Why Pro Evolution Soccer 6 is

One of My Favourite RPGs Ever

pro-evolution-soccer-2015-1

William Kemp is the co-founder of the Toronto-based micropress words(on)pages, loves dogs of all shapes and sizes, and will fight anyone that talks mess about the Harvest Moon series. 
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It was a hazy, mid-May afternoon in when PES United faced off against Merseyside Red in one of the greatest games in the English League’s history. It had to come down to this: Merseyside Red had stolen the title from PES United the previous season when PES United’s captain Iouga went down with an injury—and the club’s chances went down with him. In the off-season Merseyside Red swooped in to sign Ordaz, who had made his name with PES United.

Spurred on by Steven Gerrard’s ability to control the midfield, intercepting passes, and setting his side on a quick counter-attack, Merseyside Red had jumped out to a 2-0 lead by half. Twisting the knife even deeper was Ordaz, scoring both of the goals.

The match trudged on until the 75th minute, when a newly-subbed in Dodo found a streaking winger: Macco—the prodigal son that rose to prominence alongside PES United. He dipped and weaved his way through Merseyside’s defense to slam the ball into the top corner of the net. Off a penalty from Castolo in the 85th minute, PES United had drawn even, but it wasn’t enough, because Merseyside would take the title for a second year in a row with a draw. And it was looking that way well into stoppage time when the ball was laid off for Dodo 25 yards out. He struck it low and hard and it danced its way through the crowd, somehow finding its way into the back of the net. The thousands of polygonal PES United fans on my 17” TV erupted into cheers.

Ten years on, this is one of my favourite gaming memories—because over that summer a fictional soccer team in a sports game’s franchise mode became some of the most compelling characters I’ve come to know in a video game. Pro Evolution Soccer, known as PES to its fans, is first and foremost, an immensely fun, painstaking recreation of “the beautiful game.” More than that, it has featured fictional players in its Master League mode throughout its history—fictional players that take on a life of their own based on their playing histories, their attributes, and what you come to understand of them as time goes on. Unique, emergent narratives unfold in not only the microcosm of a single game on the virtual pitch, but the macrocosm of Master League.

What makes PES so fascinating, to me is what many would consider a flaw with the game: a lack of licenses. PES has always competed with the FIFA series, and more often than not, FIFA has found its way into the disc drives of players because it is bursting at the seams with fully licensed leagues and players and likenesses and stadiums and everything else you can think of. If you want to play a game with the Pohang Steelers of the Korean league and the Borussia Dortmund of the German Bundesliga in Dortmund’s home stadium, with the authentic presentation and scary-good player likenesses, you’re going to be playing FIFA. If you want to get really deep in building up a club, you have the Football Manager series—a series I also love. In PES, though, you find this weird quasi-reality in which player names and likenesses are for the most part correct, but club names and identities aren’t. So Liverpool becomes Merseyside Red, Chelsea becomes West London Blue and later London FC, and so on.

And for me, in the summer of 2006, with Pro Evolution Soccer 6 this quasi-reality became all-consuming. In Master League, the franchise mode of PES 6 and its sequels, you could take control of any team you’d like. That’s rather standard, of course. What wasn’t so standard was the fact that you could start a Master League with an entirely fictional team—a team of players exclusive to the Master League that had personalities and traits all their own. In FIFA you get all the pomp and the circumstance, but you don’t feel like you’re creating your own narrative. In Football Manager, you can pluck the most obscure youth player you can find and make him a star with enough investment. That, undoubtedly, is something to admire, and a narrative certainly emerges. In Football Manager (up until this year where you can create an entirely new club), though, you inherit a club that comes with its own narrative beforehand, even if you aren’t at first aware of it. Your default Master League team may have their pasts, but their narrative as a club—as a unit—starts with your first game. And more than that, you became so attached to them that it felt like a betrayal to sign anyone new, despite your severe lack of depth in practically every position.

In FIFA and in Football Manager, I knew what to expect of many players—and it’s certainly admirable to do emulate real life soccer, just as PES does. In Football Manager, you play it like a strategy game, hoping your tactics work out—and again, that is immensely satisfying. In PES, instead of simply simulating a game like in Football Manager, your inputs matter—you have a tactile and immediate connection to these characters in your narrative. In FIFA, I know how all the players ought to play, and there’s no sense of discovery to the narrative of its franchise mode. In PES’s Master League, being the weirdo that I am, I was instantly drawn to this almost-reality of familiar players and fictional players intermingling with each other.

