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FEATURE Can a new video game inspire a generation like Jonah Lomu Rugby?

Can a new video game inspire a generation like Jonah Lomu Rugby?
3 weeks ago

How many times did you claw your face when Nawali couldn’t catch a superb pass thrown by C. Heffler, just next to the try-line? How many times did you let your controller go idle, just to let that awesome Rugby 08 intro come alive on your TV? How many times did you have a debate with Bill McLaren and Bill Beaumont while losing another scrum in Jonah Lomu Rugby?

If you are in your early 20s, you might never have had any of those experiences, as Rugby 08 came out in 2007 and Jonah Lomu was published in 1997. Those might be classics of the genre but 17 years have passed without a game for the rugby community of the same finesse as Rugby 08 or the bombastic impact of Jonah Lomu Rugby.

That might be about to change, with a new game, Rugby 2024, to be published over the coming months. But why has it taken so long to fill the void?

Let’s go right to the chase. Rugby has a problem in the video game community: that it doesn’t sell. Specifically, it doesn’t sell nearly half as much as the likes of FIFA, PES, 2K NBA, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Tiger Woods, MADDEN NFL, MLB or Gran Turismo, falling through the cracks for gamers.

Jonah Lomu
Jonah Lomu’s formidable power and global appeal proved an enticing option for gamers in the late 90s onwards (Photo Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

FIFA 2018 sold more than 26 million copies, and we aren’t even adding the Wii/Switch Sports games, which have also set selling records. Cricket has had more video games developed and sold than rugby, but cricket has captured countries with bigger populations. But even the bat-and-ball world hasn’t had a stable run in the video game universe and, again, it is mainly due to the high cost of producing, designing, developing, publishing and marketing a new entry.

Rugby Challenge 3 – released in 2016 – was one of the last good attempts at making a rugby game, but the critics and fans didn’t fall completely in love with it. The lack of new and different game options, and some of the bugs, cut short its rise. The last rugby video game that had a critic and user rating above 74% in Metacritic (one of the main video game review sites) was Rugby 08. And after 08, EA Sports stopped the development of future rugby titles, which raises the question of whether they are profitable.

What separates rugby from skateboarding, football, basketball, ice hockey, American football and motor sports? In short, the US market. Rugby is barely visible in North America, and the ongoing problems over the last 10 years – not qualifying for the 2023 RWC was just the tip of the iceberg – has not helped ramp up its popularity.

In an era when the rugby community feels bigger, as new countries have finally shared some of the limelight, is it possible a new wave of rugby video games could not only push committed fans to be even more involved with the sport, but also entice non-converts to discover the mysteries of the oval ball?

Authentically capturing the movements, techniques, and nuances of each team and player is a time-consuming task that demands specialised expertise, which only a few game development studios possess.

One of the crucial questions for the video game industry relates to the cost/benefit aspect. A rugby game, regrettably, hasn’t generated sufficient profits to convince a well-established studio to bet on it. In the last five years, the industry has undergone deep transformations, with lay-offs by the hundreds, studios shutting down and rising costs, meaning less risky investments in games that are not certain to bring a positive and viable revenue.

With that in mind, NACON and Big Ant Studios have combined to produce a new rugby game, Rugby 2024, which is scheduled to be released later this year. But how does it work and what were the main obstacles in creating it?

“Rugby is a fantastic sport, blending strategy, physical contact and intense game-play on the field,” said NACON product manager Florent Naigeon. “However, it’s widely acknowledged as complex, with numerous rules, diverse tactics and player-specific roles. These complexities make developing a rugby game quite challenging.

“Authentically capturing the movements, techniques, and nuances of each team and player is a time-consuming task that demands specialised expertise, which only a few game development studios possess. For a game aspiring to be the most comprehensive rugby experience ever, like the one being developed by Big Ant Studios, this translates into countless sessions and extensive travel to accurately capture each team.”

Richie McCaw
Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was one of the players used to promote the Rugby 08 game (Photo Phil Walter/Getty Images)

But is there an appetite for rugby video games, or does the rugby community have a problem with the digital era?

“I don’t believe that rugby fans, in general, avoid playing video games; rather, they want a high-quality rugby game that matches the calibre of popular titles like FIFA. However, most AAA publishers hesitate to invest in this market, possibly due to considering it too ‘niche’ to achieve the desired return on investment. Big Ant Studios are huge sports fans and we trust them to deliver on the experience rugby fans have been craving for a while now. Making sure that they have all the support they need to make an accurate representation of the sport that, regardless of generation, will get rugby fans off the field and onto the digital one.”

On the development side, Naigeon reveals some of the biggest challenges in bringing a rugby game to life is trying to incorporate different styles and tactics.

Each team has their own style of play. The Wallabies prioritise ball-in-hand play, offloads, and creative attacking moves, whereas the Welsh national team focuses on strong defence and tactical kicks.

“Developing a rugby game is indeed challenging due to the sport’s numerous rules and complexities. Additionally, the official rules evolve over time under the World Rugby guidelines, which means that the developers have to take these new rules into account.

