VICE vs Video games

Can Old Video Games Fix a Football Fan's Broken Heart?

Seeking solace from Southampton's summer exodus with <i>FIFA</i>, <i>ISS</i> and <i>Sensi</i>.

by Mike Diver
30 July 2014, 6:00am

Photo via.

Thus far, it's been a hell of a summer for fans of Southampton Football Club – a hell of a summer for me. And it's far from over. Rickie Lambert leaving was a surprise, but nobody could begrudge the 32-year-old a move back to his boyhood club, Liverpool. When the same team came in for Adam Lallana, the money was silly enough for us to accept losing our captain. And Luke Shaw to United for a fee that might, based on performances, rise to over £30m? Come on. Heartbeat decision. The boy goes.

Those moves didn't burn. Okay, they did a little, but from the fans' perspective, and given the money raised from the three transfers, they set Southampton up to go into the market and strengthen for the coming 2014/15 Premier League campaign. But then came Dejan Lovren, tossing every toy he could out of his pram to engineer a move away – to Liverpool again, no less, for a figure close to £20m. Arsenal came in for one of our academy's recent breakthroughs, Calum Chambers, for a fee said to be somewhere around £16m. Again, it's good business on paper, but he's a 19-year-old that every Saints fan wanted to see blossom at the club.

Now it's the turn of our French international, Morgan Schneiderlin – a regular since the dark days of League One – to be courted by bigger teams. The board have stated that he's going nowhere but the midfielder seemed pretty adamant that he'd like to on Twitter last night, moaning that "6 years of an amazing journey" had been "DESTROYED in 1 hour !!!!", presumably by a showdown meeting with suits that saw a move to Spurs blocked. Even José Fonte, another who's been with us on our rise from the third tier to an eighth-place finish in the top flight last season, might be off – Cardiff City are wanting to throw an increased weekly wage his way, and he's turned down a new two-year deal to stay with Southampton.

What the hell is happening? Are we even going to have a first XI come day one of the new season away to – thanks, fate – Liverpool? I can't bring myself to look whenever #saintsfc is trending on Twitter any more, in case a new player's apparently off to a more harmonious dressing room. By the time I finish writing this, I expect another of our future superstars will have packed his bags and headed north. This shit is bringing me down. Eventually all we'll be left with is Paulo Gazzaniga and Dani Osvaldo. I need some escape.

Which is why I'm so intensely grateful to Dino Dini, John Hare and Chris Yates, the Electronic Arts team of 1993 and more for popularising video gaming visions of the beautiful game. Architects of Kick Off, Sensible Soccer and the first FIFA International Soccer respectively, their work in the distant past of the 8- and 16-bit eras is foundationally essential to the football games we see on shelves today. The fuss surrounding EA's forthcoming FIFA 15 simply wouldn't exist had the first game in the long-running series flopped. EA is a business, not a bunch of romantic fans – they'd have knocked the thing on the head. EA absolutely nailed it at the first time of asking, and while the original FIFA is clearly of its day, it offered a truly distinctive take on D-pad-directed digital kicking.

It used to be that I used these older games for fantasy teams. I'd edit names on Sensi – on the Mega Drive and Amiga, with the brilliant Sensible World Of Soccer sequel featuring a detailed manager mode – to bring about my perfect squad. When I could buy them in, I did – and if I couldn't, I'd change identities and save the rosters, based on the season playing out for real. That's when I wasn't making up teams built from my mates at school. Assuming the cartridge's battery is intact, my Mega Drive version of Sensi's International Edition should still have a saved Wyvern '94 squad on it – Godfrey in the heart of defence, White in midfield, Fretwell up front. I can't remember where I put myself. Left back, probably. In the changing rooms. And so on.

That used to be the way – saving up for a whole season while in charge of Cape Town Spurs (now Ajax Cape Town) on World Of Soccer to pay way over the odds for Alessandro Del Piero, at the time just beginning to carve himself into the Juventus history books. Pure fantasy. Now, I'm turning on the latest football game I have, Pro Evolution Soccer 2014, just to remind myself of how good it was, so very recently, at Southampton FC – by far (not quite) the best team, the world has ever seen. Such chants are always so much hot air, of course – but there were times last season where it really felt that we had a group of players who could come closer together and contest for a European place in the upcoming campaign. This is my escape: not into an Ultimate Team, but a very real one of only a couple of months ago.

And yet even Pro Evo pisses on my chips – with the FIFA series carrying all of the properly licenced Premier League teams, there isn't even a Southampton here, by that name. Rather, we're Hampshire Reds. Google image search "Hampshire Reds" for me. Not brilliant, eh? Bunch of chickens. Seems appropriate enough.

