How FIFA Crushed PES to Become the Undisputed King of Football Video Games

Robert O'Connor@@hoovesonfireContributing Football WriterSeptember 29, 2017

fifa 17 player during the Dutch Eredivisie match between FC Groningen and FC Twente Enschede at Noordlease stadium on September 24, 2017 in Groningen, The Netherlands(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

"In North America, if you say FIFA, the majority of people will think of us rather than the actual governing body." The unabashed view of Matthew Prior, FIFA's creative director, explains why EA Sports' FIFA is king.

But how did the game consumed by so many become the definitive, market leader, when a decade ago it had a major rival for gamers' eyes, ears and dollars in the shape of Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer?

The studio has inevitably benefited from its unique licensing contracts with brands, players and the governing body. Its grip on the living, breathing world of football via its online platform has entrenched the status quo.

Yet PES has sustained a reputation as something bordering on a cult hit, with gameplay that continues to score strongly with audiences. It cannot, though, translate its cultural currency into sales.

Metro's September 2017 review of last year's PES instalment observed: "There's always the feeling that FIFA has merely bought its way to success. But PES has got there purely on its own merits."

So what form does such success take for Konami?

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

In a review of PES 2017, Steve Boxer for the Guardian wrote: "Since the mid-2000s, Pro Evolution Soccer has resembled one of those once-great footballing names now reduced to scraping an existence in the lower divisions—a Leeds United or Sheffield Wednesday, say.

"PES was the option for the purists, its stimulating fast-paced and highly tactical gameplay providing a thrilling simulation of the beautiful game. But FIFA had the flashy presentation and its expensive official licence, and from 2008 onwards a much-improved on-pitch experience, allowing it to build a seemingly unassailable lead. As a result, FIFA became one of the UK's best-selling games, PES stagnated."

Yes, PES 2016 marked a technological fightback. Reviewers on the whole credited vastly improved gameplay, graphics and physics, and many considered Konami's offering to be superior to its rivals in its in-play offering. Years of deterioration in the market that bordered on vegetation finally looked like they might be reversed, with Boxer writing: "This time around, it's an underdog which, in the areas that count, has the quality to go all the way."

It has proved a false dawn; FIFA rules the world. The numbers for the most recent incarnation tell us the gap is widening. FIFA 17 moved 1.1 million units in its first week of sales in September 2017. During its own opening seven days, PES 2017 racked up barely 50,000.

Sales figures for FIFA 17 smashed even EA's own performance on the previous 12 months, eclipsing FIFA 16's opening-week figures by almost 18 per cent.

FIFA 17 was one of the fastest-selling games ever released in the UK market. For PES, there has been nothing sudden about this downturn in fortunes. Konami's third-quarterly financial review for 2014 revealed a drop in sales from 5.52 million to 3.72 million from 2012 to 2013 (the report charts a drop in "Soccer" sales, of which it is reasonable to assume the vast majority relates to PES).

The drop-off of 1.8 million was a relative plummet compared with falls (in millions) of 0.21, 0.83, 0.40, 0.45 and 0.05 respectively on the previous five years over the same period. Whichever way you slice it, PES has been falling away badly for a long time.

The consensus of a vast improvement in the gameplay, of a cultural renaissance, hasn't fixed the problem. FIFA resembles a high-speed train and PES is trailing in its slipstream.

The trail leads us back a decade. According to former PES producer Shingo Takatsuka, 2007 saw major improvements in the gameplay design at Konami studios. This coincided with the advent of next-gen consoles, but it also marked the last edition of PES that came close to matching FIFA's sales figures. In 2007 FIFA outstripped PES by a negligible 6.55 million to 6.37 million units. Over the next 10 years, the gap widened to chasm-like proportions in 2015, when EA beat Konami by 18.79 million to 1.72 million. PES had imploded in the market, just as the product seemed to be at its strongest.

"There are three main areas of the game that have been improved," Takatsuka enthusiastically told IGN just prior to the release of PES 6. "We've worked hard on improving formations and tactics, specifically on the way players now overlap and make smarter runs. The goalkeeper has also been reworked…It will therefore be harder to score from long range because the keeper will play much more like they would in real-life.

