It’s fair to say that rugby is pretty popular. More specifically, it has a global fanbase estimated at around 405 million people in 2019, and recent trends suggest that number is still growing. It’s an historic sport with a huge (and fairly devoted) following, and some impressive stats behind it that position it, indisputably, as one of the most popular sports in the world.
And yet, fans are still waiting for a good rugby game to match the likes of EA Sports’ FIFA franchise, Madden NFL, Pro Evolution Soccer or NBA 2K. So, what gives?
Rugby is huge!
Rugby union in particular has a huge worldwide following, especially across the Commonwealth countries as well as France, Italy, Argentina, Japan and more. Rugby has expanded beyond its traditional heartlands. It’s now played competitively in over 120 countries across 5 continents. Emerging rugby nations include Germany, Kenya, Malaysia, Brazil and more. It’s estimated there are over 8.5 million rugby players globally.
The Rugby World Cup held every 4 years is one of the most viewed sporting events, with over 830 million people watching the 2019 tournament. Major rugby nations are known to grind to a halt during the World Cup. Additionally, Rugby Sevens, a faster variant of rugby union, has enjoyed huge growth after being added to the Olympics in 2016. Sevens appeals to new fans with its faster pace and festival atmosphere.
Is the American market just not interested?
You might notice that the list of rugby-loving countries doesn’t include the biggest gaming market in the world. One reason why a rugby video game concept might not be taken as seriously as FIFA or Madden games is due to the lack of an American market to tap into. We’re not saying that there isn’t any, but compared to “soccer”, American football and baseball, there isn’t as much of a cultural impact when compared to Europe, Asia, and Commonwealth countries.
Unfortunately, designing, creating and launching a game is an expensive endeavour, so the developers making the sales decisions are known for not looking at the big picture like the global appeal of a sport. Rather, they simply want to make what they know will sell well in the US. The average American is more likely to pick up their phones for casino games optimised for free spins gameplay, soccer games and basketball games, but rugby games more likely than not are not on their radar.
FIFA is a good blueprint
It’s not like any developers looking to create a new rugby game would be starting from scratch. FIFA has developed itself as a hugely successful franchise centred around a video game version of football, and it wasn’t the last. The FIFA games consistently sell over 20 million copies each year and generate over a billion dollars in revenue. And, while not perfect, EA steadily improves FIFA’s on-pitch gameplay each iteration with more responsive controls, sophisticated physics, fluid animations, and improved AI. The FIFA games also contain a wealth of modes like Career Mode, Pro Clubs, and Ultimate Team that provide varied gameplay experiences.
And that was just the beginning. EA, who until recently were creating games for FIFA for nearly 30 years, has expanded into Madden for American football, the NBA Live franchise for basketball, the PGA Tour series for golf, and other games including baseball, tennis, cricket, boxing, and rugby.
There have been attempts
Yes, even rugby has had the EA experience, with a franchise that ended in 2011; however, it had been running since 2000. Eleven years isn’t anything to scoff at. However, that’s over a decade ago and gameplay advancements move fast. When the Rugby series was released it didn’t have licensing rights to any teams or players, the gameplay was rigid and lacking the fluidity of rugby, and, let’s face it, it looked like it was powered by a potato featuring potatoes as players.
Once EA gave up, the next big rugby game was the Rugby Challenge series developed by New Zealand developer Sidhe. However, it only focused on local licensing of southern hemisphere teams and competitions, so anyone looking to play the Rugby World Cup was out of luck.
If you want to play the Rugby World Cup, you have to play the tie-in game, Rugby 24, made by Big Ant Studios. However, this franchise will release its 2024 edition in January 2024, late and delayed, after promising Rugby 23 and delaying that until it might as well be a 2024 game. It doesn’t look promising for Rugby 24.
But there is potential there
So, it’s clear to all that there is a well-established gap in the market. There are rugby fans but no rugby video games. And when rugby comes from a country where you’re going to get soaked when you play it, it makes sense to market an indoor alternative.
The licensing is really the stumbling block here. The problem EA came across is its comparison to other games it released, like Madden and FIFA, which featured real leagues, real players, real managers, and real wins. That’s a lot of wish fulfilment for players. If a nameless rugby player wins a nameless trophy and only the one holding the controller was around to witness it, did they really win anything?
But it also has to be done well. This is a concept that could be worth nothing if its graphics and gameplay still look like something from the last generation’s consoles. The narrative or premise won’t carry a lower-quality game like a lot of indie games do, for example.
With the growing interest in rugby globally, now is the perfect time for a breakthrough rugby video game. The right game with the right marketing could finally make rugby gaming a major player in the sports genre, and with the path already laid out by FIFA and Madden, there really isn’t any excuse from developers.