“Furthermore, each team has their own style of play. The Wallabies prioritise ball-in-hand play, offloads, and creative attacking moves, whereas the Welsh national team focuses on strong defence and tactical kicks. So the studio also needs to accurately translate these varied styles into the game. This involves creating game patterns and player AI that can execute these strategies or adapt based on the player’s preferences. The most challenging aspects of designing a rugby video game are accurately crafting the 3D models of players and faithfully reproducing the diverse phases of play. For instance, throw-ins [at lineouts] can vary significantly based on the tactics chosen by players.”

Gamer Jayden Groden
Sports gamers now enjoy a much more immersive experience than 20 years ago (Photo Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Naigeon thanked the rugby community for their “patience and trust” in having to wait so long for a new game. “We understand that, as fans of the sport, the expectations for Rugby 24 are high, as are ours,” he added. “We are dedicated to delivering a feature-rich, high-quality rugby game. We look forward to embarking on this rugby journey with the fans and eagerly anticipate your feedback during the upcoming Early Access on Steam.”

So what impact, if any, did previous rugby video games have on those who have laid their bodies on the line every week on the field?

For Georgia lock Lasha Jaiani, currently playing in France’s Pro D2 with Nevers, afternoons playing Rugby 08 with friends was one of the highlights of his day.

“I played EA Rugby 08 back in the day, and also Jonah Lomu Rugby. I really enjoyed both games, especially 08 as a child. I remember growing closer to rugby because of it. Even my friends who didn’t even play or watch rugby had that game. That shows how good it was!”

Video games bring a lot of understanding to the game, and if you could host events at actual games, where people have a virtual experience, it would be a good idea.

“I think it I’ll be good to grow the game and involve younger people. Just look how popular FIFA is. We need a licensed game, as it gives a more authentic feeling.”

Dutch international Robbie Coetzee, a South African-born former Lions hooker based in the Netherlands, believes bringing the digital experience to real-life game days could attract a new audience.

“I think that with VR, it will bring the whole experience to a new level, and maybe it will help entice people to actually try the sport. We live in a digital world now, and any online platform is a good idea to help promote oneself and especially the game. Video games bring a lot of understanding to the game, and if you could host events at actual games, where people have a virtual experience, it would be a good idea. But obviously, it would have to allow people to select the players from the competing teams of the day, your country or the best club.”

Portugal international Cody Thomas, who plays for Rouen in France, has enjoyed rugby video games since his childhood.

Cody Thomas
Prop Cody Thomas, who previously played for Brive, would love a new game similar to Rugby 08 (Photo Diarmid Courreges/ AFP via Getty Images)

“It was great for the time playing the Rugby 08 one,” he said. “That was my friends and I every weekend, if we weren’t playing ourselves. I was, like, 12 years old and we would all go to a friend’s place for a tournament and play for hours. It definitely is the best – or at least for nostalgic reasons. I think we are in need of a new one for sure, for the fans and for my own selfish reasons, because there is no 08 for the PS5. I’m not sure if it will pull in non-fans but at least there is the opportunity to do so. I think it’s tough to compete with the sports games out there at the moment but I don’t think it is impossible if they make something as close as possible to 08’s game-play.”

England legend Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clark also believes a new game could help raise awareness of women’s rugby, if it is treated with the same level of respect as the men’s.

“100%. We’ve got to get it out there for the girls and the adult women. Even for people that aren’t hardcore video gamers, trying it out could spark new fans to join us in the future.

“I played at a friend’s house a long time ago. It did feel fun, but it could’ve been better as I wasn’t engaged forever. Still, I think it is an opportunity to get more fans into the game and transition them from the real game to the digital one.”

If rugby can find a way of reaching the digital community via a new game, it could unlock the door to a generation of fans who will be vital for the sport’s survival.

Former USA sevens player Dallen Stanford, now a lead commentator for the World Rugby Sevens Series, Super Rugby Américas and the MLR, references a blast from the past that most have forgotten.

“I played the VGA, the most basic rugby game first invented with friends in 1993-1995. I think a rugby video game helps grow the game, but it isn’t the sole driver. But taking Gran Turismo, for example, that video game pushed for a movie that boosted even more fans, so it’s something worth a look.

“A mobile game would be easier to get in the hands of thousands of people. It depends how fun the game is to play. Has it got enough features to look good while not being too basic? Back in the 90s, the basic version worked well because that was the only technology we had. These days kids have the VCR headset games so it’s a vastly different gaming experience.”

Gamer wearing a VR headset
Virtual reality (VR) headsets have transformed the possibilities for video game technology (Photo Chesnot/Getty Images)

It’s clear rugby video games have had an impact on former and current players, fans and commentators. But even with the success it had, Rugby 08 was the last one published by EA Sports, creating a void that the likes of HB Studios, Bigben Interactive and Maximum Games have been unable to fill since.

For a video game series to survive, it needs a community that jumps on the bandwagon and not only buys the game but creates plenty of noise around it on social media and streaming channels.

If rugby can find a way of reaching the digital community via a new game, it could unlock the door to a generation of fans who will be vital for the sport’s survival. We wait, patiently, to see how much noise Rugby 2024 makes when it comes out.

Comments

2 Comments
A
Alexander 22 days ago

Awesome memories. No game has been as good!!

B
Bryan 23 days ago

Good memories of my youth playing theses videogames 😌

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