I love me some story-driven games. But even the most fantastic of stories can get dragged down by monotonous gameplay. Games like the Final Fantasy series or Vagrant Story were rad when I was a kid with nothing but time—and there is nothing inherently “wrong” with grinding in a game—but they are admittedly hard to come back to with limited time in my life. And sports games can feel that way too. When the actual gameplay becomes tiresome, things that have found their way into franchise modes like playing against friends, or playing online, or scouting prospects and relocating teams and setting prices of hot dogs and what have you, aren’t enough to stop the games from simply sitting on your shelf—the same way a compelling narrative may not propel you forward if the gameplay slows you down.

This weird little quasi-reality I mentioned earlier wouldn’t have meant anything if the “gameplay loop” of PES wasn’t engaging. PES did something special for me: a story started to form because of its engaging gameplay—engaging gameplay that not only let me better understand players as I got better at the game, but humanized them as I started to understand their limits. Pro Evolution Soccer in all its iterations, never felt tiresome for me. It felt like the PES developers had an endless dedication to the game playing “authentically”, making these polygonal dudes feel like real people capable of jaw-dropping greatness and infuriating stupidity. Every little step and misstep in a game of PES looks and feels real.

And just as characters in RPGs and narrative-based games illicit a reaction negative or positive as the story develops, or they level up and get rad new abilities, or they simply control in a fun way, the fictional players in PES’s Master League made me become invested beyond just winning a bunch. The PES programmers were brilliant in composing these players: they all had their strengths and weaknesses (much like, say, classes in traditional RPGs) that you would discover the more you played the game. Very quickly, I came to find that Castolo was OP—the equivalent of the starting Pokémon that was stronger than everybody else. He was the perfect crutch to lean on by spraying balls into the box and watching him easily head them into the net. But as the tactical complexities of the game revealed themselves to me, I couldn’t rely on Castolo. Younger players around him got better, too—leveled up, really— and Castolo’s status as my star forward was coming into question. So Castolo became the grizzled vet of the team, still fighting for relevancy whilst simultaneously being a mentor for young up-and-comers like the bedazzling Macco and the traitorous pile of human garbage known as Ordaz.

These player’s strengths and weaknesses, and their growth, informed not only how I approached playing the game, but my playing style informed which players became central characters as the narrative went on. As I became more adept with trick moves, the flashy attacking midfielder Minanda emerged as a key player in PES United’s story. As I adapted tactics, I had to balance Dodo’s inability to run for more than five minutes without becoming exhausted and Ximelez adapting to a holding midfield role. I became invested in figuring my players out, in their ineptitudes and triumphs—which were my ineptitudes and triumphs. Just as a solid combat system like Chrono Trigger’s makes you love Crono and Lucca that much more for their awesome “Fire Whirl” Double Tech attack, figuring out the intricacies of Pro Evolution Soccer 6  made all of these fictional dudes that much more fun to invest in. Having the confidence to pull off something because I’d invested wayyyy too much time in the game and I knew everyone so well is the equivalent of hitting an ultimate summon with barely a sliver of health left in Final Fantasy.

Considering western RPGs, looking at Fallout, historically, the series has near-countless ways to approach the game—focusing heavily on stealth or speech or a “I’m just gonna run around half-naked punching dudes” run. And these approaches to your character start to influence your narrative. Is your character charismatic to compensate for physical weakness, or because they’re anti-violence? Does this anti-violence affect the way you approach the overarching narrative? Do you exclusively rely on violence because your character is literally too stupid to do anything else? Or maybe a rad mod you find for Morrowind overhauls the magic system and you discover a new narrative forms around being a mage. Or maybe in The Witcher III, having to always prepare for battle informs your interpretation of Geralt as a fastidious over-analyzer. That freedom in gameplay allows for emergent stories we love to share—stories all our own even if the main story may stay the same. And in PES 6, for me, as I became familiar with the game, as I learned its tactics, and certain players progressed, I tailored a playstyle around a “beautiful game”. I not only wanted to win, but I wanted to win and look good doing it. It was a total juxtaposition to how I first started playing the game. My players’ roles’ and my understanding of the game informed the narrative not only of my successes and failures, but how I succeeded and failed.

