FIFA and PES: Like United and Liverpool, Pele and Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and any player who won't go flying if you breathed near him; ask ten different soccer gamers and it’s likely you’ll get ten different reasons as to why they prefer one over the other. It’s funny how these things work, because there was a time when it wasn’t like this.
There was a time —gather around, kids — when the FIFA series looked like it was going to play perennial second fiddle to the Pro Evo/Winning Eleven franchise. The transformation, from being the game that made hardcore soccer fans instinctively roll their eyes upon hearing its name, has been nothing but remarkable. Who would've thought?
Make no mistake, the FIFA series was never a David to PES’ Goliath — none of EA Sports’ games will ever play that role.
It’s just that, for folks who care to remember that far back, there was a time when PES’ quality was so far ahead of FIFA 's, that we felt confident enough in proclaiming that this will always be the natural order of things. The fact that FIFA has always achieved respectable sales numbers wasn’t the point — EA’s marketing war chest will almost always guarantee that — it was the fact that PES has always been the game for the “real” fan. But that was a notion that gradually became a misconception, starting from when the first batches of Xbox 360s and PS3s hit the shelves.
PES' Fall earlier this gen was stunning, but it's quick rebound is no surprise.
The Fall of PES
The year was 2008. Both EA Sports and Konami have had a year to get their next-gen feet wet by debuting their respective football games for the Xbox 360. As expected, the 2007 releases were timid, safe offerings that didn’t distinguish themselves much or show off even remotely what these glitzy new gadgets were capable of doing.
What wasn’t expected was that the year after that, FIFA found wind in their sails while PES came out with a thoroughly disappointing release of PES 2008.
In any other sport, FIFA would’ve been considered a great game; but in soccer, it had to go up valiantly against PES year after year, and for the longest time, predictably fell short. The old FIFAs weren't terrible, it’s that PES was just a lot better. The games, at the franchise's heyday, were intuitive and sophisticated, allowing you to play whichever style of soccer you preferred with freedom and aplomb — while EA's FIFA struggled, for years, figuring out the difference between a soccer game and a sprint meet.
Even if PES has recently taken steps to regain its lost luster, the switch in consoles really did a number on the franchise. It was hard to figure out why they did the things they did.
It wasn't the graphics, that's for sure, because it was never their strong suit to begin with. What was most frustrating, coming from this compulsive ISS/PES gamer ever since the turn of the century — PES 6 is still, as far as I’m concerned, the best footy game ever — was that it took away the one thing that made the series so infinitely enjoyable: freedom. For those who haven’t played the game, PES 6 was the closest soccer games have ever got to emulating reality in terms of gameplay. The players behaved like their individual, real-life selves, the pace was measured, there was balance between attack and defense, and most importantly, the ball wasn’t script heavy — meaning that passes lived and died by your aiming and not by a throw of a virtual dice. Sadly, none of this were to be found when PES crossed the console generation divide.
And as PES began its descent, FIFA made its move.
The rise of FIFA, from the depths of mediocrity was a welcome development. But FIFA was no David.
The Rise of FIFA
Just because your rival runs themselves into the ground doesn’t automatically mean you can capitalize.
Being backed by EA Sports certainly doesn’t hurt — it ensures that you can probably get away with a few more mistakes than a franchise generally could. EA’s famed marketing onslaughts make it easier to both retain more gamers in the fold and attract first timers. More importantly, however, FIFA had its revelation — "slow the damn game down" — at the most opportune moment, just when PES had their mighty stumble.
Timing is everything: As PES began its wayward drift away from its sim roots, FIFA made a lung bursting sprint towards it. For all the baby steps the series has taken since their dreadful early 2000s releases, FIFA 2008 was the one that truly turned the tide. Sure, the game was still overwhelmingly tilted down both wings, but it showed that, in human-versus-human games, there is at long last the possibility to play at a measured pace if we so choose — a far cry from the steroid boosted iterations just a few years ago. Imagine that, a sports game dispensing the use of gimmickry — rocket launcher shots from forty yards, anyone? — and instead tries to portray a deeper version of that very sport.
As PES got more exaggerated, handing sales and, more importantly, critical acclaim to FIFA, the folks at EA Sports crucially did not stop pushing.
Instead, they cranked up the heat, release after release, zoning in on at least one element of the sport that they can try to make more realistic, even if it means making it slightly harder. That may be the biggest lesson of all: No matter what you think of the current state of the game, you have to admit that FIFA took quite a few risks to become the juggernaut that it is today. It certainly didn’t have to, as it was pummeling PES all over the place anyway.
The other lesson here is the direction the gameplay took: how refreshing is it to see a sports game not try to appeal to the lowest denominator? Judging by the sales numbers and acclaims of FIFA 12—not exactly the easiest game to master — perhaps it’s okay to believe that gamers won't throw a game out the window if they can't beat the CPU within the first five minutes of playing. So once and for all, let’s dispense with the myth that sports games need to sacrifice depth in order to gain some measure of accessibility for gamers of all stripes.
If a — relatively speaking — soccer wasteland like America can gulp up copies of FIFA 12, it goes to show that sports gamers will try to learn a game if it is reasonably difficult (and not of the artificial, scripted variety). We don’t mind getting our asses kicked if the AI outsmarts us. In fact, it’s a sign that the game contains depth and intelligence. At the end of the day, even if we’re not huge fans of the sport, we recognize a good game when we play one.
Competition breeds excellence. Let’s hope that neither game races out to an insurmountable lead, and instead keep on pushing each other to put out their idea of how a soccer game should be. Right now, this truly seems like the golden age for soccer games — FIFA moving forward with a swagger never seen before with the franchise, andPES finally picking up the pieces and hitting its stride.
And really, who would've thought?