The battle with FIFA was lost long ago, but PES soldiers on

My cab driver is a fiery, sunburst-haired Celtic fan who has plenty to say about the current state of Scottish football.

As we drive from Glasgow airport to Celtic Park to play PES 2019, the latest version of Konami’s long-running football video game series, he mentions a player who arrived to play in the Scottish league thinking the standard would be awful, but told press he was impressed by the level of play and enjoyed the challenge.

All the Scottish transfers last season amounted to as much as Chelsea paid for one player, he adds.

Celtic don’t have enough money to compete for signings with Premier League teams, he laments, so the club has to bleed young players through. Thankfully, manager Brendan Rodgers is good at that.

As we wrap around Celtic Park on the hunt for the entrance to the stadium, our cab driver whispers a song from the terraces.

Welcome to Paradise.

Pro Evolution Soccer’s ongoing struggle in the face of EA Sports’ cash-rich FIFA series is well-documented, but it’s been a particularly tough year for Konami’s licensing team. First, PES lost the Champions League and the Europa League to FIFA after a decade of exclusivity. Then it saw German club Borussia Dortmund unceremoniously tear up its contract with Konami to appear in PES 2019 – even after official screenshots showing Dortmund players in virtual action were released to the media.

Official licences mean so much in the world of virtual football. EA Sports’ long-running and exclusive deal for the Premier League licence and its ability to simulate the Sky Sports Super Sunday feel in-game is one of the main reasons FIFA has found such success in the UK for so long. In PES, on the other hand, Chelsea FC is called London FC. If you want to play as Manchester United, you have to buy FIFA. Data-changing option files are available for the loyal PES fan to download and install, but, let’s be honest, the casual football fan doesn’t bother with such fuss.

Konami hit back in its thankless licensing fight with EA Sports by announcing the addition of new official leagues for PES 2019, such as the Turkish league (Konami expects big things of PES in Turkey this year), the Russian league and the Scottish league, the latter of which is why I’m at Celtic Park to play the game.

Amid cups of coffee on white tablecloths and cans of Irn-Bru chilling in ice-filled bowls, banks of consoles house the PES 2019 demo build. A handful of press are in one of the larger rooms upstairs in Celtic Park, the kind of room football clubs reserve for corporate functions and club shindigs. One wall is all glass, and it gives us a great view of the pitch from upon high. I can feel the history. I remember the glory days of Henrik Larsson and Stilian Petrov and John Hartson, but pictures and statues shout proudly of the even better glory days, when Celtic was the best team in Europe, when the Lisbon Lions roared in Portugal in 1967. Celtic have a history – a really, really good history.

So has PES. Its glory days, for me, were on PS2. My university friends and I would often play four-player PES before a night out (every time the ball went out for a throw-in or a goal kick we’d have a drink). The transition from ISS Pro Evolution on the PSone to Pro Evolution Soccer on the PS2 was hugely successful. Pro Evolution Soccer’s early years blew me away. I don’t think I even knew a rival football video game existed.

But then, with the transition to the next-generation of consoles, Konami, well, there’s no nice way to put this: Konami completely ballsed it up. Since then, EA Sports and its marketing might has crushed PES to become the undisputed king of video game football. FIFA sells tens of millions of copies each year and brings in billions of dollars through Ultimate Team. In the UK, a PES heartland little over a decade ago, Konami’s game is an afterthought.

I myself turned to the dark side, as I know so many did, in the move from PS2 to Xbox 360. But old habits die hard. I play FIFA with the “alternate” control scheme (swapping the shoot and cross buttons around) because that’s how PES played back in the day. FIFA is my game, but PES is in my blood.

And so we come to Celtic Park and the prospect of an officially-licensed Old Firm derby. What a thought! But first, a presentation from Lennart Bobzien, European PES brand manager. Bobzien, who is intimately involved with the club and league negotiations that result in deals for the likes of the Scottish league in PES, points out that David Beckham as he is now, that is, David Beckham 2018, aka 43-year-old David Beckham, is in the game and playable. I wonder what Olden Balls’ pace stat is?

PES 2019 has ex-Brazil striker Romario, exclusively. Ronaldinho is also in PES 2019 (there were rumours he was exclusive to FIFA). Scott Brown complained about the size of his nose in PES on social media, apparently. Then, a slide on the officially-licensed Rangers, which, I imagine, is the first time a slide on Rangers has ever been shown in Celtic Park. Liverpool are officially licensed. Quick subs give you a choice of players to pick from – FIFA doesn’t do that. Liverpool striker Firmino can do his famous no-look pass in the game. PES 2019 is due out on 30th August – over four weeks before FIFA launches. Will that help? I’m not sure.

