Football Games… Or Soccer

I’ve been banging on about them in the last couple of podcasts and thought I should retire to my corner and mutter away to myself about my thoughts. Here are the results.

Football games are why I play videogames. If they didn’t exist I suspect I’d have given up the hobby sometime in the mid-‘90s when everything went 3D and I was at that awkward ‘must try to be cool’ age. Even fairly recently, with my 360 rattling into old age, I was thinking I might be done. ‘I won’t get another console’ I told myself. ‘The whole thing’s too much hassle and expense and I don’t have the time.’ But then I started to wonder what the next generation of football games might be like . . .

It’s not that I don’t play and enjoy other games; I recently finished the Witcher 3 and have a whole range of things in my Steam library and anyone who’s read anything else I’ve written here will know about my Mario 3D World obsession. The games I play the most though, the ones I always come back to, are the football games.

Sports games in general seem to get a tough time from game fans at conferences like E3, with all the mainstream coverage bemoaning the time the ‘sportsball’ games get given at the conferences of the companies that make them. So EA then. The thing is, if it wasn’t for games like FIFA selling fuckloads you wouldn’t get all the spare cash thrown at hipster wank-art projects like Unravel which everyone seems to be losing their barely controllable emotional wreckage over because the guy presenting it looked a bit nervous in a cunning ploy to make you go ‘Awww’ and buy his mediocre platform-puzzler with this year’s niche woolly art style. I dunno, it might be good, let’s move on.

I’ve played sports games as long as I’ve played games. I think the first game I ever played was Pole Position in an arcade and my friend only got me on his Master System by showing me World Soccer, quite possibly the first console game I ever played. While we’re at it, I think my first ever game on a computer was Footballer of the Year on his brother’s CPC 464. At that age, I didn’t really understand computer games but I had recently started to get into football in that obsessive way that 6 year-old boys do. The 1986 World Cup was on around the same time and that was it for me, suckered in for life.

Since then I’ve also enjoyed Ice Hockey and American Football games among others. In fact, my entire understanding and enjoyment of American Football is due to Joe Montana Sportstalk Football II on the Mega Drive. It was my friend’s only 2-player game so we forced ourselves to learn how to play it. Little did I know that many years later the same Joe Montana would team up with Damon Grow and dash all my hopes for a decent modern version at E3 2015 by announcing their much anticipated new game is some mobile phone piece of shit.

Back to proper football though and, by the time I got my own Master System, there were other options besides World Soccer available. Most of them were pretty crap but I remember forcing myself to have some fun with Kick Off. Coming from the world of Subbuteo and its real life little men, it was hard to put all the personalities I’d created in my own imaginary football world onto those tiny little pixel men. South Korea’s ‘Incredible Number Six’ (so named because I couldn’t think of any more Korean sounding names after the first five when making up a team sheet for my Subbuteo cup – yep, I used to do that) just didn’t have the same innate ability that a blob of glue had imbued his plastic version with after a life-threatening ‘snapping’ injury had looked like ending his career on the green felt. When football games started letting you create your own players in edit modes you can imagine how weird I got, but that was still a while off.

It was the Mega Drive where sports games first started to show how powerful they could be, both in terms of sales and entertainment. The under-appreciated European Club Soccer managed to capture some of the atmosphere of a European Cup game while ports of some more PC/Amiga oriented titles like Sensible Soccer showed console gamers the joys of lots of teams and fun gameplay, even if it wasn’t really much like actual football. At the time, EA were the sports game masters with EA Hockey and Madden regarded as pinnacles of the genre. Those double header cartridges were fixtures in many a UK home where the actual sports they represented were completely unfamiliar. Football was still being fought over by everyone else. You had Striker with its up and down viewpoint and insane pace and all sorts of World Cup tie-ins and arcade style knockabouts. Imagine, though, if EA made a football game. Imagine if they did for football what they’d done for Ice Hockey.

