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Fight Night Champion and telling story through sport

This weekend I was laughed at – probably justifiably – for complaining that the Fight Night series has too much boxing in it. Now, I see the absurdity of criticising a boxing game for having too much boxing, but as much as I enjoyed Round 3 and, to a lesser extent, Round 4, the constant giving and receiving of blows during Legacy mode could wear a little thin after a while. Sure, the game felt like chess at high speed and demanded not just the ability to wrap your thumbs around the analogue sticks, but also timing and patience, but even so after my two hundredth round in the ring I began to feel like I wanted something more.

Fight Night Champion delivers that something more, it being a boxing game that’s about more than just boxing. It’s also about people and overcoming the odds. Champion mode sees you take on the role of Andre Bishop, a world-class amateur boxer on the precipice of entering the professional league. Unfortunately, he upsets the wrong people and finds himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

The remainder of the game sees Andre do his time and return to the ring for his comeback, working towards his final fight against vicious powerhouse Isaac Frost. It’s hardly the best story I’ve ever seen in a game – it’s riddled with almost every boxing cliché you can imagine – but it gave the fights some context; it gave me someone to root for. It’s strange, because I don’t imagine the same concept would work with something like FIFA – there’s something about boxing that lends itself to this kind of storytelling. Perhaps it’s because cinema has explored boxing so much in the past that the sport and narrative now feel like they just work together. I could imagine a Madden game having a similar story, and again this is likely because American football has also been the focus of so many films. These are very glitzy, ostentatious sports that are comfortable with a narrative framework.

So I was quite happy in Fight Night Champion to have something to watch between fights. But more than this, I was happy to see how the story didn’t just alter the flow of narrative, but also the gameplay itself. In telling the story of Andre Bishop EA Canada was able to play with the central concept of boxing. For once, I felt that Fight Night wasn’t a boxing game with too much boxing. Story elements like your time in prison see you compete in brutal bare kunckle boxing fight against fellow inmates, while later matches will see you have to deal with a broken hand, or perform only headshots, lest the crooked referee penalise you for low blows. Every match there was something slightly tweaked, something different that kept each round interesting.

It all culminates in the final face off against Isaac Frost, and the man truly is a machine. You can feel the pure violence of his punches in every swing – his combination of speed and sheer brutality sending shockwaves each time he makes devastating contact. Throughout his and Bishop’s showdown I was given several objectives that related to the story – simply survive the first two rounds, spend the next two knocking the wind out of Frost with 75 body blows, and the next three protecting a deep cut on the right side of Bishop’s face. When Frost was finally worn down enough that I could beat him into submission – while some epic music played in the background – I felt probably the most exhilarated I ever have during a sports game. Rarely have I felt so much like I was beating the odds, coming out the victor despite being the obvious underdog in the fight. It felt so different to the sometimes monotonous exchanges of blows that have characterised Fight Night games for me in the past.

I think Fight Night Champion makes a great argument for story in sports games. Not all sports titles would benefit from it, but I can think of plenty that would. Sport is all about the rush of adrenaline, the excitement of a challenge, and the elation that comes with a hard won victory. In few games have I felt these elements so pronounced as in Fight Night Champion.

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