How about some love for the loners?
Current state of play
With each summer comes the promise of a new PES and FIFA game and this year is no exception. With the generic first sentence that you’ll read in every article about said games ever out of the way, let’s do a deep dive into the often ignored but arguably most compelling mode of the ‘soccer’ game – Career Mode.
While every year bizarre buzzwords are spouted by over-enthusiast community managers (and sometimes Drake), the general rule for yearly development of FIFA or PES is essentially rebalance.
Being a ‘soccer’ fan (as a passive-aggressive Brit, I will keep putting it in inverted commas), despite crippling cynicism, I usually ending up buying one of the two (and occasionally both). What perhaps makes me a slightly unusual ‘soccer’ videogame player is that I have little to no interest in playing online and it’s not even because of the toxic community of squealing 12 year olds. As the fan of a team with little-to-no recent success (Everton), taking my beloved Toffees into an alternative reality where Paul Pogba and Toni Kroos dictate play from deep. in-front of the Gwladys Street End is where it’s at for me.
While both PES and FIFA offer solid enough opportunities for a make-believe player-manager career, the gargantuan success of Ultimate Team has shifted development priorities significantly. The result is a ‘next-gen’ career mode with very little in the way of additions from even as far back as the Playstation 2 days.
We’re at a current moment in gaming where we can generate almost endless universes, so here are my relatively modest suggestions for an improved career experience in ‘soccer’ games.
In the ‘good old days’, ‘soccer’ was typically about slamming pints, chewing steaks and then playing professional sport at the weekend. However, the long arm of capitalism will leave none untouched. Nowadays, Manchester United signing a player is as much about sponsorship and stock market value as ability on the pitch. The internet and subsequent rise of social media has turned all of us ‘soccer’ fans into scouts and business managers. In modern football, the meta-game of super-agents, tapping up and ever more complex contractual agreements has become an increasingly important part of the stories that arise from the sport.
As simulations, PES and FIFA need to reflect these stories. The transfer system of both games involves very little challenge or elements of unpredictability. Retaining your star players is as easy as rejecting any offer made for them and the factors in whether you can attract an ambitious new signing feel arbitrary. Imagine the strategic and tactical edge a career mode could have if you introduced a factor as simple as ‘player attitude’. For example, if you select loads of players under the age of 20, then any exciting youth players coming through could opt to sign for you over a bigger rival. If you were a small but rich team you might find it easier to attract ‘Mercenary’ type players, who will only go for the contract with the biggest wage and bonuses.
These new kinds of deal would lead to a compelling game of risk and reward where getting a great player might mean accepting a clause that they can leave if a Champion’s League club pursue them.
With career modes typically often going as far a 5-10 years into the future, a built-in system of inflation would also make for a more authentic transfer system. This would cut down on oddities like signing Pogba for £30mil, a price that now just about covers a relegated midfielder (such as Moussa Sissoko last year).
No club for old men?
Currently PES and FIFA employ a system where all players have a peak. Once they hit a certain age (usually late 20s) their stats will randomly begin to deteriorate. In simple terms this makes sense and forces the player to scout young talent. However, it dramatically lowers the desirability of players well into their peak years. In reality, top teams will still pay a hefty price for a 30-year old. If said 30-year old stays fit their is no reason why they can’t play all the way up to 40 without losing much.
Instead of arbitrary stat drops, I would propose a different way of doing it. PES has a system of ‘team roles’, where certain players can earn titles within the team. For example, if a player is at your team for a while and plays every week, they can earn the ‘Leader’ title, which improves the form of all the players around them. By limiting these titles to older players and making their effects positive and noticeable, PES and FIFA would encourage the use of veterans in teams as a viable way of getting the most out of your squad. Instead of making the player worse with each passing year, you make logical adjustments. For example, making them slower and lowering their stamina, while leaving their technical ability the same (or even still able to improve slightly). This, combined with the team roles would not just make veterans useful again, but actually an important part of the game.
In addition to this a simple cosmetic system where players visibly age and change hairstyles would do a lot to built attachment and immersion.
This one would requirement a bit of prospecting. In the current iteration of Football Manager, the effect of Brexit is simulated. This is done by randomly assigning a Brexit condition on the game. For example, a soft Brexit that maintained freedom of movement would make transferring European players significantly easier than the alternative, which would not only affect your team but the entire league.
Sport and politics are inexorably linked and for FIFA and PES to truly be considered simulations, they need to incorporate elements such as Brexit. Imagine your season being interrupted by random, uncontrollable events – like corruption or government enforced salary caps and how they would mix up the challenge of your game.
While it’s difficult to see it coming from a game that is literally named after an institution that reeks of corruption, it would be great to see real controversies like match-fixing somehow realised in game form. The establishment nature of FIFA in particular makes this an impossibility but a boy can dream.
So could it happen?
Both FIFA and PES have made small, incremental changes to their respectively career modes over the years. Story-mode ‘The Journey’, has hinted at the game outside the game, with elements such as agents and social media explored. However, instead of tightly controlled window-dressing, these elements need to be intelligently generated based on the player’s decisions and the random things that happen in the leagues and other continents.
With the gameplay itself at a such a high level of responsiveness and authenticity, isn’t it time Konami and EA injected that same level of complexity used in simulating football beyond what happens in 90 mins on a pitch?