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.
“Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 XBOX”. Gaming Snack. Retrieved: 02-01-2016