FIFA has undeniably been one of the most popular video games of the last two decades, and with a global userbase and direct link to the most popular sport on the planet, its growth has gone from strength to strength year on year. Over time, the game has also grown as an esport, however it was never really created to function as one as it differs largely from your more traditional esports games such as Counter-Strike or League of Legends. The FIFA esports community nonetheless has simultaneously experienced a major influx of fans, players, teams and sponsors over the last few years in particular, and its publisher, EA Sports, has matched this influx with more major tournaments and bigger prize pools. A record 61 million total spectators in 2019 was a 25% jump from 2018 for all of FIFA’s Global Series events, and in terms of total viewing hours there was a 60% increase, resulting in 11 million total hours viewed. The numbers do not lie. One would assume this means FIFA is heading in the right direction, going from strength to strength: but is that really the case? The numbers show growth but what does the community on the whole actually think about the game: the beautiful game? Well if you don’t know, let me shine some light on it through my own personal experience.
Despite being an avid FIFA fan, FIFA 20 was the first time in a decade that I chose not to buy the game. Not that I am representative of the entire community, but everyone from close friends to like-minded fans all advised me against purchasing it due to its unrealistic increased difficulty and the lack of game play advancement from FIFA 19. To validate this point, you have to look no further than the Twitter feeds of some of the game’s premier players such as MsDossary and Tekkz, all of whom express widespread disappointment across the board. In addition to the minimal advances in game play and the unrealistic difficulty associated with scoring goals, the FIFA community raised issues with non-sensical player attributes, and are still waiting for EA to introduce cross-play. All these problems have led to many professional FIFA players and casual gamers to boycott the game until EA addresses some of the game’s issues. So, the question I would like to pose is: does FIFA’s problems create a window of opportunity for Pro Evolution Soccer? Let’s discuss.
Both FIFA and PES are neck and neck when it comes to graphics and the visual and audio aspects of the game, with both games edging the other in different aspects such as crowd reactions, commentary, boot designs, player faces, stadiums etc. However, these are just aesthetics. One area FIFA excels in and has a clear advantage over PES is licensing. FIFA has licenses to 17 leagues globally, with a few of them being exclusive to FIFA only. The introduction of the UEFA Champions League into the game has also led to newer and updated game features which has enhanced the offline experience for fans. With that being said however, FIFA has also lost associated licenses for Juventus and Bayern Munich as well as the rights to use Barcelona’s home ground, Camp Nou. All of which Konami has managed to snap up with its rival game, Pro Evolution Soccer (PES). This isn’t a major hit for FIFA, but imagine wanting to play with Ronaldo and he plays for a club called Piemonte Calcio?! Imagine playing with Messi and Barcelona at home and it’s just a random stadium with an average atmosphere which comes nowhere close to the emphatic Camp Nou. With PES slowly gaining the licenses of world-renowned football clubs it certainly means their in-game experience is on an upward trajectory.
FIFA losing a couple licences here and there is not that much of a major threat in the grand scheme of things. However, when it comes to playing FIFA online, the FIFA community largely complains about the server issues: lags, crashes and connection issues (which are infuriating to say the least). This has been an issue ever since the decision to move to the frostbite engine in FIFA 17. PES on the other hand has been very smooth and seamless in terms of their online modes; with barely any of their gamer community making any such complaints as those found in the FIFA community. FIFA is already under intense scrutiny from the community and the server issues do not help in the slightest. Couple this with constant glitches, imbalanced player attributes and linear gameplay modes, it leaves a lot to be desired for your most avid FIFA fan. When it comes to PES however the gameplay is much more versatile, allowing players greater creative freedom and opportunities to trial different gameplay strategies. You can actually influence the game in a number of ways through different tactics, whereas in FIFA, a team with speed and a 4–3–3 formation is the most common road to victory.
When it comes to esports, FIFA is just as problematic for fans and players. It is underpinned by FIFA’s Ultimate Team (FUT), which I’m sure all FIFA gamers are pretty familiar with. Essentially, competitive FIFA players are required to collect FUT packs (which are randomised) and the football players you receive in those FUT packs are used to make up his/her FIFA ultimate team for competition. FIFA release different packs at different periods of the season and they contain different versions of professional football players altering in rating and attribute level. As simple as it seems, it is largely based on randomness and requires no skill. However, one thing that can get you better packs and, in turn, better players, is your real-life bank account. FIFA offer gamers the option to purchase packs — referred to in the gaming community as a ‘microtransaction’ — which is something EA has been heavily scrutinized for in recent years. The main criticism has been that the ability to purchase packs favours those with more money and creates barriers and disparity. All other esports are free to play with little or no barrier to entry and the same is the case with FIFA’s rival PES.
PES’ esports model is very different to that of FIFA, where there is no such concept of building your own team. You just have to pick a team from one of the registered participating pro teams in the pro competition. This eliminates the possibility of people pouring in money to give themselves a greater chance of winning, which is often the case for FIFA. Another way in which the PES model creates a more level playing field (pun entirely indended) is that it matches players of similar ability and level when it comes to qualifiers. Unlike FIFA, where players of all levels and ranking are a part of the same Weekend League and thus there is no weighted competition. This makes it more likely to leave the newcomers behind and plays into the hands of top ranked players.
PES is not perfect by any stretch. Their ‘stat-balancing’ element is rather confusing. This feature applies uniform rating to all players of the teams when playing in a competitive tournament. I understand that they want to promote equal competition and want gamers to play with teams they support even if they are not the best in their leagues, but doesn’t removing the stat aspect remove a crucial essence of the game? It’s meant to replicate actual players from the actual sport, right? People want to play with their favourite players and the game’s function is to emulate their real-life strengths and weaknesses on the screen. The different nuances and contexts associated with players is what gives the game intrigue and verve. If player stats are balanced and levelled, what’s the point?
PES’ esports model, if altered and elevated with more licensing can definitely bring a welcomed change to the football esports realm and create some healthy competition with FIFA. PES has definitely been improving in the licensing department by getting more and more top clubs onboard and its gameplay is great. Where PES seems lacking is some form of real community excitement. FIFA has the collection and opening of its FUT packs, which leads to debates, engagement, team building, the balancing of squad chemistry and so on. PES somehow needs to develop its own wild-card or community driver that will spur on PES as an esport and ultimately allow it to compete with FIFA meaningfully as opposed to by default.
Easier said than done of course, however one suggestion could be to give PES players the option of buying players for your selected team within a given or set budget. For every level of player, the budget could differ. This would give PES players some level of customisation and at the same time, given that all players will be restricted to a budget, it helps even out the playing field so it becomes more about individual preference and tactical selection rather than randomness and inflated microtransactions. PES for many years has been the supporting act to FIFA’s main show and I don’t envision any immediate change in that dynamic, but I wouldn’t bank on FIFA being the only show in town for much longer. But then again, FIFA 21 is just around the corner.