A boxing fan with no game dev experience quit his job to make a technical boxing sim—now the world's best pros want to be in it

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(Image credit: Steel City Interactive)

Ash Habib, a lifelong boxing fan from Sheffield, England, was disappointed that no one was making pro boxing videogames like EA's Fight Night series anymore, so he decided to make his own. The first step: learn how to make a videogame. 

Habib had no programming or game development experience—he'd worked for years as head of productivity at an IT company—but after watching some Unity engine tutorial videos, he "got hooked," he told me over lunch at the Game Developers Conference in March. After figuring out how to make a character move across the screen, Habib remembers thinking that game development was easier than he expected, and scrapped plans for a 2D game. "Why wouldn't I do 3D, if it's this easy?"

Habib laughs at his naivety in hindsight, but without that foolhardiness, he might never have designed the game he did: Undisputed (opens in new tab), an aggressively complex boxing sim that released on Steam in early access in January. It already features over 50 licensed boxers, including historical greats such as Muhammad Ali as well as some of today's top pros, including Canelo Alvarez, Terence Crawford, Katie Taylor, and Tyson Fury. Many, many more boxers are on the way. Not bad for a game that started as someone's first Unity project.

"There's a reason other games don't do this"

In 2020, Habib left his job and founded Steel City Interactive in Sheffield with brothers Asif and Asad, the latter of whom does have experience working at game studios. Around 50 people are now working on Undisputed.

I want this game to be as technical as possible, but fun to play.

Ash Habib, Steel City Interactive CEO

It's a proper professional operation now, but part of what makes Undisputed exciting and peculiar is Habib's outsider approach to game development. He didn't know or didn't care which of his ideas were execution nightmares or would be considered unmarketable by big publishers—he just wanted to make the boxing game he'd always wished someone else would.

"I have a wish list of everything that I've ever wanted in a boxing game," Habib told me. "I can't complain to anybody else for not putting it in the game. So, during that pre-production phase, with a very young team and a very small team, we were just going to basically try and put in everything we can. I want this game to be as technical as possible, but fun to play."

As one example, Habib didn't think it would be an authentic boxing game if each boxer had the same proportions, so in Undisputed, if a boxer has a 70-inch reach in real life, they have a 70-inch reach in the game. If you're playing as Tyson Fury, who has the 85-inch wingspan of a Canada goose, you're going to struggle to land hooks on the inside, and you may have more success controlling distance with jabs and straights like the real Fury. It's a detail that matters to boxing fans. It's also a huge pain in the ass for Undisputed's animators and other developers. "There's a reason other games don't do this," Habib told me.

The boxing world as a whole has really kind of rallied behind the game.

Ash Habib

Undisputed reminds me a little of skateboarding sim Session, a super-technical response to the endless comboing of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. Where most fighting games aim for controls people would call "responsive," boxers in Undisputed must finish shifting their weight after a forward step before moving backwards, exhaustion slows down punches, and a strike thrown in transit will lack the power of one thrown with a planted front foot. That latter detail isn't communicated right now, which Habib thinks is a problem—the tutorial, like the rest of the game, is a work in progress—but he also says that when boxers play Undisputed, they tend to intuit this stuff. It works like boxing works.

I'm no pro, but I spar with amateurs regularly at a boxing gym, and I'm still struggling to master Undisputed's controls (as you can possibly tell from the gameplay video above). It's got slips, rolls, pulls, pivots, low blocks, high blocks, and "more than 60" punch variations, with a modifier for power, body shots, and punches thrown while stepping, or pivoting, as in a check hook—all stuff I also struggle to pull off in the real gym, to be fair. You can clinch, which Habib said might be simulated a little too simplistically for his tastes right now. It's probably the most I've tried to make an Xbox controller do. Fun, and a little exhausting.

(Image credit: Steel City Interactive)

A boxing game for boxers

There's a level of commitment or even passion that we weren't expecting from fighters with very busy schedules, very busy lives.

Ash Habib

My favorite thing about Undisputed is that it isn't a boxing-themed fighting game, but a boxing game. Its realism extends to the rules and quirks of the sport, including ringside judges who weigh performances differently, leading to split decisions and upsets, and mid-fight score predictions, which may not be accurate. It'll include real referees, cutmen, and coaches, and rare occurrences such as disqualification due to a fight stoppage following an intentional headbutt that opens up a cut. The planned career mode will include fight contract negotiations and training decisions which can affect a boxer's stamina and skill.

