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Fifa v PES: the history of gaming's greatest rivalry

Guardian Technology 26 Jun 2020 09:30
Game changers ... International Superstar Soccer Pro and Fifa 08. Composite: Konami, Electronic Arts

Earlier this year, Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto was due to compete in a charity Fifa 20 tournament, which ultimately raised almost £130,000 towards the fight against coronavirus. Yet his first-round match against Eibar’s Edu Expósito never took place. The reason? Barca are an official PES 2020 partner club – and publisher Konami reportedly wasn’t keen for him to promote its main rival. It was the latest shot in a turf war going back 25 years.

When Fifa International Soccer launched on Mega Drive in December 1993, its competitors were already beginning to look old-fashioned. Contemporary hits Kick Off 2 and Sensible Soccer both adopted an overhead view and lacked any kind of big-league sponsorship. But Fifa was a flashy newcomer, designed for the 16-bit console era, and within a month it had sold 500,000 copies. Critics and football fans loved its isometric viewpoint, realistic animations, end-to-end action and spectacular bicycle kicks. “The word ‘classic’ is used too much,” wrote Mean Machines Sega magazine, awarding it 94%, “but anyone who plays Fifa Soccer must concede that this IS football.”

The game-changer was 1997’s International Superstar Soccer Pro – follow-up to the well-received early PlayStation kickabout, Goal Storm, and namesake of 1994 SNES title International Superstar Soccer. Developed by Konami Tokyo with a new 3D graphics engine, it sought to challenge Fifa by offering an organic, improvisational experience rather than something tightly structured around specific moves and tactics. Where its rival encouraged fast, thrilling goal-fests, ISS slowed things down, rewarding patient approach play and crisp passing, facilitated by a groundbreaking approach to tactical variety. The game included nine in-match strategy options such as zone press and overlap, emphasising the idea of simulation over arcade-style action. Plus its side-on visual presentation looked beautiful. “So smooth you forget this is a video game and actually feel like you’re participating in a real match,” cooed Absolute PlayStation.

Konami grew so confident it plonked referee Pierluigi Collina on the cover of PES 3. “We could do anything at that point,” says Merrett. “Collina was well known, it was an iconic image and different from the familiar white EA covers with a stock picture of Michael Owen or David Ginola. I wasn’t involved in the planning, but with hindsight it was either ballsy or flukey! Let’s say the former.”

In response, PES floundered. “EA copied everything that was good about old PES and implemented it in Fifa,” says Merrett. “PES started to focus on the wrong elements. It went too mad for players that resembled their real-life counterparts, and motion-capture was front and centre. This was the tail wagging the dog. The engine was creaking, and responsiveness went out in favour of realism.”

Asim Tanvir, whose devotion to PES scored him a job as Konami’s social media manager from 2016 to 2019, offers hope. “A new engine is key. The current mix of the Fox Engine and rusty code is holding the game back where it used to excel. Forget spending big on licences. Go back to three pillars that made the series so popular: responsive gameplay, realistic AI and engaging modes. Give frustrated Fifa players a genuine alternative, rather than a cheap side dish.”

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