The battle with FIFA was lost long ago, but PES soldiers on
My cab driver is a fiery, sunburst-haired Celtic fan who has plenty to say about the current state of Scottish football.
As we drive from Glasgow airport to Celtic Park to play PES 2019, the latest version of Konami’s long-running football video game series, he mentions a player who arrived to play in the Scottish league thinking the standard would be awful, but told press he was impressed by the level of play and enjoyed the challenge.
All the Scottish transfers last season amounted to as much as Chelsea paid for one player, he adds.
Celtic don’t have enough money to compete for signings with Premier League teams, he laments, so the club has to bleed young players through. Thankfully, manager Brendan Rodgers is good at that.
As we wrap around Celtic Park on the hunt for the entrance to the stadium, our cab driver whispers a song from the terraces.
Welcome to Paradise.
Pro Evolution Soccer’s ongoing struggle in the face of EA Sports’ cash-rich FIFA series is well-documented, but it’s been a particularly tough year for Konami’s licensing team. First, PES lost the Champions League and the Europa League to FIFA after a decade of exclusivity. Then it saw German club Borussia Dortmund unceremoniously tear up its contract with Konami to appear in PES 2019 – even after official screenshots showing Dortmund players in virtual action were released to the media.
Official licences mean so much in the world of virtual football. EA Sports’ long-running and exclusive deal for the Premier League licence and its ability to simulate the Sky Sports Super Sunday feel in-game is one of the main reasons FIFA has found such success in the UK for so long. In PES, on the other hand, Chelsea FC is called London FC. If you want to play as Manchester United, you have to buy FIFA. Data-changing option files are available for the loyal PES fan to download and install, but, let’s be honest, the casual football fan doesn’t bother with such fuss.
Konami hit back in its thankless licensing fight with EA Sports by announcing the addition of new official leagues for PES 2019, such as the Turkish league (Konami expects big things of PES in Turkey this year), the Russian league and the Scottish league, the latter of which is why I’m at Celtic Park to play the game.
Amid cups of coffee on white tablecloths and cans of Irn-Bru chilling in ice-filled bowls, banks of consoles house the PES 2019 demo build. A handful of press are in one of the larger rooms upstairs in Celtic Park, the kind of room football clubs reserve for corporate functions and club shindigs. One wall is all glass, and it gives us a great view of the pitch from upon high. I can feel the history. I remember the glory days of Henrik Larsson and Stilian Petrov and John Hartson, but pictures and statues shout proudly of the even better glory days, when Celtic was the best team in Europe, when the Lisbon Lions roared in Portugal in 1967. Celtic have a history – a really, really good history.
So has PES. Its glory days, for me, were on PS2. My university friends and I would often play four-player PES before a night out (every time the ball went out for a throw-in or a goal kick we’d have a drink). The transition from ISS Pro Evolution on the PSone to Pro Evolution Soccer on the PS2 was hugely successful. Pro Evolution Soccer’s early years blew me away. I don’t think I even knew a rival football video game existed.
But then, with the transition to the next-generation of consoles, Konami, well, there’s no nice way to put this: Konami completely ballsed it up. Since then, EA Sports and its marketing might has crushed PES to become the undisputed king of video game football. FIFA sells tens of millions of copies each year and brings in billions of dollars through Ultimate Team. In the UK, a PES heartland little over a decade ago, Konami’s game is an afterthought.
I myself turned to the dark side, as I know so many did, in the move from PS2 to Xbox 360. But old habits die hard. I play FIFA with the “alternate” control scheme (swapping the shoot and cross buttons around) because that’s how PES played back in the day. FIFA is my game, but PES is in my blood.
And so we come to Celtic Park and the prospect of an officially-licensed Old Firm derby. What a thought! But first, a presentation from Lennart Bobzien, European PES brand manager. Bobzien, who is intimately involved with the club and league negotiations that result in deals for the likes of the Scottish league in PES, points out that David Beckham as he is now, that is, David Beckham 2018, aka 43-year-old David Beckham, is in the game and playable. I wonder what Olden Balls’ pace stat is?
PES 2019 has ex-Brazil striker Romario, exclusively. Ronaldinho is also in PES 2019 (there were rumours he was exclusive to FIFA). Scott Brown complained about the size of his nose in PES on social media, apparently. Then, a slide on the officially-licensed Rangers, which, I imagine, is the first time a slide on Rangers has ever been shown in Celtic Park. Liverpool are officially licensed. Quick subs give you a choice of players to pick from – FIFA doesn’t do that. Liverpool striker Firmino can do his famous no-look pass in the game. PES 2019 is due out on 30th August – over four weeks before FIFA launches. Will that help? I’m not sure.
It’s time for hands-on, and PES 2019 makes an immediate concession to FIFA. Do you want standard or alternate controls, the game asks? Alternate sets R2 on dash and circle for shoot, while standard has square for shoot and R1 for dash. Konami knows it needs to let people play PES as they play FIFA. This is the world it lives in.
