Great champions like Manny Pacquiao still roam the earth, and great fights still occur, but boxing died a small, ignoble death the night Mike Tyson bit off a portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997. Fittingly, the fifth installment in EA’s Fight Night series—Fight Night Champion—breaks tradition and doesn’t feature a current champ or a legend like Ali on the box cover. EA, the company built on the “It’s in the game” motto, instead boldly decided to put a fictional character on the cover.
That fiction is Andre Bishop, an up-and-coming fighter cobbled together from a hundred years’ worth of boxing clichés. Andre’s pulpy story, and the heartfelt way it’s told, are the big departure and draw of Fight Night Champion. The game’s single-player Champion mode follows his rise and fall, as he’s cajoled by an evil, Don King-like promoter, then framed for a crime. Once the game switches to in-the-ring action, you take control of Andre literally—throwing hooks and jabs either via the analog sticks, or the controller’s face buttons—and figuratively, since you’re suddenly in control of Andre’s fate.
The interplay between well-acted cut-scenes and gameplay is what makes Andre’s story so affecting. When a cut-scene explains that the evil promoter has bribed the ringside judges, Andre’s pain and frustration become yours. And when you take control of Andre and eventually knock out the opponent, rendering the judge’s scorecards and the promoter’s bribes moot, Andre’s catharsis becomes yours in an immediate, tangible way.
Unfortunately, Champion mode has a few hitches. The storyline is extremely campy, and some of Andre’s challenges, as when he breaks his right hand and must pound out a 10-round decision using only his left, are more tedious than exciting. Still, EA’s gamble on building a game around a fictional character winds up saying more about boxing than all the it’s-in-the-game realism in the world.
Champion also features a dedicated online multiplayer mode, as well as an updated version of Legacy mode, in which you create a fighter from scratch, then spend the next 40 or 50 hours punching your way up the rankings, challenging former and current real-life fighters like Ali and Pacquiao. All this doesn’t just add up to one hell of a robust videogame package; Fight Night Champion is also the best thing to happen to boxing since 1997.