Before adolescent males had access to video game consoles with which to indulge their natural desires to rape, pillage and maim, these leisure activities were largely incorporated into human society itself. From the great day that an eager band of protosapiens first engaged in a primordial boss-fight against a wooly mammoth, to the halcyon days of the barbarian raids, man was engaged in brutal combat long before the online multiplayer deathmatch was even conceived. But somewhere in the mists of time in the interim between the two, man invented sport. When humanity’s playground first entered the digital realm, then, it is unsurprising that the first game ever created, “Pong,” was simply an electronic translation of the sport of tennis.
Sports games remain a huge portion of the videogaming experience and market. Even though more violent videogames frequently grab the headlines, sports franchises consistently shift the most units. Last year, the latest incarnation of EA Sport’s phenomenally popular Madden series, “Madden 07,” was the best selling videogame of 2006, with sales of 1.6 million units, and it’s a trend that follows a simple formula: If you can produce the definitive version of the most popular sport in a particular country, then you have the keys to the pocket of the essential videogaming demographic — the adolescent male. It’s a strategy that generates not only legions of fans but also hundreds of millions of dollars for the company that can produce the “must-have” title in a particular sport.
While Madden proudly rules the roost in the States, the biggest sports market worldwide remains soccer. For almost a decade, EA Sports, the makers of Madden, held a seemingly unassailable position of dominance in the market thanks to its FIFA franchise. With the official license, endorsements from the creme de la creme of soccer’s glitterati and a worldwide fan base numbering in millions, it seemed like nothing could go wrong for FIFA — an attitude that was to prove the downfall of the series. Complacent development led to a series of shallow updates, rushed out to cash in on demand and offering little or no improvement in gameplay save a superficial facelift in the graphics. As dissatisfaction with EA’s product grew, a competitor improbably emerged from the soccer backwater of Japan.
Konami’s “Pro Evolution Soccer” franchise lacked celebrity endorsements and couldn’t afford licenses to real teams or even real players (gamers still fondly reminisce of the days when the Brazilian strikeforce starred Renoldi and Donaldinho), but the gameplay was refined to a level never before seen in a soccer game. Successive releases continued to perfect the formula, leading to a sports game of unparalleled tactical depth and richness, offering players a baffling array of options while still maintaining the excitement and energy of The Beautiful Game. “Pro Evolution” may have gained fans the hard way, but in the war of the franchises, it was a decisive winner, adopted by casual soccer fans for its exciting gameplay and hardcore fanatics for its incredible depth. In the same way that the popularity of the Madden series is indicated by the number of professional footballers that swear by it, a recent British survey showed that over 95 percent of Premiership Soccer players in England own a copy. Perhaps the clearest indicator of the strength of the position of “Pro Evo” (as it is known to it’s fans) is the admission made by EA Sports Creative Officer Bing Gordon during a presentation at Yale last year that Pro Evo’s development was “years ahead” of FIFA’s current incarnation.
In every major market, “Pro Evolution Soccer” is king — every major market that is, except America. Perhaps it is the result of Konami’s marketing failures, perhaps due to the incredible gravity of America’s disinterest in the sport, but for whatever reason, the game has barely made an impact on these shores. It is into this finely poised race that Konami enters its latest Pro Evo title — the cumbersomely titled “Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007” for the XBOX 360, the first Pro Evolution title on to run on “next generation” hardware. Is this then the moment when America will finally fall for Pro Evo’s charms?
No. Categorically no. This is not the title that will shatter EA’s American hegemony, for a very simple reason: “Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007” is a shambolic failure, on a baffling level. It fails for reasons the casual American gaming audience probably doesn’t care about — in its new, looser control systems that remove the tactical depth and make attempting to build controlled passing movements frustrating and ineffective, or in the reformatted shooting interface which turns even the efforts of Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho into clogging hoofs in the general direction of the net. But, crucially, it fails in ways that even the most casual gamer will notice instantly.
For a game without official licences, the lack of an edit feature (usually a staple of Pro Evo titles, for good reason) is inexcusable. Unless Manchester United fans are content to play with a team called “Man Red” without official names or uniforms, which the player cannot edit or change, a great deal of the realism and excitement of the game will be lost instantly. It’s unthinkable to imagine playing Madden controlling Dreyton Spanning of the Indianapolis Bolts, and its almost unplayable to be forced to experience the soccer equivalent in “Pro Evolution 2007.” The lack of a detailed single-player franchise mode (get prepared for more encounters with bafflingly-named make-believe players in Pro Evo’s “Master League”) and a greatly diminished choice of match options and stadiums make “Pro Evolution 2007” a fundamentally shallow experience.
Is it better than the current FIFA experience? The point is moot: When two games this disappointing are vying for the crown, its no surprise the American market is so disinterested. Only the most soccer-mad masochists should trouble themselves with such an insultingly botched version of the franchise, but thankfully for the majority of American sports fans the real choice is whether to care or not.