Unlike in FIFA, in PES 2019 the ball feels like a real object that is governed by a simulation of real-world physics. So often in FIFA the ball feels laser-guided, as if its path from one boot to the next is determined before you’ve even pressed pass. There is a responsiveness and a realism to the flow of moving the ball about in PES that the more automated FIFA simply doesn’t have.
I love the arc the ball takes when you cross it. I love the deft chip shots (I scored a couple of gorgeous lobs with a flick of the outside of a boot), whereas I’ve been disappointed in FIFA’s odd scoop chip shots for years. Flamengo’s Vinícius Júnior (now of Real Madrid) scored a cool finish with a flick into the bottom corner of the goal and it looked awesome. Remember Romario’s exquisit goal for Brazil against Holland in the quarter final of the 1994 World Cup? I scored a goal just like it with Éverton Ribeiro, a flash of the outside of the boot coming on to a cross.
The goalkeepers have eye-catching animations, such as dropping down low to stop a driven shot with an outstretched arm (and the ball spins on the spot). At one point, a strong shot stung my keeper’s gloves, the ball bouncing to the floor, harmless, waiting to be picked up, just like in real life.
A new thing for PES this year is visible fatigue, and you see it a lot in the game. Knackered players struggle to move. Sometimes they’re useless. Argentinian star Angel Di Maria, broken and on his haunches, refused to sprint even though I was controlling him and telling him to do so.
Fatigue really does affect the gameplay. Mindful of the way it stops your players in their tracks, you have to smartly manage your use of the sprint button. You can’t spam it any more, which makes for a more considered, contemplative game of virtual football I find a tasty tonic to FIFA’s pinball passing.
In short, PES 2019 feels like it plays a brilliant game of football, but that’s not really the problem, is it? PES has for a few years now felt great to play. It’s off the pitch that the problems hit hard.
Licensing is one of the big ones, but there are other issues. The menus are awful, and retain that budget feel PES has always suffered from. There is certainly something lost in translation as Winning Eleven, the name of the game in Japan, becomes Pro Evolution Soccer. And the fonts just don’t look right. I don’t think they ever have.
myClub lags far behind Ultimate Team in both its design and its cynicism. You know and I know FUT is a deeply problematic, pay-to-win loot box extravaganza, but it’s also hugely compelling and the kids love opening packs. FIFA has a booming auction house, smart new modes and the gruelling Weekend League for the ultra hardcore to grind for. myClub now has player packs and you can merge multiple Philippe Coutinhos to form an all powerful Coutinho who, I imagine, is perfectly capable of twisting up all 11 opposition players all by himself.
Elsewhere, PES has the super fun Random Selection Match mode, but kick-off is uninspired. EA Sports has added cool new ways to play kick-off, such as house rules and cloud-based stat tracking. There’s a gloss and production value to the FIFA experience that PES lacks. It doesn’t sound important, but for a lot of football fans off the pitch stuff matters.
Ultimately, though, I think PES’ big problem remains licensing. So when I sit down to talk with Lennart Bobzien, it’s the first topic on the team sheet.
“They always offer it out, and this year unfortunately it happened that our competitor came in with a bigger offer,” Bobzien, an affable German who’s willing to talk about PES’ struggles like an actual human being, tells me as I bring up Uefa’s defection to the dark side.
“We were prepared. But want to shift our focus towards signing new leagues. It’s a huge opportunity to sign leagues such as the Scottish or the Turkish league. This has a huge impact for the audience.”
I’m not convinced the addition of the Turkish and the Scottish leagues will move the needle a great deal, but then Bobzien admits as much. It’s about baby steps, he says. It’s about being realistic, about making inroads in markets EA Sports hasn’t bothered with.
The Premier League, though, sounds like a Konami pipedream. EA Sports has such a tight relationship with the Premier League and broadcaster Sky Sports, it sounds unlikely PES will ever get a piece of the pie.
“You have to be realistic,” Bobzien, who gives up calling FIFA “our competitor” a couple of minutes into our interview, says.
“Right now, the Premier League is far away. FIFA has an exclusive deal with the Premier League, so we can’t do anything. It’s not like we are not in touch with the Premier League, especially when it comes down to when the cycle ends. Obviously you can place a new bid, you can discuss it, you can negotiate it. But for now, you have to be realistic that it’s quite difficult to sign this league very soon.
“However, we still have the fantasy English league. We feature two Premier League teams fully-licensed. When you go to Manchester United you will still have Pogba in the game. All the players are the real ones. It’s only the team names and the team club kits we can’t get in the game. That’s just because of licensing restrictions.
“If you have someone who wants to play with Leicester City, I understand that concern. But right now we don’t have any option. We stretch the regulations or restrictions far in terms of what we can do right now by featuring the Premier League under fantasy club names, but still making sure all the players have the real player names and all the player likenesses are exactly the same. That’s all we can do right now.
“To be honest, it’s up to the Premier League whether they will change their rules and regulations, or if they want to be the exclusive league being featured only in one football video game.
