Fight fans have been begging for a new boxing game for the last decade - thankfully, their prayers have finally been answered
Picture this: the year is 2011. You are a fight fan with an Xbox 360 controller in your hand and you couldn't be happier - you just played through the stellar boxing drama that is Fight Night Champion's story mode, taking the game's protagonist Andre Bishop from glove-less jailhouse fights to championship boxing matches over the course of a half-dozen hours of expertly crafted and thrilling boxing gameplay.
You then answer the question boxing fans have been asking for ages - who would win in their prime, Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson? - by picking your favourite and virtually participating in the dream fight in sweet 720p glory.
There was never a better time to be a gaming fight fan. Just shy of a year after the best boxing game ever made graced consoles, the best mixed martial arts game ever made, UFC Undisputed 3, followed, THQ and Yuke's delivering the definitive virtual MMA experience and improving on their stellar work from their previous two titles. .
Little did we spoiled fight fans know, we wouldn't be getting another boxing (or decent MMA game) in the next decade.
Shortly after UFC Undisputed 3's release, Electronic Arts acquired the license to make UFC games from floundering publisher THQ (they went bankrupt shortly after, with the UFC games being one of the only financially successful projects at the time).
Regular readers will recognize that this is not the first time the topic has been broached on this site, and if you'd like to delve into exactly why EA's UFC games have been thoroughly mediocre, or just how bad their latest title is, feel free to check out those articles.
Long story short: EA opted to shift their development team in Vancouver (the one that created the Fight Night series) onto their newly acquired UFC license; despite that team making stellar boxing titles, four UFC games have been released in the years since and not one has actually been good. In one fell swoop, combat sports fans lost their boxing franchise and any hope of getting a good MMA game as well.
Surprisingly, despite the gaping void left by Fight Night retiring from the virtual space, no other developers have swooped in since to throw their hat into the ring.
Back in the Xbox 360/PS3 era, there were multiple attempts to get a piece of the pugilistic pie, from Don King's half-decent Prizefighter to another EA published title dubbed Facebreaker, a fresh cartoonish take on the sport that unfortunately was just a ridiculously difficult button masher that fell deservedly flat.
Since Fight Night Champion released a decade ago however, not a single traditional boxing title has been released - fans of the sweet science have had to make due with replaying the classics or diving into niche VR workout fare to get their gaming fix.
Xbox players can at least enjoy the last Fight Night on newer consoles through backward compatibility, which boosts the game's performance and resolution whether you play on an Xbox One or the newer Xbox Series S or X; Playstation gamers unfortunately don't even get that option.
The boxing community has been begging EA to return to the Fight Night series (and even the MMA community has, given they were way better at those than UFC games) but it has fallen on deaf ears; EA has stated the UFC games pull in more revenue (given that boxing has been in a much better place the last few years than in 2011, and the recent UFC games haven't sold particularly well, that seems to no longer be the case) so they've seen no need to go back to the world of boxing.
Instead of garnering anything regarding goodwill with fans over the situation, EA decided to instead try to appease boxing fans by...shoehorning in a few boxers from Fight Night Champion into EA UFC 3, and on Xbox they offered a bundle that included that UFC game alongside a digital copy of Champion - not a remastered edition or with anything added, literally just a copy of the 2011 game, as if fans of the original didn't have one already.
They repeated this feat of throwing boxers into their MMA game with the addition of Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua as playable fighters in EA UFC 4. That's right, instead of playing two of the biggest current stars in boxing in a boxing game, you can play as two of the biggest current stars in boxing...in a mediocre MMA game.
Not only is it an insult to actual UFC fighters that had been left out of the game by EA, it's just plain annoying for fans of both MMA and boxing, showing once again why EA is one of the most despised companies in the world.
But alas, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. After years of being left in the dark, boxing game fans are being pulled back into the light by a brand new contender.
Enter eSports Boxing Club
Steel City Interactive is a small development studio in Sheffield, England that recently put themselves on the map with the announcement of the first proper boxing game in a decade: eSports Boxing Club.
The new developer certainly didn't pull any punches when it came to their ambitious plans: eSBC is not some small project looking to quickly cash in on an opportunity, instead it is a massive undertaking with an emphasis on creating a proper and authentic boxing simulation.
One may think that creating a fully immersive, fully featured boxing sim would be too tall a task for a smaller development studio, but from what we have been shown so far, this new developer looks to be delivering everything fans have been craving and then some.
The visual quality in the gameplay footage shown thus far has been tremendous, each boxer's character model incredibly detailed and natural-looking and that quality looks even more impressive in motion, showcasing the fluidity and smoothness of the title.
Footwork and fighter movement has been a clear focal point for the development team, a vital aspect of boxing that was so often overlooked in previous boxing games. Even in a game as good as Fight Night Champion, footwork often appeared janky and unnatural; that is not the case in eSBC.
Feints, likewise an extremely important aspect of boxing that is always overlooked, are another area of focus for Steel City, with a robust feinting system allowing players to fake out their opponents to gain the upper hand.
To lend an air of authenticity to the game, commentary will be provided by Paul Dempsey (BT Sports), Johnny Nelson (Sky Sports), and Todd Grisham (DAZN), and all of the major boxing titles are represented in the game, from the WBO to the IBF to the WBC. In a unique twist, an eWBC title will be awarded via an online eSBC tournament post-launch with the winner receiving a physical belt from the WBC as a reward.