And being so invested in my version of PES United, almost ten years on, I can still recall that game three seasons into my Master League against Merseyside Red; not Liverpool.. This ragtag group of dudes elicit a wave of nostalgia as strong as memories of waiting in line at midnight for a Playstation 2, or having my mind blown by the minus world in Super Mario Bros. Watching Ivarov retire was as strangely affecting as any character death in video games. Dodo was THE WORST because his stamina was terrible, and of course Iouga was too old to play the minutes he used to and it was infuriating. And Macco was my silent hero—the protagonist of my story that held us all together. This all sounds like nonsense, of course—but not when these polygonal players and I told an epic of a story.

Reference

“Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 XBOX”. Gaming Snack. Retrieved: 02-01-2016
http://gamingsnack.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Pro-Evolution-Soccer-2011-XBOX-360.jpg

  • BillyMaysRIP

    I had a similar experience with FIFA12, which I still claim is my favorite sports game. FIFA was (and maybe still is) one of the few sports games that had a PC release. It also ran like a charm on my dilapidated old laptop, so I was able to play it anywhere, anytime.

    My early experiences were exactly as Kemp described them: expected. In FIFA 12’s career mode, all of the players have a hidden “potential” rating – basically the max rating they can get over the course of the career mode. Of course, it’s completely possible to play the game without knowing what these hidden ratings are, organically discovering the best players and trying your luck with new players. Unfortunately, FIFA 12’s career mode is not terribly complex: players with high potentials will almost always reach those potentials over the course of their career, rarely becoming duds. Thus, one play-through of the career mode is enough to suss-out the best players with the highest potentials, even if you’re not browsing some online database looking for player statistics.

    I played as Fulham FC, using a custom-character named after myself as the player-manager of the team. In a testament to how broken the game was, my custom-character soon had maxed out all of his stats and could play effectively any position.

    The not-so-secret secret of success in FIFA is pace – described on forums as “sweaty goals.” Win after win after win, in both the top flight and Champion’s League, ensured that I had a massive budget. After a paltry couple of seasons, I had developed an unbeatable roster. All of my players had 90+ stamina, ensuring that I would almost never have to change them out of the lineup. My offense was pure pace, and my defense was overwhelming strength. The skill of the players was almost irrelevant – as long as they could muscle the ball away or make Tyson Gay sweat, they were on the team. I never had to change tactics, never had to rotate out player, never had to think.

    You can’t sim games in FIFA, not just because the sim system feels arbitrary, but because the game tries to add a modicum of realism by injuring players. The game would never give you a career ending injury, or have a player be convicted of tax fraud, or have your star show up hungover to a match. Injuries were always short term and just inconvenient. So I would play every game – not because I had to in order to win – but because I didn’t want have to put the effort into changing a player out of the roster. I felt like Doctor Faustus, having pushed every mechanic in the game to its limit and being left immensely dissatisfied with what I discovered.

    Don’t think too hard about the simile, since I didn’t end up making a deal with the Devil. Instead, I decided I would take a terrible team and make them win the Champion’s League. The worst league in FIFA is the League of Ireland, but they have no means of competing internationally. The worst team that could eventually end up in the Champion’s League from had to be in the Football League 2, the fourth tier of English football. I would have to take a League 2 team up to the Premier League, place in the top four, and then get a shot at winning the Champion’s League. The team of choice would be picked randomly: Shrewsbury Town F.C.

    Even though Fulham was not a massive club by any means, it was still a Premier League Club; I always had the budget I needed to buy high potential players or players with broken stats when in the right hands. Shrewsbury Town was different. My transfer budget was around €600,000 euros, and it wasn’t enough. €600,000 euros wasn’t enough to buy one standard League 2 player, let alone a youthful prospect!

    The greatest problem facing me was Shrewsbury’s old and insipid defense. In real life, aging players make up their lack of speed with experience and careful play. In FIFA, they flounder. For the first time, I really delved into the transfer market system, trying cut away all of the dead weight from team and haggle for the best deals. I took the dangerous route and signed a series of players on loan. In a season they’d be gone, but by then I hoped to be in League 1, with a bigger and better budget. All of my cash went into rebuilding the defense and making sure there were enough players for a full rotation of my back-line.

