For those past a certain age, it's not difficult to remember the days when Pro Evolution Soccer was king of the land. Top of the league, with illegitimate editions of Gabriel Batistuta, Michael Owen, and the real Ronaldo scoring goals that the commercial opposition could only dream of one day replicating for themselves.
The FIFA series, back in the old days, was always a bit of a joke by comparison—to those in the know, at least. Passing was awkward, goals were too easily scored from certain areas of the penalty box, player likenesses were more horrifying than endearing, and the less said about the pantomime way sliding tackles were handled the better. Not until 2010 did FIFA start showing signs of improvement, hinting at the possibility of a changing of the digital soccer guard.
And when the change happened, it happened quickly. FIFA, knowing it was losing the fight, drastically altered its technology and the philosophy underpinning its design. Out was the dedication to an arcade-like vision of soccer, in was something purported to be more realistic and indicative of what you're used to seeing when you tune into real soccer on the weekend. And as soon asFIFA began gaining ground, PES saw a drop off in its user base. Loyalties were forgotten.
FIFA's ruled the charts, in the UK, ever since, and is now one of the world's biggest-selling games every year. But why has PES dropped off so severely? The cheap and easy answer is that it doesn't have the same volume of officially licensed teams and leagues as FIFA, therefore players are put off by a perceived lack of authenticity. Yet that's not the root cause of the issue. FIFA always had more clout with licensing, yet PES managed to play the role of people's champion for years.
The real reason PES has seen less success over recent years comes down to style. When FIFA altered its approach to make up ground on PES, it did so by mimicking a style of play that is commonly found in the English Premier League: hard running, constant attacking, and forceful defending, all wrapped up in the kind of pomp and pageantry that the Premier League is so good at presenting.
PES has gone down a completely different path, favoring a slower tempo, greater focus on accurate passing, and an approach to defending that is all about not being sucked out of position by the antics of your opponents. PES 2016, undoubtedly more than any other soccer game ever made, values these more thoughtful and considered elements, and only breaks out into acts of outlandish showmanship on the rarest of occasions.
Put simply: If FIFA is like the English Premier League, PES is Spain's La Liga.
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And that, more than any other single reason, provides the answer as to why FIFA has gone from one sales milestone to the next while PES still dreams—in a manner Liverpool fans may be familiar with—of those past days of glory.
Given that the Premier League is the most popular and most readily broadcast soccer league in the world, it should come as no shock when players decide they want their digital soccer to match what they see on their TVs. The Premier League is the most attacking and unpredictable elite-level league in the world, and so people want that in their games, too.
While La Liga is also shown widely around the world, its reach is comparatively minimal on those days when Barcelona and Real Madrid are not locked in combat with one another. Therefore, PES is losing the ideology and familiarity battle before their game is even released.
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It's often said that PES in its modern state is not a suitable game for those post-pub nights back at the house. The game's dedication to considered build-up play in attack, combined with a tactical suite that allows you to pick up to three formations that can be seamlessly switched between in the middle of a game, doesn't lend itself to players inebriated to the point that telling a PS4 pad from an ashtray is a challenge.
There's truth to the cliché that PES is certainly not an easy game to become accustomed to; much in the same way that it's difficult for casual Premier League soccer fans to watch any given La Liga game due to the fundamental differences in how Spanish and English teams tackle mid-match problems. The mentality of teams and players in La Liga can be so removed from that of their English equivalents that it can at times seem as though you're watching a different sport. Yes, the final goal remains constant no matter what the league, but the journey to get there is unique to each competition.
No wonder, then, that PES's La Liga style hasn't filled those fans solely dedicated to the Premier League with much excitement. Quite literally, when they play PES it doesn't feel at all like what they know as soccer.
This might change, though. PES 2016 has attained a quality threshold that demands attention from soccer fans, no matter which real leagues they watch. Additionally, the ever-increasing presence of Spanish soccer (and European soccer, in general) on UK television should work to expand people's soccer tastes and tempt them into wanting to play more like Valencia or Sevilla than Swansea City or Crystal Palace.
What's perhaps most startlingly here is that soccer games have reached a level of sophistication that means that they are no longer merely attempting to replicate the core mechanics of the sport. Instead, they're looking to develop a playing style that matches a specific brand of soccer, one played by certain teams and in certain areas of the world.
Spanish clubs' recent record in European competition makes it difficult to argue against the fact that the country houses the finest soccer teams on the planet. By contrast, Premier League teams might not offer much of a European challenge any longer, but they are consistently involved in the most exciting matches on any given weekend.
So it comes down to one question: Do you want to be able to play the best soccer, or would you prefer the guarantee of excitement?
Pro Evolution Soccer 2016, by Konami, is out now. FIFA 16, by EA, is released on September 22.
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