I would love to be pretentious right now and romanticise the arrival of autumn and how it's intrinsically linked to video game football. As the leaves begin to darken into a brownish hue and tumble from their lofty treetops, and the brisk cold air sweeps in as the football season hits its stride, ushering in the annual arrival of another EA Sports FIFA game. But I can't. Definitely not. Because it's still far too muggy and warm for the beginning of October, and we're currently in the drudged midst of an international break, so I'm more than a little bit miffed.
FIFA 17 is here, though, so I'm not quite as grumpy as I would have otherwise been. And that means another year of playing "Pro Clubs".
What's "Pro Clubs"? I can't say I'm surprised you don't know. Over the past couple of weeks I've read several FIFA 17 reviews, and not a single one has mentioned its most enjoyable game mode. This isn't an indictment of anyone's review process, but rather a telling indication of the near-clandestine standing of "Pro Clubs" in the FIFAsphere, something that can be traced all the way back to Electronic Arts itself.
FIFA 17's "The Journey" mode was given some time to shine during this year's expos, but that's because it's brand spanking new, reinventing the "Be a Pro" mode with a narrative straight out of the movie Goal!. Meanwhile, "Pro Clubs" has remained relatively unchanged since its inception in FIFA 09. It's not the enormous cash cow that "Ultimate Team" is, so there probably isn't any real benefit to dedicating too many resources to it, thus giving EA little reason to ever talk about it. Even at Gamescom in Germany – FIFA's presence is always more pronounced in Europe – this year's rare new features for "Pro Clubs" were relegated to a single, throwaway sentence.
But, basically, "Pro Clubs" fantastically captures the camaraderie of football. Embodying the ups and downs, from promotions and relegations, to last minute winners, cup final heartbreak, Istanbul-style comebacks and porous displays befitting of the England national team. And I know what you're thinking: all of this stuff applies to the career mode, which is true. But the career mode is a wholly singular experience, where you're the overseer. "Pro Clubs", much like football, is a team game.
You create your own club from scratch, picking a name, a stadium and (new to FIFA 17) creating a kit. Then, you invite all your mates and play together using your own created players against other like-minded teams, in matches that can accommodate as few as two players and as many as a full 22, goalkeepers and all. There are ten divisions in total, with intermittent cup windows sprinkled throughout, and matches are played across ten-game seasons, with point thresholds for relegation, promotion and title wins, ensuring you're always playing for something.
It's the perfect analogue for actual football. Not professional football, mind you. With no manager and no tactics to tinker with beyond picking a formation, the strategic aspect of the beautiful game is practically non-existent. No offence to the people who turn out for it week after week, but "Pro Clubs" is more akin to (okay, high quality) Sunday League football. Think of it as Messi and Ronaldo playing down the local park, being managed by your dad's mate. The tactical nuance isn't there, but there's enough quality on the pitch to create sumptuous, free-flowing football. Assuming that everyone is on the same wavelength, of course.
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Teamwork is the key to success and your own enjoyment in "Pro Clubs", so playing with friends is advisable. You can try going it alone, but drop-in matches are objectively horrendous: you always end up on a team with some lunatic in goal who has no intention of staying in net, let alone ever saving anything. There's always the bloke in midfield who refuses to pass to anyone ever, and the twit up front who thinks he's hot shit plays terribly for the entire match and then somehow manages to score a 30-yard screamer in the 90th minute, infuriating both teams.
Yeah, you really need to play with friends, which is a caveat I know many people might not be able to budge. I was fortunate enough to be part of a forum when FIFA 09 was released, and someone mentioned that there was this new mode where you could play full 11-on-11 matches. Despite none of us having ever really played with each other before, we were intrigued enough to check it out, and before long we had so many people playing we had to split the team in two, just to accommodate everyone. Throughout the years those numbers have dropped off significantly, but there are still a few of us that continue to play "Pro Clubs" on a weekly basis. Friends I've made, and talk to on the daily, purely because we all decided to try out this new game mode.
We've moved around to other games, from Call of Duty and Battlefield to everything else in between. But "Pro Clubs" has remained the one constant. There's just something undeniably special about playing as part of a team – as a collective – that transcends playing even the most accomplished football games on your own.
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Invariably there are also stories that arise when you play football with your mates – virtual or otherwise. If "The Journey" is Goal!, then "Pro Clubs" is Fash FC, the reality TV variant. I could easily rattle off a number of anecdotes if I had the time. Examples of footballing triumphs, like just earlier this year, on FIFA 16, when we finally won Division 1 for the first time, only to suffer the ignominy of a title defence worse than Chelsea's most recent effort. Our form dipped off a cliff and we were relegated for five seasons on the spin, resulting in much self wallowing before we eventually got our act together and climbed back up through the divisions, Swansea style. I could even recount interactions with other teams, such as during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when after every goal a few members of our club would blare the irritable drone of vuvuzelas down their microphones, which was amusingly dickish, albeit in keeping with the spirit of a particularly discordant World Cup. Banter, innit?
Which brings me to something Arsène Wenger once said: "Football is an art, like dancing is an art – but only when it's well done does it become an art." Now, I'm not quite delusional enough to proclaim that playing well on FIFA is art, even if it's done as part of a surprisingly functional group of miscreants. But there's no denying there's something rather remarkable about "Pro Clubs" and its ability to bring people together, and create an experience as close to actual football as I've ever played.
When you're playing with other people there's always going to be an element of communication that doesn't exist when you're playing with AI. But perhaps my favourite parts are those wonderful moments sports commentators would gleefully describe as telepathy; where players seemingly know what each other are thinking, and an inch-perfect through ball connects with a perfectly timed run behind the defence without a word ever being uttered. You see this happen in the Premier League every weekend – from Mesut Özil finding Alexis Sánchez, to Dušan Tadić connecting with Charlie Austin – that it can't help but feel amazing when you do it with just a pad in hand and a mate a couple of hundred miles away. That's the strength of "Pro Clubs". And while it might not get the time and attention of FIFA's big money maker, I'm honestly fine sticking with the scrappy underdog.