    I don’t remember too many specific games from these early seasons, but I do remember all of the players. While none of these players were fictional, they might as well have been. None of the players on the team had potential to play even in the Championship, the second level of English Football. You could play career mode over and over again or pour over spreadsheets of player data, and you would never notice them. Four years later, none of the Shrewsbury players have made it past League 1 Football. They are effectively anonymous. But in my save, they are legends – virtual Jamie Vardys or Ian Wrights.

    Leading Shrewsbury Town converted FIFA into an RPG, just as Kemp describes wonderfully in this article in his experience with PES 6. Each match was a new battle, and I had to juggle around party members to suit each opponent. I struggled at first with Shrewsbury’s default formation and tactics: my wingers were fast, but not skilled enough to accurately cross the ball to my burly center-forwards, who could easily be snuffed out by much taller defenders. My defense held, but scoring goals was harder than I expected.

    However, I quickly discovered my talisman player: Jon Taylor. A pacey winger with high stamina but poor shooting, Taylor didn’t seem suited to the striker position. But combined with Terry Gornell, a powerful striker who could create space in the 18 yard box, they were unstoppable. I had to be judicious about how I used the combo, making sure they were always fully rested before my most difficult opponents.

    Defense was the same balancing act. If your defense is too slow, a moments of hesitation means a free one-on-one for some slippery striker. But because the players on Shrewsbury had such low overall ratings, speedy defenders often were much less skilled. Their tackles were clumsy and reckless, and they would wander out of position leaving massive gaps in the defense. I had Grandison and Jacobson as my two fast full-backs, only to be used when facing annoyingly quick players. Goldson and Cansdell-Sherriff were the lead center-backs, with Goldson being just fast enough to eliminate a quick-tempo offense and Cansdell-Sherriff just skilled enough to finesse a tackle in a tight spot.

    After 8 seasons, Shrewsbury Town won the Champions League. Only two players from the original squad remained: Jon Taylor and Goldson. Both didn’t play in the Champions League final. At that point, the save hadn’t become too different than my Fulham one. I had OP players, and I exploited them so that this small team could be champions of Europe. I won them that title because that was the goal I set out.

    Thinking back, I had become more personally attached to the players I had watched develop than the team itself. I kept playing, even though I was emotionally satisfied, because I felt the need for a tangible objective. There were plenty of moments from that career that I’m yet to forget: McAllister scoring on a volley from maybe 30 yards out, Taylor’s first hat trick, and Marvin Morgan scoring on a bicycle kick. But two stand out:

    One was a defeat, or perhaps better described as a series of defeats. I was in my third season and at the top of League 1. I had decided to spend two seasons in League 1 in order to shore-up my roster and ensure I had enough decent players to float in the Championship. It was a boring strategy, but I viewed it like inevitable grinding in a RPG.

    Over the other seasons I had intentionally dropped out of the different English cup tournaments. I’d win just enough to satisfy the board requirements, then leisurely flop out of the tournament. Cups paid good money, but preserving player stamina in order to win league games was more important. For more practical reasons since I couldn’t sim, it was just more matches for me to play in a throwaway season.

    Because it was my second year in League 1, I thought I could afford to go on a cup run and not lose my top position in the league. My sights were set on the FA Cup, a tournament that includes all of the levels of English football. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it: “The tournament has become known for the possibility for “minnows” from the lower divisions to become “giant-killers” by eliminating top clubs from the tournament and even theoretically winning the Cup, although lower division teams rarely progress beyond the early stages.”

    Shrewsbury Town was going to be that giant-killer. The first team we faced in the cup was Birmingham City, a Championship team and former Premier League team. Birmingham was team in bad shape and on the down; I was confident in victory. With my pantheon of heroes – my prime squad – featuring Taylor, Gornell, Jacobson, Goldson, McAllister, Wroe, and Wright, I was sure to win.

    And I lost. I save scummed and tried again. And I lost. I save scummed again. And I lost.

    Birmingham City had Nikola Žigić, a massive 6’7″ Serb, as their star player. There aren’t many AI teams in FIFA 12 that efficiently use crosses and score with headers. Žigić was so tall that he basically broke the game. He was unstoppable. I just wasn’t equipped to deal with him. So I lost. Again and again. I contemplated decreasing the difficulty, but that would ruin it all. Like peeking at a walk-through for a puzzle game, decreasing the difficult would open the flood-gates, and any sense of achievement would be lost.

