Will we ever see a sequel to EA favourite Rugby 08? Gaming writer Ben Wilson explains the current landscape for sports games

We are crying out for a rugby video game that doesn’t exist – here’s why

“The one thing that we have to get is a computer game. I’d love to see a computer game. Jonah Lomu Rugby back in 1995 was excellent…”

Ugo Monye spoke for fans across the globe on the Sunday edition of BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight. Football gets three big-budget games per year in FIFA, PES and Football Manager. Cricket is enjoying a digital resurgence thanks to Big Ant Studios’ Don Bradman series. NFL, basketball and ice hockey all feature strong representation on console or PC. Making rugby the forgotten son of sports gaming.

It’s a situation which appears all the more mystifying when you learn that the genre’s most powerful man grew up infatuated with the sport, on the Gold Coast of Australia.

That man is current EA CEO Andrew Wilson. As publisher of FIFA, Madden NFL and NHL, his company is a virtual-turf colossus, while his own pedigree harks back to a youth spent either surfing or slinging around an oval ball. After deciding that he wanted to turn a love of gaming into a career, Wilson flew to the USA in order to pitch a rugby sim to EA top brass Larry Probst, John Riccitiello and Don Mattrick.

“I thought rugby was going to be the biggest sport in the world when I watched the news,” Wilson told Kotaku. “I thought to myself, ‘Why hadn’t (CEO) Larry Probst heard about it?’ (That’s) when you realise what a big, wonderful world it is out there.”

Wilson took over as development manager on EA Rugby, first released in 2001 and then granted four sequels between 2003 and 2007. The last game in that series, Rugby 08, is still widely considered superior to the low-key union and league efforts which emerged in the 2010s.

He has helmed the entire EA Sports division since 2011, and took on the big chair in 2013 – so why hasn’t Wilson seen fit to turn his childhood dreams into a rucking brilliant PS4 and Xbox One game?

The answer lies in two quotes from nearly a decade ago, when Wilson was specifically asked about the possibility of EA resuscitating Rugby 08.

“We’ve had a focus as a company for the last few years to do fewer things and do them better. We only do games where we know we can deliver high-quality Triple-A experiences,” he told The Guardian in 2011. “When it came to rugby we just felt like we couldn’t deliver that high standard of experience – at least right now.”

Wilson reiterated that point in an interview with MCV the following year. “It’s always a challenge to reach cricket and rugby fans specifically,” he said, “but we will continue to try and do so – and we never say never on these things.” (EA axed its cricket series a year before killing off the rugby equivalent. Again, it’s shown zero interest in bringing it back.)

Those interviews took place two console generations ago. Since then technology has improved, and gamers’ expectations with it: FIFA 21 on PS5 and Xbox Series X features almost photorealistic visuals. If EA felt it was unable to produce a high standard of rugby experience in 2012, it’s unlikely to U-turn nearly a decade later. Mapping out the AI behaviours of 22 players in real-time is complex enough; 30 is literally a different ball game.

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Set-piece: Match action from Rugby 08 (EA Sports)

Of further consequence is the popularity – and therefore profit – of its current line-up. During the 66-day UK lockdown last year, FIFA 20 made the company £186m, chiefly thanks to gamers buying Panini-style card packs in its Ultimate Team fantasy mode. That’s a staggering £2.8m per day. With those numbers, EA is not going to shift 25 employees away from football to kickstart a rugby game anytime soon. Or so you’d assume.

There may, however, be a tiny shred of hope. In December 2020, EA paid $1.2bn to acquire UK-based developer Codemasters. While EA’s in-house attempts at mauls and lineouts were strong, they couldn’t overhaul the daddy of the genre when it came to longstanding fans’ – and Ugo Monye’s – affections.

Monye got the year wrong, in that Jonah Lomu Rugby was actually released on PS1 in 1997. But he wasn’t wrong about its excellence. And who was it published by? Codemasters.

The biggest name in sports gaming now owns the rights to the best rugby game ever made. Maybe, just maybe, that’ll finally inspire the sim we’ve waited 13 years for.

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