"The third and most important improvement we've made is to the defender support system. When you're controlling a defender it's important that the CPU players back you up, so we've fine-tuned the AI so they're more reactive." Critics agreed on the whole.

So why has the game been pinned to the ground whilst FIFA has swept the field?

In the same interview, Takatsuka made a bold claim that has emphatically failed to materialise: "Our first priority" he said, "is to include [in the game] Europe's six major leagues." This remember came 10 years after EA's finances had first stretched sufficiently to allow them to buy up licenses for teams, players, tournaments and organisations. It created the gap the Konami studios have been trying and failing to bridge ever since.

FIFA has more licensed content than any other sports game on the market. Aaron McHardy is supervising producer at EA studios for the FIFA series. He calls licensing "the glue that connects the franchise to the real world." It is the high-speed locomotive on which FIFA has raced away from the competition. It mimics fans' anticipation generated by football in real life via the hyper-real universe it is legally at liberty to create. For all the advancements in the ongoing struggle to create the most convincing gameplay, it's the unique licensing arrangements that have suffocated Konami.

Prior, a 16-year veteran of the franchise, says: "The licensers really see the value of partnering with us as FIFA has become such an integral part of football. Back in the day when it was just a game running alongside the world of football and it wasn't intrinsically connected, those 'we want to use you' arguments were much harder for us than they are now.

"Licensers now see how massive FIFA is and what an important part of the world of football it is. Everyone wants to be involved. Here in North America, if you say FIFA, the majority of people will think of us rather than the actual governing body. A lot of people over here have gotten into football because of us and our game. The rapid growth in popularity of football in North America is in part down to us."

There is a circularity to the success of the franchise. The wider the network of licenses it holds, the more deeply it is able to entrench itself in the world of football; meanwhile, that integration continually makes alignment with FIFA an essential asset for organisations working within the game, opening up new doors for rights agreements. It's small wonder PES has been washed away in the undertow of the FIFA machine.

Licensing in turn has become a changed animal as the technology has evolved. This has made the struggle to stay on top of the market a dynamic one for EA. McHardy says: "There's so much more additional pressure on our licensing department now from the days when all you could see were the colour of the teams. If you can see all of the details of a kit, when you get in close you can see almost every thread on the shirt. When you consider the complexity of our licensing obligations to the club, we have a licensing obligation to the manufacturers, we have an obligation to all of the leagues. That illustrates how the complexity of our licensing assets have changed."

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 13:  Rayson Esquejo participates in a Fifa 18 booth during the Electronic Entertainment Expo E3 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 13, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 365-day nature of the game means licensing has become a year-round process. The need to update and renew is never-ending when fresh data is being pumped into the game all the time.

The most difficult alterations to track, says McHardy, are changes in player attributes: "Alterations in the ability of a player so that their attributes are reflected in how they play is massive. But also if there's changes to kits and balls and badges that are made after we've shipped the game, we're obliged to keep up with those changes. The job never stops."

2006/07 under Takatsuka was to be the peak for PES. It marked the point where the two studios' fortunes drastically diverged. They have never come close to coming back together. It is no coincidence the following year marked the first experimental steps for EA's Ultimate Team.

EA President Andrew Wilson told Eurogamer in 2012: "I think we are the strongest brand when it comes to online play—we have 25 million people playing 10 million games a day. We had record days of online play six months post-launch this past cycle."

Ultimate Team was the brainchild of Prior. Of the mode's impact on the franchise, he says: "It's in the DNA of all football fans. It's part of the culture of football and one that lends itself well to our game. It takes the mechanics of collecting football cards to a whole new level. It's a huge part of football that prior to FIFA 09 we weren't tapping into.

"Back then we ourselves didn't know the best team in the game and I think that tapped into users' psyches. We were also able to create the subculture that goes with the online transfer market, another part of the DNA of football that prior to FIFA 09 we weren't really taking advantage of. It also gave us the ability to drive social."

The genesis of Ultimate Team had come during the development of another title, the one-off Champions League release in 2006. The logic had been to give the product its own identity, since the game's licensing gave it a more limited scope than the developers had enjoyed on the FIFA series. Champions League 2006/07, it was felt, would suffer from a restricted audience, as fans of say mid-table Premier League clubs would struggle to connect with the title. There needed to be an added hook, a mechanism to personalise the experience and free it from the limitations imposed by the Champions League format.

