“The analogy I use is that PES is like Karate," I'm talking to Pro Evo expert John Rubinchtein. He is my Sensei.
"You spend all these years learning and practicing these different techniques. But then, when it comes time to defend yourself, you just try and survive by any means necessary.”
Survive. By any means necessary.
This is my history. I played Pro Evolution Soccer back when it wasn’t called Pro Evolution Soccer. I played PES when it was called International Superstar Soccer and it was on the SNES.
I’d play against my brother, practically every day. This was the routine: I would score the opening goal, maybe bag another, and then pass it around the midfield, like Spain on industrial strength Valium (if you can even imagine that) until my brother started headbutting the controller in an attempt to vent his frustrated rage.
I was a terrible big brother.
And then ISS 64. I’ve never been as amazed with a sports game since. I played it endlessly, switching across to the PlayStation when it transformed into Pro Evolution Soccer. Then I moved on to the PS2.
Then… nothing really. I sort of drifted from it. I couldn’t keep up with the annual updates, the iterative process with which the game upgraded itself. Before I knew it FIFA 08 was released and people whose opinions mattered to me informed me that FIFA was now the better game. I took a deep breath and assimilated.
I’ve been playing FIFA ever since. But I still use the Alternate control system. A remnant; pure muscle memory, built up from years of playing ISS and Pro Evolution Soccer.
Today I was playing Pro Evolution Soccer 2013. With people who know their onions. Nicolas Caceres, Chris Hansen, John Rubinchtein and Chris Eyles have been playing Pro Evolution Soccer for years. Frequently. Competitively. The level of detail and thought that goes into the decisions they make is incredible, yet terrifyingly fluid. As they play, the room is mostly silent, aside from the clicking of buttons, punctuated by the astute observations of human beings intuitively aware of every intricacy Pro Evolution Soccer is capable of.
“The ball physics feel a lot weightier than before.”
“Yeah, but it feels a step slower compared to the demo.”
“Have you been using the manual passing? I think the through balls are more difficult.”
“Yeah, I think it’s to reward the manual passing.”
“This game really allows you to use the strengths of specific players.”
Of course, I try hard to fit in. A little too hard.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I say cockily, trying my level best to sound like I know what the hell I’m talking about. “It’s like in FIFA, when I play as Arsenal, I always try to get Van Persie on his right foot.”
“Van Persie is left footed,” says Chris Hansen, bluntly.
Why didn’t I notice that he was wearing an Arsenal strip, I think to myself. Bloody hell. Idiot!
“But yeah, he’s pretty good with both feet.”
They have mercy on me. And I exhale. They’re all really good guys. Good guys who happen to be really, really good at playing Pro Evolution Soccer.
I imagine that, for many gamers, PES is nothing but an antiquated memory. A handful of fans persist with the series, but most have moved onto FIFA, with its slick menus, licensed teams, and — let’s be honest here — brilliantly produced, accessible gameplay. FIFA is a very, very good game. It’s the football game I return to year after year, but it’s not PES.
And for these guys PES is all that matters.
All four of them are part of PESAus the largest PES community site in Australia. They’ve been playing for years and playing this game alongside them is a legitimate education.
I play against one, Chris. He’s taking it easy on me, I just know it. But five minutes in he plays a series of probing passes down the middle. One of them is a perfectly weighted manual effort that splits my defence in two. He cuts inside, and places a curling, precise shot in the top right hand corner. If my name was John Motson I might describe it as postage stamp placement.
I place my controller in lap, in submission.
“I’m not even mad,” I say. “That was amazing.”
These guys are endlessly enthusiastic. While one plays, the other provides me with commentary. One even tries to explain why the goal that was just scored against me was so incredible.
"See in PES you have the precise shot, like in FIFA," he says, "But Chris used the aftertouch, which helped the ball curl into the top corner."
A couple of minutes later I get a free kick, on the edge of the box. My experience with Football games has taught me that it's near impossible to score from direct free kicks. Attempts usually blast over the bar, hit the wall, or float safely into the keeper's hands.
"Alright, just wait a second," One of the guys grabs the controller from me and pauses. "There's loads of ways you can do this. Aim slightly right."
I judder my player right.
"Now during the run-up you want tap the shoot button, then tap the triangle button during the aftertouch to make the ball dip."
I had no idea that was possible. But it is. Practically anything is possible.
Turns out PES allows you to do a million different things I wasn't aware of. I can hit multiple different types of crosses: dippers, floaters, direct David Beckham style power crosses. Not a second passes by without someone discussing, in very specific terms how to attempt something completely delicate and intricate — the kind of play I most likely couldn't attempt on FIFA, even after practice.
There's a barrier to entry, of that there is no doubt. It's impossible to pick up PES and play the insta-fluid brand of soccer you find with FIFA, and for someone who plays football games very casually, I recognise this as Pro Evolution Soccer's greatest weakness. But it's also the game's greatest strength. There's a layer of depth that (I assume) is missing from FIFA.
All four of these guys love football enough to play both games, and understand both on a pretty in-depth level. Last year's PES wasn't the greatest, they all admit, which meant a considerable time was spent playing FIFA 12, but it wasn't quite the same. Two of the four turned up to a competitive FIFA tournament, after no practice with FIFA, and obliterated the competition, playing one another in the Grand Final. The skills attained from playing PES were completely transferrable to FIFA, but the traffic doesn't flow both ways.
"Do you play football," asks Chris.
I say yes. I actually did play a lot of football. I was a pretty slick midfielder at one point. I think the last part, I don't say it.
"Well the great thing about PES is that you actually get to make some of the same decisions you make when you're playing football. You have to make space for yourself, you have to choose the way you attack, and when you score, it feels like something you've properly earned."
It's an idea I've heard before, but mostly from people who work for Konami — the idea that PES is the game for folks who play seriously, whilst FIFA is for casual players. It always sounded like PR bullshit to me, but coming from these guys, who play day in day out, it feels meaningful.
If anything the experience made me realise that my reasons for choosing FIFA over PES weren't necessarily good ones. Force of habit, fear of relearning new control methods, the fact that everyone on my friends list plays one over the other — none of them were particularly game related in any real shape or form.
I'm a FIFA player, have been since 2008. I'm just so used to it. It's comfortable. But for the first time in years, I left my demo questioning the reason why.
So maybe it is worth giving Pro Evolution Soccer a try this year. And maybe this year I'll give it a fair shot.