Rugby, as designed by UFC Game Designers

Last weekend was a fantastic one for sport. Not great results for RK Speed, South Africa, Munster and C.Mc, but enjoyable spectacles nonetheless! I was imagining what would happen if Razzie’s boys could fell the champions and if Munster could beat Leinster in the face of questionable refereeing. Conor’s comeback didn’t live up to the hype but the dream was still alive after he survived the 2nd round and clearly won the 3rd. These games had great moments and powerful stories which I believe is a result of Rugby and MMA being well designed games.

The blessing and curse of this course I’m taking in game design is looking at every experience under a different lens – I’m promise I’m still fun… Sports are especially interesting as prescribed experiences as they were not designed by game designers in isolation. They have rules and laws that were revised after years of playing and reflecting on their features as games and as meta-games. Even though we don’t usually think so, the law makers and referees are the on-the-fly game designers of sport.

I thought it would be a fun thought-experiment to clash games together. The scenario is this: World Rugby have decided the current format of Union (15’s) needs a radical refresh so they brought in the crack team that formulated competitive Mixed Martial Arts (specifically the UFC) to consult on the redesign of Rugby. What would they introduce using what they had learned from their last successful project? Let’s have a think…

Rugby in rounds

Rugby is currently just one big round of roughly 80 minutes of play. Even though we have a break in the middle, there is only one round to be won (although Timmy Ryan may have something to say about this). We know this to be quite common in lots of other sports of course. But why? Asking this is probably a paper in itself. A common answer might be: it’s a simple formula. Test who will have the highest score at the end of the game. It also provides for some long-term strategy and is a bit of a statement of athletic prowess. Still being able to pull off a key play at the end of the game is exciting and impressive.

There are some issues with having one big round. The game can be decided very early on, giving the losing side nothing to play for. If a game is close, the side that is currently winning could decide to try and just keep possession away from the opposition until the time is up – very common in rugby. While this might be an engaging competition, it is not always the most enjoyable to watch.

Why are the rounds not longer than 5 minutes in the UFC? Even though the athletes are in peak physical form, I think this time is a sweet spot between encouraging the players to operate at 100% knowing a break is coming and providing the possibility of mistakes from a tired defender. Why is Rugby Union 80 minutes long? Probably for similar reasons. It has previously been different lengths – the first international was 2 x 50 minute halves – so we can assume some sort of playtesting led the rugby community to 80 minutes. We can see that 7’s is only 7 minutes because they have relatively more pitch to cover.

I think length of play in a given sport is an interesting parameter because professional athletes are on average getting fitter but the times of sports are remaining the same. My hunch is: shorter rounds encourage more attack and longer rounds provide more blunders.

Emphasis on attacking rugby has been spoken about quite a bit in the rugby media over the past 6 years. Beyond the purists, it is accepted that more tries and exciting attack makes the game more appealing to fans. So if we broke down Rugby into 5 x 16 minute fifths, would it be played differently? Of course it would! Imagine this: South Africa beat New Zealand in the first, second and fourth fifths. The last ditch comeback (2 tries in 5ish minutes) wouldn’t be good enough!

Round based rugby does have some flaws. In round based combat sport, you’re never certain you’re winning. You might have an idea of the judges score cards but we have seen many upsets over the years. Also inevitable victories are avoided with the possibility of incapacitating your opponent at any point by KO or TKO – giving the side with lower points something to aim for in each round. Bloodbowl would be interesting to watch but doesn’t sound like a sustainable alternative path to victory. Do we even need it?

If we had the rounds in Rugby, the game could often be finished by round 3! Either the last two rounds would be pointless or just not-played. So if a side lost the first round, a lot of pressure would be put on them to win the second round to avoid a nightmare scenario in round 3. This may just encourage more out and out attack so who’s complaining about having an unknown game length? I guess this would be a big shake up for the hospitality and television companies that fund the sport. 48 minutes isn’t long enough for you? Make them 20 minute segments.┬áThese flaws don’t seem too awful in my book so I think we might be on to something!

Additional interesting ideas our UFC Rugby designers could introduce would be weight classes, narky press conferences and title bouts (actually Rugby kind of already has this concept in the Raeburn Shield). Who wouldn’t want to hear Eben Etzebeth intimidate Sam Whitelock roaring about all the line outs he was gonna take off him?

What do you think of this suggestion from our imaginary designers? Interested in hearing about Rugby as designed by other sport designers? Let me know!

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