughout the development process, on what goes in the game," he said. "It's their names on the box with us, too. And we go through yearlong approval processes with them. They're very happy because of our sales and quality, but at the same time they have to protect their names. We worked with them all year, particularly on fighting this year, and no doubt, fighting is a hot topic. There's always controversy, but that was something we worked with them all year on."


In fact, the eminent Edmonton enforcer Zack Stortini was brought in to consult with NHL 10's developers on how to build a first-person fighting engine. His guidance is what tied the fighting to in-game performance boosts, Littman said.

"When you fight in our game, the lines get their energy back, you hear the commentators talking about that, you see the crowd on its feet, banging on the glass," Littman said. "That comes from Zack. He said that there's nothing like being at home, and you've showed the other team that your team's not gonna take it on your home ice."


NHL 10's openness about aggression is authentic to something else: The league's posture on fighting. It's always a prickly subject, because the lessons of hockey's fisticuffs are much more subtle than the beating one sees on a screen. It's also not tolerated in any league other than the North American professionals; in all other ranks, fighting players are ejected, not sent to the penalty box for five minutes.

But the league has repeatedly refused to crack down on fighting with the intent of its elimination, tacitly acknowledging its fundamental relevance to the game. Officially, the league considers the issue from the standpoint of player safety. And if that's its only concern, the fighting in NHL 10 is no problem, because no one is ever injured at the end of a brawl.


"It's a safe way to fight," Littman said. "You can punch people and get punched and you're still sitting on your couch, no bruises. I played professional hockey and was in a lot of fights. To be honest, fighting isn't really where you see the injuries happen."

If bench-clearing brawls are authentic to baseball, MLB has clearly said no thank you to the idea. Then again, it's a league that fines and suspends nearly all of its combatants. Drill a guy in the back in MLB 09 The Show and he'll glare at the pitcher, mouth some unpleasantries and argue with the catcher. You can put a fastball right in his earflap and the reaction is similarly sanitized - he trots down to first no problems. Do this repeatedly and someone might charge the mound. But the animation ends just as the batter breaks out of the catcher's restraint and, it is implied, goes for the pitcher.


This is similar to how beanings have been handled in other licensed MLB games, meaning that league has probably drawn a clear line to developers. (On Tuesday I emailed the game's publicity representatives to talk about beanings and fighting; unfortunately, no one could be made available for comment by the time this was published.)

Interestingly, the NHL games carry a slightly higher age-rating than their colleagues. NHL 10 and NHL 2K10 are both rated E10+, whereas Madden, MLB 09 The Show and others are all E. And there's only one reason: the fighting.


"We have to weigh the pros and cons of that," Littlman said. "Really, I don't think too many 8-year-olds are buying $60 video games. Their parents can for them, sure. Have we ever thought about taking fighting out? The answer is no, because we are striving to be authentic to hockey." Also, fans would desert the game.

And anyway, Littman points out, a concerned parent worried about video game athletes setting a bad example for their youth hockey players can just deactivate the fighting in the game's options.


Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.