“I’m pretty sure they do [EA makes it worth their while]. I don’t want to know how much they’re paying, but they must pay quite a lot.”
And what happened with Borussia Dortmund? In one of the more dramatic stories to emerge from the world of PES in years, the German club tore up its contract with Konami despite the developer having released images showing players in their officially-licensed kits. Konami, feeling the heat, announced it had signed Schalke to appear in PES 2019 instead. Dortmund and Schalke, it turns out, are bitter rivals in the real world. Now, via PES, they’re pitted against each other in the virtual.
Bobzien, who I am delighted to learn is a diehard Dortmund supporter, suggests EA Sports came in with a money-bags offer and plans to announce the club as a partner with FIFA 19 at Gamescom later in August.
“They decided not to work with us, and we had to accept that, which was a shame,” Bobzien says.
“The last two years was a great partnership with them, especially including the Westfalenstadion in the game. We had loads of positive feedback regarding how much detail we were putting into the team. At that time Aubameyang was one of our local ambassadors. But then unfortunately this came.
“It’s one of those stories where you say, okay, we’ve lost that team. But the good thing is we have Schalke. They want to do innovative steps. I read a quote from Dortmund’s president – he doesn’t want to have anything to do with esports. We want to evolve. We are already in esports, but we want to make the next esports steps. With Dortmund, this wouldn’t have happened. They’re not open for that. Whereas Schalke, they are all about innovation. They want to be the first ones when it comes to doing new stuff. They’ve already set up an esports team. They already have a PES esports team set-up. Those are the kind of clubs we want to work with.
“If Dortmund decide not to work with us we can’t force them to. I’m expecting around Gamescom they [EA Sports] will do something, to be honest. That’s what I’m expecting, that our competitor came in and said, here you go, here’s a big bag. You can consider it.”
PES 2019, then, comes out not at a crucial juncture for the series, but at a fascinating time for it. The battle with FIFA is lost. That much is clear. But PES as a brand soldiers on, making inroads in places you least expect, like Scotland. At one point during my hands-on time with PES 2019, I overhear a local film crew interview a couple of Scots about the game. They say they’re definitely going to buy it because of the official Scottish league licence. So, there are two sales through the till. With the official Scottish licence, PES 2019 lets you play Motherwell versus Barcelona, Bobzien points out. That’s one of the more niche video game fantasies I’ve heard, but I suspect there will be a few Motherwell fans rubbing their hands at the prospect as you read this.
“We are slowly on our way back,” Bobzien says.
“The game had its downtime. It’s no secret to say PES 2014 was not the greatest success. From PES 2015 onwards, the game picked up in terms of quality, reception and reputation in the community, which also was shown in sales.
“We are coming back step by step. It’s not like we will be able to turn around within a year to go where we were. PES 6, us and our competitor, we were more or less even, or potentially even PES was bigger. That’s a long-term plan, where we are coming back step by step.
“We always want to improve the game. The game plays amazingly. The game itself is perfect, and now with PES 2019 adding new licenses, we are opening our game to new markets.”
The perception of PES differs depending on where you are in the world. In some places, such as the UK, it’s a relic from a few console generations ago. But in other places, such as South America, PES is the biggest game around.
“In the evening, if I go to a friend’s place and meet some new people and tell them I’m working for Konami for Pro Evolution Soccer, they say, ah yeah, you’re the guys with the fake leagues,” Bobzien says of the perception of PES in Europe.
“England is challenging, put it this way. We still have a presence. But in England, with the Premier League, it’s very difficult. We will still be present here, but it’s more difficult to have a presence as you would have in Turkey or Scotland. It’s not like we’re giving this market up. It’s not like we’re saying, we will not get the Premier League so we will stop signing English clubs we have the rights to, such as Liverpool, or we will stop everything, we will shut it down.
“England and football, it’s a no-brainer to do stuff. But having a big position in the UK market is very difficult for our title.”
I don’t think anyone expects PES to catch up with FIFA at this point. But I do wonder what PES’ overlords in Japan want from the series in 2018 and beyond. I wonder whether the suits in Japan are happy with PES’ modest success, or whether they’re putting pressure on Bobzien and co to drag PES back to the glory days.
“With Konami in Japan, they are aware of the situation,” Bobzien explains. “10 years ago when we were the high-flyers, everyone in Japan was happy. We are aware of the situation, where we went a few years ago. But we have turned around the trend. So, we are coming back. Japan, right now with the situation they’re okay. But their ambition is still to move forward.”
PES, then, is pushing forward with a new video game that plays a cracking game of football. But that is not enough, and despite the Scottish league, despite the Turkish league, despite David “Olden Balls” Beckham, I suspect EA Sports won’t bat an eyelid when PES 2019 comes out later in August.
Outside Paradise, the sun is beating down, but the wind is shooting through the stadium. In the cab to the airport, I remember something our Celtic-loving taxi driver from the morning said when he was asked what it’s like to know his team will win the league every season.
“Ah, you know, you take each game as it comes.”