A fully customizable and in-depth career mode is promised, with an extensive character creator shown off alongside officially licensed gear you can deck out your boxer with, venues ranging from gyms to arenas and outdoor stadiums to fight in, and dozens of attributes and skills that can be learned and improved on in the gym as your rise through the ranks to capture glory.
Even retirement in eSBC is realistic, with players able to make comebacks after retiring their character (retirements in combat sports are never permanent, after all).
This already sounds incredible and is more than enough to have boxing fans excited - but with a small startup at the helm, surely we won't be able to play as any star boxers?
Wrong - eSBC already features a robust roster of big names throughout the sport's history, from current stars like Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford, to legends such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Frazier, Roy Jones Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, and even the great Muhammad Ali. More boxers are promised to be revealed in the coming months, only adding to the already impressive hype the game is building up amongst combat sports gamers (see the end of this article for the full confirmed roster so far).
Thankfully, eSBC isn't years away from launch either - the developers in a recent update have stated that the game engine is completed, with the bulk of work remaining being adding more boxers and their unique movements and skillsets into the game, along with the usual fine tuning and balancing that is standard for a video game nearing release.
Steel City is planning to put out a build of the game within the next few months on PC early access featuring around 50 boxers to start, with new fighters being added throughout the early access window. This means PC gamers can get their hands on the promising title very soon, and a full release across PC, Xbox and Playstation platforms is looking to be shaping up for later this year.
The developers have made it clear that their ambitious title is planned to be supported for quite some time - rather than some yearly release like an EA Sports game, it appears more fighters will be included post-launch and other features will be added as well.
Should they keep adding droves of boxers to the already impressive roster they have, some sort of yearly fighter pass would seem to be the perfect fit for such a title to keep players engaged and the community thriving.
What More Could One Ask For?
All of this sounds fantastic and with each new update the developers give, the game just sounds better and better.
With so much clear potential, fans' minds have been racing with their own ideas on what could be added to truly put eSBC over the top, alongside of course their picks for boxers that eSBC should pick up next.
As such, I have a few ideas for features they should include (if they haven't already):
It's very possible this is already in the game, but if not, it's a relatively simple feature that would be a thrill for fans.
A robust event creator would allow players to create their own boxing card, from preliminary match-ups to the main event, then either play as their preferred fighter for each match or watch from the sidelines as the AI duke it out to determine the winner.
Players could create their own supercard, filled with legendary fights like Ali versus Frazier, Robinson versus LaMotta, and Ward versus Gatti, or fill it with fantasy match-ups such as Ali versus Marciano or a battle of the Sugar Rays in Robinson versus Leonard.
A tournament option would also be great - pitting 4, 8, or 16 boxers against each other with players able to follow a chosen fighter through the tournament bracket, or playing in each of the match-ups at their discretion would be a neat addition and for a roster as diverse and impressive as eSBC boasts, it would surely be a popular feature.
A Classic Fights Mode
Now this is a feature that the old THQ UFC Undisputed games absolutely nailed: give players a selection of classic fights to play through, with goals to recreate the outcome (if they want to play as the victor) or what could have happened (if they want to play as the loser of the original fight).
A short promo package introduces the fight and what makes it historic, with players unlocking footage of the actual fight should they meet the goals provided.
It was a simple yet very fun mode that brings about nostalgia for longtime fans while newcomers or fans that may not have seen the original are introduced to the sport's history.
The one issue of bringing this mode to eSBC may come down to rights for the fight footage, particularly for newer fights, but it's likely that content owners such as ESPN would be happy to provide said footage in exchange for having their branding included in the videos, so it's definitely a possibility to look into.
With some of the announced boxers signed also appearing in promo videos for eSBC's fighter reveals, the mode could be made even better with insights from the fighters featured in the bouts themselves, or for late fighters, comments from legends like Sugar Ray Leonard or Roy Jones Jr. on the fight and the impact they had on the sport.
Similarly, adding fantasy match-ups to the mode would also be a lot of fun, with insights from the fighters involved in the fantasy pairing or other legends commenting on who they think would win and how such a fight would play out replacing what would normally be fight footage.
Multiple Variations of Select Legends
Virtually every fighter will grow and evolve throughout their career, but their overall style tends to be quite well defined, even if it may vary over the years.
For some fighters though, there are very clear "versions" seen through their careers; age or injury may have forced them to look at the game differently, a loss may have caused them to adopt a different style, a change in weight class brought different skills to the forefront, or any number of other factors can cause a fighter to evolve or change tact.
For the majority of boxers, recreating the skillsets they had in their "prime" is more than sufficient for a videogame, but for a select few legends, there are such drastically different versions of them that they deserve to be acknowledged.
The most obvious example of this is Muhammad Ali; in his athletic prime, Ali danced around the ring and possessed unbelievable speed, dazzling his opponents for as long as the fight lasted. Later on in his career however, his legs could no longer perform for the lengthy amount of time they were required to in a boxing match, but rather than fade from greatness, Ali used his intelligence and toughness to overcome his body's failings, saving his legs for the spurts in which he needed them and instead utilizing smart clinch work and a less mobile approach to rest up before the next burst.
George Foreman is another clear example (hopefully he'll be added to the game) - in his prime, Foreman was an absolute demolisher, an athletic specimen with enough power to fell a rhino. Following his historic loss to Ali and his fall from grace, Foreman would come back from retirement years later a much larger, slower fighter; but what he lacked in speed he made up for with veteran guile, transforming his former offensive powerhouse self into a measured pressure fighter with an eye for the counter thanks to his still devastating power.