The words "Sensible Soccer" are enough to evoke a variety of emotions in almost anyone who grew up with sports gaming in the 1990s. In particular, the Sensible World of Soccer series of games were so good that they became a pop culture staple and took their rightful place alongside other beloved (digital and otherwise) sporting pastimes. They're far from a distant memory, and with the right amount of research, you'll find a dedicated group of fans that go to extreme lengths to satisfy their addictions. Sensible? Ha. These folks are anything but.
On a yearly basis, a passionate selection of individuals come together to partake in the Sensible Soccer World Cup, or Sensible Days as it's affectionately known. The event is held in a different location each year, and competitors pay their money to travel across Europe for the privilege of taking part. Once they arrive, any delusions of grandeur are quickly abolished. This isn't your typical eSports tournament.
Let me paint a more detailed picture. This year's event is being held in late August, in a rented house in the Netherlands, where there's an indoor noise curfew at 11pm. Bringing your own bed linen is recommended, and the washing-up duties are a group-wide responsibility. If you're looking for the luxurious elements of the eSports scene – pampered players staying in five-star hotels, with publishers and PRs catering to their every need – you're clearly not going to find them.
Footage of the Amiga final of Sensible Days 2016
What it lacks in luxury, Sensible Days more than makes up for in spirit. There aren't any cash prizes on offer, and that isn't to its detriment. It shares similarities with the lower reaches of the football pyramid, where the absence of money encourages participants to tap into their true passion for the beautiful game. This manifests itself in Sensible Days in a multitude of ways, from the inclusion of locally made trophies and medals to the development of a 32-page Official Tournament Magazine. It's the work of pure, extraordinary dedication.
The idea of Sensible Days isn't anything new. The concept began in 2004, and 12 years later it's as popular as ever. It's also the cornerstone of the competitive Sensi scene, which has thrived as a result of an online community located at sensiblesoccer.de. Michael Jänsch founded and co-built the site back in 2001.
"I wanted to play offline Sensible World of Soccer and I saw some former projects in Serbia or Denmark with ugly websites," he tells me. "I was a young programmer and needed practice in PHP coding, so it was perfect for that project." Nowadays, the site is used to host both offline and online competitions.
Sensible Days events are managed by numerous community members. Rick Lindeman and Colin Roll are the official tournament organisers of Sensible Days 2016. "[Our job is] arranging the location, receiving the money, setting up the tournament schedule," says Rick, who has been a big influence in bringing this year's event to his home country. "It was really difficult to find [a venue]. We needed a place where we could bring our own beer, too."
Colin is a native of England – the birthplace of the Sensible Soccer series. The English have traditionally suffered from a lack of representation at the event, which Colin hopes to rectify in the future. "The game was born and bred in England," he says. "My best finish has been a quarter-final spot. I'm longing for someone to break my record."
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Whether the English get a look-in or not, he's optimistic that the event will continue to go from strength to strength. "I think we have a bright future. The game has a massive off and online following in countries like Poland, Denmark, Italy and Germany. We keep seeing new members at our sites; we keep seeing new likes at our Facebook page. I'm proud to be part of an ever-growing community."
But why Sensible Soccer? Why not FIFA or Pro Evo? "It was the game of my youth," says Rafal Nossek, veteran of the Sensible Days scene. "It is still the most enjoyable football simulation by miles. Another factor was an overwhelming players, clubs and federation database that [had] been included in the game. You could start your career in pretty much every league in the world. It was an unprecedented effort."
Fellow attendees echo similar thoughts. "I remember the game from my childhood," says competitor Andreas Ibsen. "I play FIFA from time to time, but the gameplay is just better in Sensible World of Soccer, in my opinion."
By this point, the game itself isn't necessarily the tournament's biggest draw. Almost every interviewee makes a point of telling me how close-knit the atmosphere at Sensible Days can be. Five-time Sensible Days PC champion Philipp Habermann is one of them. "On an average Sensible Days tournament, I spend about €220. Good friends having a great time together is worth spending that amount." He'd know – he's spent a total of over €2,000 in tournament costs over the years.
This year's Sensible Days is a weekend-long affair, with the focus on the PC and Amiga versions of Sensible World of Soccer. "There is always a bit of war between the formats," Rick tells me. Regardless, it works in the way you'd expect. A real-life draw takes place ahead of the virtual kick-off. Those who advance from the initial group stages compete in knockout rounds, and the eventual victors are rewarded for their efforts with elegant medals and trophies.
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As this year's results roll in, I get word that Polish superstar Błażej Urbanek has done the unthinkable, winning three competitions in all. Philipp, on the other hand, adds to his list of accolades with victory in the Xbox event. Other highlights of the weekend include an almost everlasting penalty shootout, an appearance from original Sensi designer Jon Hare's new Sociable Soccer game, and some of the finest catering the tournament has ever seen.
When it's all over, there's time for one last beer until the CRT monitors and Amiga joysticks are packed away for another year. History will forever document the victors of the Sensible Soccer World Cup, but it's the lasting memories that will keep these fans coming back for more.