He shot a takedown as soon as the referee stepped away. I pulled him into my guard and baited him into a sweep. As I rolled into mount, I trapped his arm. I leaned back for the arm bar, and he panicked. He frantically attempted move after move, escape after escape, reversal after reversal, but I had it locked. I felt his elbow joint grinding against itself as I hyper-extended his arm. I glanced at the referee, expecting him to call the fight, but he didn’t. A moment later, I felt the arm snap, splintering like a sapling.
This incident didn’t occur in a videogame – I really broke my opponent’s arm in my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu match. I’ve competed (and lost) many times since then, and I have witnessed very few matches as grisly as my first. For casual martial arts fans, however, experiencing the sport via videogames is an enjoyable alternative, and the mystique surrounding martial arts has become an abundant source of inspiration for game developers.
From Eddy Gordo’s Capoeira in Tekken to BJ Penn’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in UFC Undisputed, it’s easy to see how martial arts play a significant role in videogames. What you might not realize, however, is that videogames do not simply draw upon martial arts for inspiration; they give back by exposing new audiences to the sport and providing martial artists with new ways of thinking about their craft. The relationship is symbiotic, and it has continued to evolve as videogames have established themselves as an important part of our culture.
Fighting games, as one might expect, rely upon martial arts more than any other genre, and they’ve been doing so long before Eddy Gordo ever hit the scene. According to the “Fighting Games” installment of G4’s Game Makers, the first fighting game was Victronics’ 1979 title Warrior, “which featured vector graphics of two knights fighting over an overlay with a top-down perspective.” Given the relative popularity of multi-user-dungeons (MUDs) at the time, which were largely based on the rules, mechanics and lore of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s not much of a surprise that the first fighting game featured swordplay rather than Kung Fu or Karate.
It didn’t take long for the Karate Kid generation to take over, though. Activision released Boxing for the Atari 2600 in 1980, Data East released Karate Champ in 1984 and Konami released Yie-Ar Kung Fu in 1985. But the nascent genre truly began to mature when Street Fighter, released in 1987, showcased the potential of fighting games by tapping the diversity of martial arts in order to give individual characters different styles and personalities. Ryu used Karate. Sagat was a Muay Thai kickboxer. Geki practiced Ninjutsu. Retsu practiced Kempo. Birdie incorporated wrestling into his boxing.
Style versus style matches have been a staple of martial arts for a long time, and the same formula that made the Street Fighter series a success made the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) a success in 1993. The diversity of martial arts lends itself to grudge matches, and different personalities are drawn to different martial arts. Street Fighter essentially capitalized on an existing phenomenon, and it paid off in a big way, spawning a multitude of fighting games that each tried to put their own spin on the Street Fighter formula – King of Fighters, Virtua Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken, to name a few. Martial arts have been good to videogames, and Tekken was especially good to me as a child, even if it was the cause of more than a few groundings. (A hockey stick, as it turns out, is not a reasonable substitute for Yoshimitsu’s sword, particularly in a kitchen setting.)
The Tekken series, perhaps more so than any other fighting game, has a knack for seeking out martial arts disciplines that may be unfamiliar to most gamers and accurately translating them into videogame form with a bit of fantasy flair. For martial artists, having their style of choice included in a major videogame generates exposure and awareness for their particular craft. One such example is Sergei Dragunov, who first appeared in Tekken 5 and returned in Tekken 6 and uses Commando Sambo.
“The average Joe – someone who doesn’t really have a vested interest in martial arts, someone who isn’t the über fan – [still doesn’t] know what Sambo is or have a clear picture of it,” Stephen Koepfer, the President and Co-Founder of the American Sambo Association, says. “So the fact that there is a character that does Sambo in [Tekken] … it’s pretty cool just for spreading the word, the fact that Sambo even exists – spreading the word to a population of people that are younger. And it’s the younger people that are going to keep martial arts alive.”
Koepfer argues that the evolution of media and entertainment, of which videogames are a major part, has changed what makes martial arts appealing and enjoyable. He cites one of his students, Reilly Bodycomb (whose highlight reel rivals Dragunov’s), as an example. “He looks at grappling more like a skateboarder would look at skateboarding: as something cool,” Koepfer says. “It’s very different from the traditional view that I was raised in, where it’s just you and your loyalty to the club and sort of that traditional thing.”
Slick transitions and sweet combos are attractive to the new generation of martial artists. Pulling off flashy submissions and knockout punches is every bit as exhilarating in real life as videogames portray it to be.
Koepfer is far from the only martial artist to recognize an inherent connection between videogames and martial arts. Eddie Bravo, a well-known Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, considered by some to be a revolutionary in the sport, encourages readers of his book, Mastering the Rubber Guard, to think of his system as a videogame.
“The more time you spend with this game, the better you get at progressing upward through the levels,” Bravo writes. “But just like with any videogame, getting started can often be frustrating because you don’t know how to use the tools at your disposal to complete your goals. To keep you from wandering in confusion, I have included the entire player’s manual in the upcoming pages.”
Bravo’s analogy is not an isolated occurrence. Joe Rogan, a commentator for the UFC, once wanted to help viewers understand the force and effectiveness of a leg kick. But instead of referencing how much pain a leg kick causes or a muscle’s reaction to blunt-force trauma, Rogan said “Think of leg kicks as like in a videogame. The more they take, their power goes right down.”
For a generation raised on Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, the connection is a simple and logical one. For many people, videogames are their only means of experiencing martial arts. That can certainly be said of fans of the UFC and mixed martial arts (MMA): They may not be eager to jump into the cage, but they will gladly pick up a controller. With IGN reporting last month that THQ’s UFC 2009 Undisputed had sold over 3.5 million copies since May of 2009, it’s safe to assume that millions of people have experienced MMA through videogames.
“We think, without question, the arrival of UFC Undisputed affected MMA. We really believe the game introduced new fans to the sport and the UFC brand,” UFC Undisputed Producer Neven Dravinski and Senior Designer Omar Kendall said in a joint email interview. “One of the coolest things about the game is that we’re literally teaching people the principles of MMA. To be good at the game, players utilize the same principles as fighters in the Octagon.
“We see people commenting all the time that they may not watch UFC on TV but love the game,” Dravinski and Kendall continued. “To us, that speaks volumes about what we’ve been able to do with this game, this brand as well as this sport. Whether they know it or not, they already have a heightened awareness of the sport of MMA and the brand of the UFC. “
Martial arts have had a profound effect on videogames. Videogames, in turn, have had an undeniable effect on martial arts. As Koepfer suggests, the ultimate hope for martial arts enthusiasts is that playing a fighter in a videogame will inspire some to try martial arts for real. Dravinski and Kendall knew of at least one example.
“One of UFC Undisputed 2010’s fighters, [Patrick Barry], was recently asked who his heroes were. His first answer was his mother, his second answer was Mike Tyson and his third answer was Sagat. Now this very same fighter gets the chance to be a videogame character himself. I hope his appearance in UFC Undisputed 2010 has as much meaning for him as it does for me: to come full circle from real-world fighters to videogame fighters and back again.”
Marshal Carper is the Editor-in-Chief of Lockflow.com. His book, The Cauliflower Chronicles: A Grappler’s Tale of Self-Discovery and Island Living, will be on shelves this summer.