    So I accepted the loss. Shrewsbury was knocked out of the FA Cup by a failed and sputtering Championship team. In FIFA’s simulations, Birmingham City was a bad team with low ratings, so they would lose and lose and lose. But when I played against them, the simulation no longer mattered. All that mattered was that they had one player who was 6’7″, who could tower above my defenders and destroy any carefully laid plan.

    I remember reading a blog post a long time ago where the author was lamenting the realization that the players in his football games were just numbers. The game saw one number facing off against another number, and because one was less than the other, one number would win. This discovery seemed to have diminished his enjoyment of the games and his investment into the organic story-lines he developed while playing them.

    Somehow, losing to Birmingham City seemed to confirm their existence as real actors in my little alternative football universe. I don’t how to fully articulate this feeling, but it seemed that by playing them, I proved they were beyond just a rating of 72 – by winning against me, they might as well have been the best team in the game. The game was knocked out of whack. Just as deconstructionists claimed that we can’t trust language, I suddenly couldn’t trust the numbers. And it was great.

    The other thing I remember clearly is when Joe Jacobson went over his rating of 64. Jacobson had a high stamina, ensuring that he could play consecutive games in a row and was one of my most valuable assets on defense. Unfortunately, his potential was the lowest out of all of the players I’ve mentioned before. Jacobson’s potential was 64, basically capping him as a mid-tier League 1 player.

    In career mode, depending on player form, ratings can have a small hidden increase – like a temporary buff in a RPG. Jacobson had been sitting on a 64+3 for a streak of games, and I was content with him having that temporary rating. I would occasionally get pop-ups on the career mode menu with Jacobson explaining how happy he was to be getting so much first team time. Even though it was nowhere near the characterization of games like Football Manager, those little indicators made me feel like this virtual Jacobson really cared about my role as manager.

    While I appreciated those gestures of gratitude, it only made me more and more guilty that I would be letting him go soon. 64 was just not going to cut it, and his contract was up soon. In FIFA’s career mode, player who don’t have their contracts renewed end up as free agents; but none of the AI teams picked up free-agents. So they languished in their free agency, never to play the game again. Even though this pit of free agency despair was probably a design flaw, I envisioned it as sign from FIFA: free agents are failed players.

    Looking at my spreadsheets, Jacobson’s stats told a sad tale. He had been a high potential player in his earlier years between 2008 and 2011, and over the course of 2008 had improved substantially. But for next four years, he stabilized and never improved past a rating of 60. In FIFA 11, his potential was 73. In FIFA 12, his potential was 64.

    Potential ratings is an uncomfortable concept for me because it feels so deterministic. You hear stories about professional athletes disputing his or her rating in a video game, but I image it’s be even more devastating to see his or her potential rating. Luckily, FIFA hides that stuff far away, and only the real nutters like me get to ever see them.

    But as I was prepping the squad for a game near the end of my third season, I couldn’t find Jacobson. My eyes darted around the squad selection screen, but I was just unable to spot him. I looked through the menu line by line and finally found him: J. Jacobson LB 65.

    I think I did a little dance when I saw that rating. All I remember is feeling elated. No one really fully knows how the rating system works in FIFA, what is being averaged, what is being added or subtracted as a player improves or declines. In that moment, FIFA seemed more real than another game I had ever played. I created a new special save, and instead of the typical “Shrewsbury Town FC Career Y3,” it was “Then I defy you, stars!” I still have that save in my Dropbox.

    Jacobson reached a rating of 67 whilst playing on Shrewsbury Town. I sold him at the end of my 5th season. If you scour the internet, you’ll find some mentions of players exceeding their potential in FIFA 12’s career mode. But it’s all anecdotal – the machinery was never explored and exploited – and most people never noticed. Seeing Jacobson have a rating above his scripted potential was like experiencing magic.

    And I didn’t even need to make a deal with the devil.

    Sorry for anyone who read all of this, kek. Great article, William Kemp! I’m constantly trying to convince my friends that sports games are just as legitimate as other carefully structured, plot driven games. This article is very reaffirming!

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