Let’s pause for a moment and ask the modern day equivalent of that question. Imagine if 2K made a football game. Imagine if they did for football what they’ve done for basketball. Licences wouldn’t be an issue if they included a decent edit mode. Imagine if they had all the graphics and presentation of the NBA2K series with the same best-in-class gameplay, just, you know, for football. Well, that’s pretty much how people felt about the idea of EA making a football game around 1993. Then EA made a football game.

I remember staring at screenshots of EA’s FIFA Soccer for months before the game came out. Back then, before all the scandals, FIFA had something about them. It meant something that they’d endorsed this game, it meant it must be good. Didn’t it? Well, it was actually really pretty shit but absolutely no one at the time seemed to realise, including me. I loved that game. It was solely due to the graphics which were unlike anything previously seen in a football game. The isometric viewpoint seemed like the future. I remember at the time thinking of what my ideal football game would be, one based entirely on wild fantasy, and it was roughly FIFA Soccer with real kits and players and commentary. Wow! Imagine if it had commentary! Be careful what you wish for kids.

Despite my love for FIFA Soccer, I never got next year’s iteration (‘’95? What, are they just going to make a version every year until like FIFA ’99 or something? I joked). I dabbled with the SNES version, which was possibly better, but never went back due mainly to another game that challenged for the crown. Well, let’s be honest, it didn’t so much challenge as walk in, grab it and keep it on its head for the next 13 years.

International Superstar Soccer and its bright yellow box. I remember seeing it in Future Zone and deciding to trade in something like half my life for it, except back then this involved selling games to video shops and the like rather than a simple in-store trade. It was worth it. I loved that game too. Its more arcadey style suited the technical possibilities of the time while still offering fairly deep gameplay. It also introduced varying performances from players in the form of the ‘bouncing babies’ as I called them – the pink bouncy faces or depressed blue ones your players could have before a game. It was an interesting idea that has gone on to be a huge part of modern football games.

The mid to late ‘90s was a strange time. As things transitioned to 3D all sorts of pretenders to the throne could be seen flailing their metaphorical legs at the virtual Mitre Delta of football game dominance. FIFA Soccer came out on the 3DO and we thought it looked amazing but I’ve got no idea why, it was terrible. Sega had Worldwide Soccer which was semi-decent and then there was every football game hipster’s favourite, Actua Soccer, which really was pretty good. Somehow though, Konami came through it all, and with the release of Pro Evolution Soccer they assured their superiority for years to come. It was as if Messi had just grabbed the ball, taken it round everyone and scored a wonder goal. Sometimes all you can do is stand back and applaud. Pretty much everyone except EA did just that. EA had the money and the licences you see . . .

FIFA, for anyone who knew their stuff, was shit for years. It was the game you got if your console didn’t have a version of PES yet. For example, I had a FIFA game on my GameCube but then I imported Winning Eleven 6 FE as soon as I could. Sorted. It continued to hang around because some people are obsessed with accurate names and kits more than gameplay and it had the money to market itself very well. PES, however, was just in a different class. I distinctly remember a period of five years or so where my friends and I wouldn’t say ‘put PES on’, we’d say ‘put football on.’ That’s how good it was. How can I describe its impact? Well, imagine if 2K made a football game . . .

As with all things though, those at the top become complacent. As technology moved on, PES didn’t really move with it and it started to look very dated when compared to FIFA’s fancy graphics and presentation. PES still had them beat when it came to gameplay but EA were getting closer and with FIFA 2008 the scales finally tipped. EA had taken enough of what made PES so good and incorporated it into their own game. When placed alongside all the things they’d always been better at, like the aforementioned presentation, it was enough to tempt people away. With subsequent year’s games they got better at it as PES seemed to get worse and it wasn’t until 2012 that things evened up again. By this point though, EA’s marketing muscle had ensured global domination for the world’s biggest selling game. PES 2012 and 2013 were probably better than the FIFA equivalents but no one really noticed. 2014 was perhaps a transitional mis-step for Konami and only EA had a presence on the new consoles, but in 2015 it all changed again. I enjoyed FIFA 14 but 15 was pretty terrible. Thankfully, PES was back and when PES 2015 came out the football gaming hardcore rejoiced in the return of the true leader. It was, and is, a fantastic football game.