Undisputed is not a boxing game aimed at Street Fighter fans, or people who only watch boxing when a retired UFC fighter does it: It's aimed at people who love boxing. Maybe that's why so many boxers want to be involved. 

"There's a level of commitment or even passion that we weren't expecting from fighters with very busy schedules, very busy lives," Habib told me. "They're not treating it as 'just a game' that they've sold image rights to."

One illustrative example: When a famous boxer couldn't do their own motion capture, a boxer who mimicked their style was used, but 54-year-old Roy Jones Jr wasn't about to be played by an imitator.

"He was like, 'No, there's only one person who can move like Roy Jones, and that's Roy Jones,'" Habib said. Jones traveled to Sheffield and did his own motion capture.

I think when we explained what we wanted to do, and we stuck to our word, that means a lot in the boxing world.

Ash Habib

Jones, who was retired from the sport until his recent bout with MMA fighter Anthony Pettis, had previously appeared in the Fight Night series, but for a lot of today's active pros, this is the first videogame they've been asked to appear in. It hasn't been a one-way relationship, either: Habib has been taking feedback from boxers ever since he first showed the prototype to local fighters in Sheffield.

Getting from there to signing Canelo, who reportedly made $45 million (opens in new tab) from his last fight, was a many-step process. When Undisputed was in its infancy, Habib knew he couldn't call up famous boxers and say, 'Hey, I've watched some Unity tutorials, want to be in my game?' After he showed Undisputed to those first local boxers, though, things started to snowball, and now "the boxing world as a whole has really kind of rallied behind the game," Habib told me.

"Boxing is a very small world, where a lot of it is based on trust," he said. "I think when we explained what we wanted to do, and we stuck to our word, that means a lot in the boxing world. One boxer might ring another boxer and say, 'What are these guys like, can we trust them?' and I think that just expanded and expanded and expanded. A lot of it's been built on relationships and trust."

(Image credit: Steel City Interactive)

Love it or hate it

After a couple months in early access, Undisputed's overall user review average on Steam (opens in new tab) is "mostly positive," but the most recent reviews have come in "mixed." Some of the negative reviews are from players who are disappointed by the few modes available in early access, technical problems they experienced in online matches, and surface issues like the graphical fidelity or the unintentionally comedic commentary system, which sometimes makes absurd, untimely observations.

In other cases, it's apparent that Habib's vision of the ideal boxing game isn't everyone's. Some say that, for all the effort Steel City Interactive has put into realism, the outcome isn't realistic: It favors hooks too much, or the movement feels unnatural, or they don't understand why their power punches aren't earning them knockdowns, or causing AI opponents to back off.

In the one online match I've played, I only won a single round on the scorecards before being KO'd in the 6th, and I'm not sure what my opponent was doing that I wasn't—landing more counters, maybe. You don't get to see your opponent's health or stamina meters, and the systems that determine success are much more complex than 'deplete health to win.'

(Image credit: Steel City Interactive)

I was beaten so soundly that I clearly wasn't up against a lucky button masher. There are levels to Undisputed. Whether that high-level play accurately represents boxing as I know it, I can't tell yet, but I'm excited by the fundamentals that are in place now. 

I particularly love how much attention has been paid to movement: little steps, big steps, loose circling, and stance changes are represented, and the "unresponsive" feeling some players have noted feels pretty accurate to me—even the fastest boxers get caught on the way out, especially when tired.

Details like whether hooks or counterpunches are overemphasized, or whether Deontay Wilder should have more power (Habib thinks so), can be debated and the variables tweaked endlessly, but so long as Steel City Interactive keeps aiming for the goal Habib told me he started with—"I want this game to be as technical as possible, but fun to play"—I'll be excited to follow Undisputed as it grows. More practice modes and tutorial information would be nice, but I'd be disappointed if Undisputed became too slick and streamlined. The best boxers make it look beautiful, and everyone else just does their best. An authentic boxing game has to be a little sloppy, too.

The full version of Undisputed, which will also release on consoles, will include a career mode, more licensed boxers, custom boxers, and other changes and additions, but Steel City Interactive isn't sure yet how long it'll be before that 1.0 release is ready. For now, Undisputed is $30 in early access on Steam (opens in new tab), and Steel City plans to increase that price as the game grows.

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the rise of personal computers, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on the early PCs his parents brought home. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, Bushido Blade (yeah, he had Bleem!), and all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now. In 2006, Tyler wrote his first professional review of a videogame: Super Dragon Ball Z for the PS2. He thought it was OK. In 2011, he joined PC Gamer, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.