How video games can revive World Rugby
C.Heffler. G.Nawali. Mr Zwicker.
These are not household names and might not register for even the most diehard rugby fans.
Some think they might not even be real gamers.
But if you were the proud owner of a Playstation 2 in the naughties, I might have just unlocked some basic memory for you.
The names above were the unsung heroes of one of rugby’s greatest off-field exports – EA Sports Rugby 08 – and represent a key area where our code dropped the ball – video games.
As a kid in inner city Brisbane, I remember tackling Sunday chores with renewed vigor as the new version of EA Rugby approached.
Between EA Rugby 04, 06 and 08 I grew up recreating great Test matches (sometimes favorably – looking at you RWC 2003 Final), beating the All Blacks and Boks away with George Smith, George Gregan, Steven Larkham et al, and of course winning a few Super Rugby titles with my dear Reds.
You can also compete in licensed European competitions, take the B&I Lions on full tours, cobble together your ultimate team in the World League, and (after countless hours) even lead the mighty Welwitschias to a first victory in RWC on Elite difficulty.
Each new game would see updated teams, updated player stats, new jerseys, and renewed interest in the code.
Each multiplayer matchup with a home mate would see you trying to score with favorite players and, in later games, gleefully replaying the action.
And of course choosing the style of your try (classic, dipping or Matt Giteau) by pressing ‘x’ was one of the great joys – provided you didn’t accidentally throw the ball 2m from the try line .
Now we can debate Rugby’s best game until the cows come home (for many it’s still a two-man race between Jonah Lomu Rugby and EA Rugby 06)
But having sampled the nine offerings since EA Rugby 08 such as the Rugby Challenge series, it’s safe to say they pale in comparison.
Graphics have barely improved, gameplay and realism have arguably receded, the vast majority of teams/competitions are unlicensed, and the costs are disproportionate to the quality of the game.
For me, it’s a serious problem. And it presents an error of omission from World Rugby.
Because gaming isn’t just for pimply teenagers anymore.
It’s viral, endemic. It’s part of who we are and how we connect as a global community. And when it comes to sports, gaming offers a whole new market of fans and consumers.
You see, the odds of me watching football (“football” for purists) are next to zero, but I’m definitely going to hop on FIFA with a few friends to boo and holler while directing Mbappe and Kerr for 14 minutes at a time.
It’s a similar story with basketball, ice hockey, and American football – three sports that I have little to no interest in, but have thoroughly enjoyed playing through a controller.
They are fun, immersive, high quality, fully licensed, and drive interest in their code beyond gamers and fans.
More importantly, they make money. A lot of money.
The NBA 2K franchise for basketball sold over 123 million units in its lifetime.
FIFA 2018 alone sold 26.4 million units.
EA’s NHL, NFL, and Golf franchises also proved commercially viable, although somewhat obsolete in later offerings.
So why in Matt Dunning’s drop goal wasn’t there a serious push for World Rugby to re-enter the EA sports market?
Rugby nerds like me are crying out for another fully licensed game and I know I’m not alone.
Pumas great Augustine Pichot voiced his desire for a world-class rugby video game when he failed to play the role of chairman of World Rugby and former players such as Ugo Monye have used their platform to make the case of a fully licensed game.
The old adage “you have to see it to be it” applies to sport all the time, but in this case I would say it doesn’t go far enough.
Because to compete in a global sports market and attract new fans, it is no longer enough to see it.
You must be.
And I strongly believe that for rugby to raise its profile, average Joes and Josephines need to be able to grab a console, choose a team and BE their rugby heroes from the comfort of their homes.
Let me emphasize the importance of licensing.
A video game must include all players, jerseys, names, faces and sponsors.
No one is going to buy a copy or jump online with their friends to play as the generic “New Zealand XV” with Barden Burrett or kick “South Africa XV” to victory with Andy Pollardde.
The fans must be their heroes. And a video game that allows them to do so in Australia will not only empower future Wallabies, Wallaroos, 7s stars, but also future coaches, referees, park players and superfans.
I would also say that an updated EA game would separate the union from the cluttered sports landscape here in Oz and give authority to the code, especially for young athletes wanting to continue having a good time at home.
It would be a stretch to say the union is retaining more talent and attracting cross-code juniors if there is a home EA video game supporting rugby union, but it certainly can’t hurt.
Imagine if young players could take the Blues or Black Ferns through their respective World Cups or win a Commonwealth/Olympic medal in 7s from their living room.
Imagine climbing the ranks of a multi-divisional World League with all the top professional teams in play – fully licensed – and the choice of being offered a new team (Crusaders) to manage or a star player (like Antoine Dupont ) to sign.
Imagine a build-it-yourself player system with everything customizable, from top speed and tackles to painted headgear and fingernails.
Imagine a “story” mode where players must recreate famous World Cup moments under pressure: lost goals with Stransky and Wilkinson, or legendary tries with Finegan, Nonu and Kolbe.
Everything is possible. And it builds a legacy for new rugby fans.
In the end, I will always blindly love rugby, the Reds and the Wallabies (warts and all), whether a new high-quality video game is developed or not.
I’ll still wake up at Sparrow for Spring Tour Tests, seek out live streams of pre-season Super Rugby Tests and get my fix watching Currie Cup and NPC matches between Prem Grade and Shute Shield.
But it’s been 14 years since the last fully licensed rugby game was scrapped and RWC France is fast approaching.
So I don’t know who needs to see this or how this happens, but for the sake of our fans and next generation rugby players, especially in Australia, I would like rugby bodies around the world to come together and push EA for a new game.
Whether it’s commercial, cultural, to improve courses and participation, or simply so that punters like me can win another World Cup with the Welwitschias, there is something in it.
Thank you for staying so long.
The Namibian soon upsets.
Rugby 08 forever.