Playground, pub, office and home; this debate divides millions of people each year.
The two most popular representations of the world’s most loved sport have clashed, competed and shifted over the last decade as a generation of football fans latched onto their incremental changes with all the zeal they could muster.
To many, football is a religion, and in that regard PES and FIFA are no different.
These two franchises represent not just their own interpretation of the beautiful game, but also a window into the opposing halves of the videogame industry who create them, especially in recent years.
FIFA, the EA Sports flagship, is created in Vancouver; not because of it’s storied footballing heritage but for the generous tax breaks offered to videogame developers by the Canadian government. It is also the epitome of Western development throughout the last decade.
What was once an accessible, shallow focus on flashy graphics is now a continuous pursuit of ultra realism, leveraged through the additional hardware power introduced by a new generation of consoles.
PES on the other hand is staunchly Japanese. Created in Konami’s Tokyo HQ by series producer Shingo “Seabass” Takatsuka and his team, the series has shifted in appreciation and attitude since its once impregnable reputation last generation.
Like the rest of the Japanese videogame industry the series has stagnated, unable to convert advances in hardware into improvements in software, struggling to convincingly advance the winning formula that stood it in such great stead during the PS2 era.
FIFA has always been popular. The financial clout of publisher EA guarantees that by affording them the opportunity to tie up exclusive licenses and subsequently starve PES of them, turning customers away in the process. For many people, football games offer fans the opportunity to vicariously interact with the team they love and worship. Helping Liverpool to a last minute winner against Everton at the Kop end of Anfield is a much more attractive proposition than controlling Merseyside Red, against Merseyside Blue at Rose Park Stadium.
Despite this difference, Pro Evolution Soccer has maintained a loyal group of fans for a simple, charming reason: the way it plays.
Amidst a time when FIFA concentrated more on additional features designed to decorate the back of the box, the team in Tokyo were busy refining Pro Evolution Soccer’s pass and move gameplay.
FIFA games of the previous generation were remembered for additions like ‘Off the Ball Control’ and the ‘Trick Stick’, Pro Evolution Soccer titles are less definable by singular, superfluous differences, instead blending into nostalgic pieces of footballing bliss.
You don’t remember what specifically differentiated each yearly instalment, you just remember the level of joy you had playing it.
It’s when you compare many of PES’ off the field matters that you realise how good it had to be on the field to stay competitive.
FIFA consistently featured fantastic, licensed soundtracks as memorable as the games themselves, whereas PES featured orchestrated beeps and boops that lodged themselves in your brain out of frustrating repetition rather than choice. It was a much more pleasurable experience tinkering your squad to “Fools Gold” by The Stone Roses than it was to the sound of an erratic Synthesiser solo.
Similarly, in game commentary represented the priorities of both studios. EA spent the money to license authentic match commentators used during contemporary broadcasts to recreate the matchday experience, Konami hired an out of work commentator who hadn’t been remotely popular since the 1990s.
In fact, the absurd commentating partnership of Peter Brackley and Trevor Brooking was so bad it added to PESs uniquely Japanese charm.
There comes a point when something is so terrible it’s highly entertaining, and it must have frustrated EA immensely to see their hard work undermined by sheer incompetence.
As the PS2 era winded down, PES hit its stride, with PES 5 and 6 being renowned as some of the best football games of all time.
Konami had polished their craft and EA were so far behind in all the wrong places. For Konami (and much of the Japanese videogame industry) the new generation of hardware was an unnecessary distraction, for EA it was a lifeline.
With the Xbox 360 and the PS3, EA had a chance to adapt.
With new hardware vastly more capable than what was previously available they could create a game engine aimed at rivalling PES.
For once they focused primarily on how the game played, rather than how it looked or sounded to create a football experience not previously possible.
With 08, the first FIFA game available on both new platforms, football game fans felt a peculiar sensation: a FIFA game that was truly fun.
That was simply the beginning. If the pendulum began to swing in 08, by 09 it was fair to say it’d made a full revolution.
Becoming a critical darling and fan favourite overnight, FIFA 09 was a tidal wave in what was a proverbial desert for PES fans, converting many loyalists with its simulated ball physics and realistic player weight.
FIFA 09 felt like a football game on the cusp of technological advancement, whereas PES was struggling with its own self image, failing to produce on a level half as impressive and in most cases a step backwards from where it had been just a few years prior.
Put simply, FIFA improved massively and PES appeared to regress. When the head of EA Sports, Peter Moore was asked about how this benefitted the franchise going forward he responded emphatically, and rightly so, ”It makes it even harder for the competition. If three out of of four mates in the playground are talking about FIFA, the fourth member of that group isn’t going to buy any other football game.”
Things had truly changed. And Konami knew it.
PES was a mess. As with most of the Japanese videogame industry they were struggling to convert raw power into an improved play experience, and they didn’t dedicate the resources into the right areas.
Sloppy visuals failed to mask the game’s outdated engine, especially when contrasted with that produced by FIFA.
FIFA separated the ball from the players foot and turned it into an object with its own independent physics properties, PES hadn’t done anything of the sort. FIFA allowed players to move in a 360 degree radius, PES restricted players to eight directions.
Such differences were symptomatic of the rate the two franchises were evolving, or failing to.
Each year Konami’s marketing department became pre-occupied with labelling the latest installment as a return to form, or a fresh start in a new era.
They even wheeled out the once reclusive yet revered producer “Seabass” to reassure fans on camera that the latest PES game would be back to a quality level they’d long since forgotten. And it never was.
Such desperation was saddening. A fallen King begging for redemption, with a new, once despised ruler sat firmly on the throne.
But things can change. As of last year PES has improved dramatically.
Passing is now crisp yet deep, dribbling is a constant balancing act of feints and momentum and shooting offers a variety of constantly surprising results which evokes a sense of anticipation around the penalty box.
FIFAs momentum has also stalled after a series of decent but unspectacular sequels. The latest game, FIFA 12 will be reviewed fully in next issue, but early play has shown a solid but safe improvement which fails to feel fresh.
In the world of football games, allegiances change spontaneously.
As FIFA sleeps on the progress it made, a giant stirs with a taste for the glory it once received.
The king may yet return.