The Champions League prototype for Ultimate Team was an unprecedented success for the studio. Prior likens the experiment to a cult movie, garnering fondness among a niche but never able to fulfill its potential owing to its limited scope. There was enough in the trial for Prior to get his teeth into to refine the model for introduction into the FIFA series in 2009, in something more like its recognizable format.

"FIFA's a much broader, more popular license [than Champions League]," he says. "So it gave it the opportunity to have the legs we felt it deserved. Then on day one [after FUT went live] when the servers crashed we realised we were onto something. The popularity of it was just through the roof from the very start."

The advent of EA's Frostbite game engine has underscored how Prior's designs have been brought to life via his second major contribution to the FIFA evolution, 2017's The Journey.

"The Journey was a response to something else in football culture we hadn't tapped into. A growing side of football that is relatively new to recent generations; social media, Instagram, Twitter—you get a window into the world of football like never before. It was a big interest for us but we never kind of delivered it within the game.

"The emotion and story of football is something we had been unable to deliver on until this.

"We're always looking at ways to expand our universe. I'd wanted to do it for a long time but it took the advent of Frostbite until we could. That gave us the tool set to deliver. That's the engine that's been used on cinematic games in the past. That's why it had its genesis in 2017."

Gaming fans sample EA Sports FIFA 18 as Bayern Munich play Real Madrid on the screen at the Los Angeles Convention Center on day one of E3 2017, the three day Electronic Entertainment Expo, one of the biggest events in the gaming industry calendar, on Jun

PES had held the hearts of users and reviewers alike in the period before the online revolution. Writing in FourFourTwo in 2016, Ben Wilson observed that while "Pro Evo [2007] still couldn't compete with FIFA on the licenses front… the gameplay gulf between the pair was so wide, no discerning fan cared.

"This was total football, its now-customary slick passing, tactile shooting and intelligent AI play complemented by lifelike subtleties such as quick free kicks. [PlayStation 2] had never had it so good."

2007 welcomed the first step in a major fightback by EA against the march Konami had stolen by the mid-00s. It began with fresh personnel in the top FIFA job in the shape of new executive producer David Rutter, who joined EA in August having previously masterminded the success of Championship Manager.

Rutter set to work absorbing feedback from the gaming press. The word the studio got back was that responsiveness within the gameplay was going to matter more. In a 2012 interview with Eurogamer, Rutter said: "The footballing and animation movement of the players we kind of had, but there wasn't enough 'snap' in the players. It all sounds obvious in hindsight, but when you're already shifting copies by the million off the back of a licence, it's easy to take your eye off the ball.

"We set off to deliver that in FIFA 09, and since that point I guess what we've done is listen to what the fans have said, listened to what our guts and our hearts told us we needed to do, too, and became our own worst critics."

"Gameplay," says Prior, "is king." Under his predecessor, Gary Paterson, the franchise took big steps at the turn of the last decade to lock down a key calibration in the game's evolution, the "authenticity versus fun" balance. The elimination of "ping-pong passing" for instance, was something Paterson cited at the time as being crucial to ramping up the series' gameplay.

"Being able to play a lot of first-time passes to get from one end of the field to the other very quickly, a lot of users felt that reduced the depth in the game," Paterson told GameSpot in 2010. "It gave gameplay less emotion, less of a sense of achievement. That was why we introduced Pro-Passing and Personality Plus, where personality permeates from the visuals of the game to the attributes of the players."

Between 2009 to 2012, EA revolutionised their franchise. Ultimate Team, Live Season, Virtual Pro, 360-degree control, Pro-Passing, tactical defending and Precision Dribbling all made the gameplay unrecognizable to the discriminating eye from where it had been at the start of Rutter's cycle.

