The PES-FIFA paradigm – how video game abstraction helps on a foreign field

PES5Being a migrant-built country founded by Brits and living in a city made home by a wave of Italians and Germans, it isn’t surprising that Football of the soccer variety came naturally to plenty of kids at my school in Australia. While Adelaide is a city in love with its Aussie Rules football, for a while there growing up I was more likely to come across kids wearing shin guards than mouthguards, and crying “HAND BALL!” over “Hand Pass!”.  Like cricket, the sport of roundball comes naturally to me, meaning the games based on it also do.

Because of that, throughout the early to mid-2000’s, I always favoured Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series to EA Sports’ FIFA franchise, meaning that while i’d buy PES every year on the year, I’d only really dip my toes into the FIFA pool once every few years.  And that was the perfect way for me to get my football fix – PES was always going to be my football diet staple, but dalliances with EA Sports’ series was the ‘there is such a thing as too much of a good thing’ dessert.  And it was this way for a lot of my football-playing friends both in Australia and abroad – the United Kingdom was PES mad for example – with PES being the go-to game for get togethers and solo seasons.  FIFA was a distant, distant second.

And that’s because while it may not have had the real life TV presentation or the fancy true to life graphics of FIFA, PES did have a great grasp of the feel and flow of that 90 minutes on the pitch.  And it had it in spades.  Its nuanced approach was made to appeal to the diehard football fan, and appeal it did, as every gathering of a bunch of mates turned into a celebration of the best representation of virtual football on the market and inevitably ended in a virtual penalty shootout.  Oh the stories I could tell you about classic PES 5 matches both in the lead up and during to the 2006 World Cup.

But FIFA was a different beast, preferring flashy style and arcade pacing, splashed with amazing presentation to cover it all up.  That’s not to say it wasn’t a good game – it was – but it was also an incredibly abstracted version of the sport.  While the rules and core concepts were all there, and the real life teams and players made it look the part, it never quite felt right.  Of course to the average punter, it was a bloody sexy version of a ridiculously approachable sport, and so for them it was the perfect entry point to one of the oldest simulated sports in video games.  If they hadn’t played a football game since International Soccer on the Commodore 64, or Kick-Off on the Amiga 500, FIFA was the best entry point.  And in America, it quite simply WAS football games for most people, sitting right next to Madden and NBA Live on store shelves.  But for many of us that were raised playing the game, it was the hobbled little brother that never quite learnt how to ride his bike without training wheels.  And so we sledged it and those who played it.

But that’s football.

When it comes to American sports – the baseballs, the gridirons, the basketballs – hearing that a game doesn’t capture the nuance or subtlety of the sport it is simulating instantly catches my attention.  Of course saying that is meant to be the video game industry equivalent of slinging an enormous pile of shit onto it and then cutting off the water supply to the shower.  And to most people, its effect is just that, and they stay well away from the virtually excrement-stained piece of software.  But for me it’s the consumer equivalent of the fifth lights coming on sitting on the starting grid of an F1 race, my foot is poised on the accelerator and my hand is on shifter ready to go.  And EA Sports’ NBA Live series fits that bill to a tee.

It’s the PES-FIFA paradigm, only in this case, I fall on the FIFA side of things.  For me, an american sports luddite, all I need are the basics of the game.  Can I throw a ball through a hoop?  Tick.  Can I pass the ball?  Tick.  Can I scream BOOM SHAKA LAKA while I hang off of the ring?  BIG TICK.  Fans of the sport may deride me for my rather simplistic take on their beloved hoop ball, but to me, pulling off a full court press or a zone offence means absolutely diddly squat.  Or on other words, the NBA 2K series while excellent, is far too complicated to be an entry point to the sport in games. Like those FIFA-playing Americans before Major League Soccer grew in popularity on the back of the introduction of the ‘Beckham Rule’,  I really just want to have a good time running a ball back and forth on a field, and hopefully score some goals in the process.  But if I have to remember 639 different button combinations and 24 different set pieces to do it then count me out.

And guess what, NBA Live doesn’t require that, just as TV Sports Basketball didn’t 20 years ago, and the myriad of PS1 games in between didn’t.  While the days of arcade sports games are seemingly long gone, there is always going to be room for the game that doesn’t quite nail it, and comes off as a bit of a shell of the sport on which it’s based.  The purists, like I was with Pro Evolution Soccer, will always be critical of over simplification of their beloved sport.  But for the FIFA crowd of old, the casual consumer and perhaps foreign player that just wants a taste, just enough is good enough.

NBA Live