It’s time for hands-on, and PES 2019 makes an immediate concession to FIFA. Do you want standard or alternate controls, the game asks? Alternate sets R2 on dash and circle for shoot, while standard has square for shoot and R1 for dash. Konami knows it needs to let people play PES as they play FIFA. This is the world it lives in.

Unlike in FIFA, in PES 2019 the ball feels like a real object that is governed by a simulation of real-world physics. So often in FIFA the ball feels laser-guided, as if its path from one boot to the next is determined before you’ve even pressed pass. There is a responsiveness and a realism to the flow of moving the ball about in PES that the more automated FIFA simply doesn’t have.

I love the arc the ball takes when you cross it. I love the deft chip shots (I scored a couple of gorgeous lobs with a flick of the outside of a boot), whereas I’ve been disappointed in FIFA’s odd scoop chip shots for years. Flamengo’s Vincius Jnior (now of Real Madrid) scored a cool finish with a flick into the bottom corner of the goal and it looked awesome. Remember Romario’s exquisit goal for Brazil against Holland in the quarter final of the 1994 World Cup? I scored a goal just like it with verton Ribeiro, a flash of the outside of the boot coming on to a cross.

The goalkeepers have eye-catching animations, such as dropping down low to stop a driven shot with an outstretched arm (and the ball spins on the spot). At one point, a strong shot stung my keeper’s gloves, the ball bouncing to the floor, harmless, waiting to be picked up, just like in real life.

A new thing for PES this year is visible fatigue, and you see it a lot in the game. Knackered players struggle to move. Sometimes they’re useless. Argentinian star Angel Di Maria, broken and on his haunches, refused to sprint even though I was controlling him and telling him to do so.

Fatigue really does affect the gameplay. Mindful of the way it stops your players in their tracks, you have to smartly manage your use of the sprint button. You can’t spam it any more, which makes for a more considered, contemplative game of virtual football I find a tasty tonic to FIFA’s pinball passing.

In short, PES 2019 feels like it plays a brilliant game of football, but that’s not really the problem, is it? PES has for a few years now felt great to play. It’s off the pitch that the problems hit hard.

Licensing is one of the big ones, but there are other issues. The menus are awful, and retain that budget feel PES has always suffered from. There is certainly something lost in translation as Winning Eleven, the name of the game in Japan, becomes Pro Evolution Soccer. And the fonts just don’t look right. I don’t think they ever have.

myClub lags far behind Ultimate Team in both its design and its cynicism. You know and I know FUT is a deeply problematic, pay-to-win loot box extravaganza, but it’s also hugely compelling and the kids love opening packs. FIFA has a booming auction house, smart new modes and the gruelling Weekend League for the ultra hardcore to grind for. myClub now has player packs and you can merge multiple Philippe Coutinhos to form an all powerful Coutinho who, I imagine, is perfectly capable of twisting up all 11 opposition players all by himself.

Elsewhere, PES has the super fun Random Selection Match mode, but kick-off is uninspired. EA Sports has added cool new ways to play kick-off, such as house rules and cloud-based stat tracking. There’s a gloss and production value to the FIFA experience that PES lacks. It doesn’t sound important, but for a lot of football fans off the pitch stuff matters.

Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho is the PES 2019 cover star.

Ultimately, though, I think PES’ big problem remains licensing. So when I sit down to talk with Lennart Bobzien, it’s the first topic on the team sheet.

“They always offer it out, and this year unfortunately it happened that our competitor came in with a bigger offer,” Bobzien, an affable German who’s willing to talk about PES’ struggles like an actual human being, tells me as I bring up Uefa’s defection to the dark side.

“We were prepared. But want to shift our focus towards signing new leagues. It’s a huge opportunity to sign leagues such as the Scottish or the Turkish league. This has a huge impact for the audience.”

I’m not convinced the addition of the Turkish and the Scottish leagues will move the needle a great deal, but then Bobzien admits as much. It’s about baby steps, he says. It’s about being realistic, about making inroads in markets EA Sports hasn’t bothered with.

The Premier League, though, sounds like a Konami pipedream….

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