And so we find ourselves in what is now the annual football game limbo. E3 has just been and gone and we’ve had our first look at this year’s offerings. 2K are still nowhere to be seen so once again it’s between FIFA and PES. Having rid myself of my PS4 I picked up PES 2015 for the PC only to discover it’s some sort of weird halfway house mix of old and current gen. It’s still a good game but a little disappointing. Never mind though, the next version will be out soon I thought. Once again though, it was revealed last week that PES 2016 on PC will also be ‘its own thing’ which I can’t help but believe means another compromised version. I want to say that I understand but I don’t really. The PC and console architectures are so similar now that it can’t be hard to release the same version across all formats like EA do. I suspect Adam Bhatti, Konami’s representative, is just as frustrated as everyone else about this and certainly doesn’t deserve some of the abuse people give him. It is what it is and I don’t understand why but there you go. If you’re a console gamer, this is of no concern of course. So which will you go for?

When I heard the news about PC PES I trudged back over to FIFA and took a look at what’s going on there. Hopefully the quality of Konami’s game will be spurring them on again and from what I’ve read it sounds promising. Konami, meanwhile, appear to be building on last year’s game with polish where it’s needed and a redesign of key modes like Master League. Both games look like they’re going to be good, which sounds like a cop out but it really does come down to what you prefer as, more than ever, they seem to offer different things.

FIFA conceded to PES when it offered the ‘alternate’ control method. It was an admission that most people had been playing Konami’s game and were familiar with that layout. Back then, FIFA wanted to be like PES but it’s slowly become its own thing. Now we have two distinct styles. To my mind, PES offers you the romantic football of Brazil’s 1970 team where you can create amazing moments and orchestrated passing moves, whereas FIFA offers you the realism of Stoke against West Ham in the middle of winter. Both approaches have their merits and it’s not to say that one can’t also do what the other does, but they have those different starting points. This year FIFA’s tag line is ‘Play Beautiful’ which suggests maybe they’re moving more towards that PES style, and struggling with adverbs along the way. Konami have spoken of improved ball physics and more animations allowing ‘free-er’ movement, reminiscent perhaps of FIFA’s looser style. Perhaps they’re both moving more towards a middle ground which might be a good thing, time will tell.

In the last week or so, I downloaded the FIFA 15 demo to reacquaint myself with that game’s controls. It’s not as bad as I remember (though by no means good either) and I decided to pick up a cheap key for the full game to fully prepare myself for FIFA 16. I’m not sure I would have bothered had there been a proper PES on PC this year but maybe it will be a blessing in disguise. There are some fairly militant camps in the football game world who’d have you believe you must be either FIFA or PES (usually the same sort of people that would eat you alive for using aim assist in a FPS but all use the default settings in football games – seriously, if you ain’t manual you ain’t playing) but the truly savvy flit between the two as it suits them. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if there was a third 2K camp somewhere on the horizon?

We won’t get a perfect football game for a long time, if ever. The need to sell next year’s version means that inherent flaws that can be fixed at the expense of something else aren’t bugs so much as a business model. Maybe when everything’s fully digital it might happen in the form of some kind of subscription model. If they can be sure you’ll keep paying £20 a year for annual updates, maybe then they could perfect the game instead of having to artificially create reasons for you to update in the form of all these minor issues. Maybe that’s a cynical viewpoint but it’s informed by almost 30 years of playing these things. One thing’s for sure though, they do just keep getting better, which is a rare thing indeed.

For more information about this year’s games I highly recommend following Asim Tanvir on Twitter and reading his blogs which are full of the kind of information you want to know with all the bullshit stripped out. Be careful though, he has a knack of making you want to buy stuff.