Ajax Amsterdam players Koen Weijland (L) and Jairo Riedewald play a game on an 'Xbox One' during the opening of the FIFA 17 Xperience in Amsterdam on September 22, 2016.  / AFP / ANP / Koen van Weel / Netherlands OUT        (Photo credit should read KOEN
KOEN VAN WEEL/Getty Images

"If you look at the last 10, 12 years as a whole, I think it's been quite a journey to get to here," says McHardy. "Back when we started on Gen 3, which was the next generation of consoles back when it came in, we were in a battle with PES in terms of whose was the best game. I think we recognised early that we needed to focus on gameplay and focus on depth in gameplay and how we make every game feel different, and that every game feels responsive and fun.

"We focused on that for a number of years until it felt like we had surpassed our competitors in terms of the quality of gameplay. We've maintained that focus up until today whilst having the liberty of being able to use our success to invest in things like Ultimate Team and the Journey, and all of the mode depth we've added to make FIFA the colossal game that it is today.

"One example of us responding to what we were being told is that we weren't providing enough of an engaging experience on the defensive side of the game from FIFA 11 and previous, so that's what tactical defending was all about. It comes back to authenticity versus fun. We weren't being as fun as we could be with our mechanics. So that's why that change came at FIFA 12."

The developers talk about gameplay as being the defining factor in FIFA's trouncing of the opposition, in spite of the recent renaissance in the quality of PES' on-pitch action.

Much of that is down to the exclusive access EA have to the Frostbite engine and the power it affords to FIFA's in-play graphics. Frostbite, first incorporated in FIFA 17, has paved the way for a step up in graphical quality. It all helps move the franchise closer to lead gameplay producer Sam Rivera's stated aim of having "two TVs next to each other where one is playing a real game and one is playing FIFA and you can't tell the difference."

The technology counts for little without ideas about what makes a simulation worth investing in, though.

Rivera, who joined the franchise in 2009, says: "Authenticity is important to keep the series developing year on year, but it also has to be fun. We try to balance the game between these two points, fun and authentic.

"We have a team of people working on technologies for the future, and our job as producers is to understand those technologies and figure how we can put them into the game to create more realistic behaviours. But then afterwards when we're playing the game we might think 'well it's a very realistic feature, but it's not fun'; the goalkeeper may be saving too many shots and reacting too fast and he's perfect. So we need to find that balance where we can actually enjoy the game.

"Even after the game ships we're still working to make changes to try and achieve that balance."

Taking a lead in the market is one thing. Nurturing that advantage and keeping audiences contented by evolving the gaming experience without being unfaithful to the DNA have needed the studio to be responsive to their followers.

As it has been since Rutter first opened EA's ears to the masses in 2007, the feedback from audiences to EA studios is constant, and constantly listened to. The mathematical tweaking of the franchise's gameplay is an ongoing process, up to and including the latest installment.

"This year we created a new mathematical model," says Rivera, "that dictates how a player is going to accelerate and decelerate, making it more realistic and closer to real life. So now in FIFA 18 you have to defend more like in real life. You have to be patient, you need to time your tackle.

"We're listening a lot to our fans. In FIFA 17 one of the biggest complaints we got was that the AI could defend for you. You could drop the controller and let the AI take over. Now with the changes it's more manual. It's going to be harder at the beginning but it's definitely more rewarding."

The locomotion of players too—factoring into the gameplay that some players lack the explosive acceleration of others without making it frustrating—is another point where the balance has had to be recalibrated from edition to edition as FIFA has rocketed away from PES in its sales.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - APRIL 08:  General Atmosphere during Fanta Masters launch the 2016 season of their award-winning gaming league with EA Sports FIFA 16 and PlayStation at MEFCC 2016 at Dubai World Trade Centre on April 8, 2016 in Dubai, United
Cedric Ribeiro/Getty Images

McHardy says: "FIFA 09, FIFA 10 time—when we took back the pitch and became the best gameplay on the pitch—I think was the first monumental moment for us as a franchise. That's when we became regarded as the best for on-field gameplay.

"What we've done with Ultimate Team too, the introduction of it and the growth of it. I can't pinpoint one moment in time because it's been growing so rapidly.

"But being able to provide such an engaging experience of the pitch that has captivated the attention of all of our fans. That's what's catapulted us to the next level. Those are the two key moments that I credit a lot of the successes of our franchise with.

"I think FIFA 09 we started to get the feeling from a lot of our fans that we were the better game on the pitch. I think it was definitive by FIFA 10."

Definitive indeed.


*All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.