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Retro Treasures FIFA vs PES

PES vs FIFA: The story of gaming’s ‘El Clasico’

Home » Features » PES vs FIFA: The story of gaming’s ‘El Clasico’

England and Germany. Liverpool and Manchester United. Messi and Ronaldo. Manchester City and Financial Fair Play. Plenty of rivalries in the beautiful game have produced some of the greatest moments the sport has ever seen.

But there is one rivalry for the gamers in the football community, which is right up there with the best of them: FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer. Two giants of football gaming, there was once a time when these two games went head-to-head every year, competing to be the definitive football game of the season.

It was no mean feat either: this was a rivalry that could cause arguments, strain friendships, ruin controllers, and end up with people being bullied for the buttons they use to shoot and slide tackle, or whether they picked Chelsea or ‘West London Blue’.

What a time to be alive.

What is Retro Treasures?
Penned by GameSpew contributor Danny Grabowski, Retro Treasures is an irregular column all about games from days gone by. Danny examines a particular retro game each time, reminding us what made them so good… and undoubtedly making us pine for a simpler time. You can read all Retro Treasures so far by clicking here.

A rivalry kicks off

This was a gaming arms race between Konami and Electronic Arts throughout the late 90s and 2000s. The competition had a clear frontrunner, but a devoted and considerable following kept the rivalry going throughout the 2000. But all good things do come to an end, and it was a conclusion that has seen Konami lose out — along with the football community at large.

EA’s first title, FIFA International Soccer, landed on the Mega Drive in 1993. It was a huge step up from Sensible Soccer and took the market by storm. It had superior animations, was the first to implement an isometric viewpoint, and was more dynamic and fast-paced than the competition.

Fifa International Soccer
Fifa International Soccer (Screenshot: GameplayPS9/YouTube)

Konami entered the market with International Superstar Soccer Pro in 1997. While FIFA was all about speed, looks and style, ISS was focused on simulating football with controlled passing, implementing tactics and more realistic movements and ball physics.

International Superstar Soccer Pro
International Superstar Soccer Pro (Screenshot: mfa rec/YouTube)

Moving into the 2000s, and Konami rebranded ISS to Pro Evolution Soccer, and its football realism hit its stride. With its tactical gameplay and in-depth simulation, PES’s focus on realism became more robust each year. With PES 5 arguably being its best iteration, AI and physics were really starting to push the PS2 to its limit. It was a masterpiece for football purists who could tinker tactics to their heart’s content, while players were accurate to their real-life counterparts. Any PES fan will look back fondly on Adriano’s 99 shot power. Unstoppable.

FIFA with all the possession

With every iteration, PES scored better than FIFA with critics. And yet, despite those scores and its growing sales year on year, it still wasn’t enough to tip the market in Konami’s favour. FIFA was still the best-selling game — even though it was an inferior product.

Why?

Ultimately, it all came down to cosmetics, which is interesting given how prevalent skins are in gaming now. While football purists would clamour for the more realistic representation of the game, the majority of players are made up of those more casual gamers. While Konami added certain teams to their official roster over the years, like Chelsea, Arsenal, Inter and Liverpool, FIFA’s complete inclusion of the footballing ecosystem was just too much to match. The draw of playing with your favourite players and teams kitted out with pristine accuracy, and in their actual leagues, was enough to convince the majority to choose EA’s inferior product. 

Related: Who wore it better: FIFA vs Pro Evo covers, 2001 to 2020

Roberto Larcos and Alan Shirare were too perplexing for some to figure out who they actually were. Having the likes of North East London, London FC, and West London White added a layer of inconvenience which players don’t like. They want to play, not spend ten minutes scratching their heads playing ‘Guess Who’ with clubs from Birmingham. No matter what Konami did, the lack of a full licence for footballing leagues was costing them.

Then came the hammer blow for Konami in 2008.

FIFA takes the lead

Leading up to that year, Konami looked likely to finally knock EA off their perch. But they had been hard at work playing Konami at their own game, implementing more realistic playstyles into FIFA and steadily pulling it away from its arcade-style play. FIFA overhauled its defending, introduced the finesse shot, and massively improved its AI to make a game that was equal to PES.

But that wasn’t what dealt the killer blow. FIFA did that with the two silver bullets it introduced in 2008 and 2009 respectively: Ultimate Team and Pro Clubs.

Image: Sportseconomics.org

The latter brought a whole new dimension to FIFA’s online play, allowing players to be individuals in a team and form their own club with friends to challenge others online, fighting for promotion through its leagues. Ultimate Team introduced a new card system where players could ‘unpack’ players to build a team to play against others online. Players could earn packs, or they could fork out money to buy them.

With these game modes, FIFA’s popularity (and profitability) exploded as players flocked to the game — with many abandoning PES to join the bandwagon. Konami tried to stem the tide with the addition of the Champions League in 2008, but it wasn’t enough. In trying to chase licences, the gameplay grew stale and they lost their way of what made PES unique in the first place. In 2018, PES lost the Champion’s League licence, demonstrating just how big the gap between them was now.

Ultimately, FIFA won out. But that victory has been anything but good for football gaming.

Konami with an own goal

As sales continued to plummet, Konami was forced to change its approach with another rebrand, and a radical one at that. PES was officially dead, as Konami went for the free-to-play model with eFootball in 2021. It hasn’t fared well, with an unfavourable Metacritic score and complaints from players that it is a heavily stripped-down, money-hungry game.

FIFA, on the other hand, became the best-selling sports video game of all time with over 300 million copies sold as of 2021. However, continuing to be a financial juggernaut has been receiving criticism of its own. With no viable competitors, the quality of the game has declined year on year.

With bugs that persist and little innovation outside of modes that can be monetised, fans are becoming disenfranchised with the product. Last year it even lost its licensing deal with FIFA and rebranced to be EA FC. Electronic Arts may have lost its name, but still maintains deals with the majority of athletes and teams.

A super league?

A change could be on the horizon though. In May, rumours were abound that 2K has acquired the FIFA licence and looks set to produce the next FIFA game in the near future. Not only that, but Cristiano Ronaldo has invested millions of his capital into a new game called United Football League. Another free-to-play model, he’s putting his face and his money where his mouth is, in the hopes of making a dent in EA’s monopoly. UFL’s beta has been receiving some good feedback too, with PureXbox saying it has “a lot of potential”.

It was one of gaming’s fiercest rivalries and a great example of how competition drives innovation and standardises quality. While the pitch is currently in bad shape, riddled with bugs and plagued by monetisation, there’s hope on the horizon. Like Messi and Ronaldo, the glory days of two greats are over, but maybe in the years to come, we may have a new golden generation of quality with EA FC, 2K’s FIFA and UFL.

And PES might be gone, but it sure isn’t forgotten. For a devoted few at least. 

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