But anyway, the players are all present and correct. Lovren is wearing 60, which might be because I moved him to the team when I was first (very kindly) sent this current PES, and never bothered to play around with the squad numbers. Truthfully, having not properly played a football game since FIFA 10, I struggled with PES 2014 for the week or so that I toyed with it around release, and I haven't gone back to it all that much since. But now, I need to. I need the lift that comes with a great result, even if it's generated by a bunch of algorithms and powered by my rattling old Xbox 360.

Now I am the master of Southampton's fortunes – of Hampshire Reds' fortunes, and I'm damned if I'm not going to keep my big-money targets tied to their contracts. Lallana is in my team, as is Lambert, and Shaw, and every want-away, already-gone or going-to. In honour of our new manager, Ronald Koeman, I set up an exhibition match against the team he left behind, Rotterdam club Feyenoord. I fumble through the game's unintuitive menus as best I can, and eventually I'm at a squad-selection screen. I point the cursor at (the now-at-Palace, properly) Jason Puncheon and swap him for Jay Rodriguez, and do the same for Maya Yoshida, bringing Lovren into the centre of defence beside Fonte.

I score within five game minutes – 30 seconds, or something like that. Lambert, from inside the box, finishes having been found by a square ball from Rodriguez, one that follows that perfect, defence-splitting line between centre-back and goalkeeper. Liverpool's new(ly returned) forward hits the post on 15. And then things start getting hairy, as while the whole pass-and-shoot thing has come back to me, I can't seem to defend. Football games these days can be absolute bastards to properly get to grips with – something I wrote about at Edge – and two slide tackles produce two yellow cards. I pause, check the commands. That is not the button I want to be pressing.

The second half arrives with me just about keeping all 11 men on the pitch, and with the basics sorted in my head I'm able to play the ball around with ease, as well as steal it back from the opposition at will. I assume it's on the very lowest difficulty level – but it turns out I'm on the next one up, Amateur. I finish the game triumphant to the tune of four-nil. Chambers misses a sitter, suggesting Arsenal have been mugged. But two for Lambert, one for Lallana (whose name isn't announced by the stadium's PA: "The goal scorer, after 79 minutes, is number 20!") and one for Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez equals an easy win. Nineteen shots to one: it could have been a lot worse for the Dutch if I'd known what I was doing.

So I get cocky. Up goes the difficulty. Sure, I've only been playing for ten minutes, after months without turning the game on, but what the hell: onto Regular we go. Another friendly, this time against PES's own Liverpool, Merseyside Red, at Wembley no less. Bring it on.

Oh dear.

This is what I fear Southampton's season to come will look like. An early spell of possession for Saints is broken as Raheem Sterling reacts quickest to an Artur Boruc save to slot into an unguarded net. One-zip. Luis Suárez (see ya!) makes it two on 37 game minutes. Come half time, Merseyside Red have scored twice from three shots on target. Ruthless. I pile on the pressure as the second half begins. Lambert forces a corner, from which a shot by James Ward-Prowse goes a couple of inches wide. "He'll never score with a shot like that," Jim Beglin tells me. He was shit on ITV and he's a shit here. I tell him to sod off. He doesn't respond. Instead, Jon Champion says something about the game not being over yet. And then Stewart Downing of all people gets past the £20m-rated Lovren like the Croatian's waiting for a bus with his head in a book of Little Scouse Sayings, scores a third, and I'm fed up again.

The game ends 4-1 to Merseyside Red. "It's all over, the referee's had enough," squawks Champion – I know how he feels. At one point, at three down, my fingers completely give up trying to animate these little men into action. I'm all thumbs – which for some games would be enough, but not for one requiring intimate knowledge of a mystifying melange of inputs. Still, I bring Emmanuel Mayuka on from the bench, and he scores my 89th minute consolation goal, so it's not all bad. The Zambian needs a break, and perhaps the summertime exodus at Saints will present him with the chance to prove his worth in the Premier League.

I don't want to play any more. I turn off the Xbox, itself feeling the heat. I'm just going to play as Barcelona on FIFA 15 and be done with it – I don't think my heart could take the stress of any more Southampton misfortune than what's already looking likely to befall them from August 16th. Or, perhaps, I'll just go back to Sensi, my bunch of Wyvern all-stars, and a tie against a Norwich City featuring Mark Robins, Jeremy Goss, Ruel Fox and Chris Sutton. One night in Munich, and all that. With a stripped-bare Saints, it seems that fans like me can now only dream of achieving comparable heights outside of football gaming's virtual victories.

FIFA 15 is released in the UK, across multiple platforms, on September 26th. The official release date for Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 is TBC, but expect it at a similar time.

@MikeDiver

Previously – Your New Favourite Game Isn't Really a Game at All