PES vs. FIFA… For about 20 years, association football fans who were also gamers would tell you the same thing: the FIFA series might be atmospheric and fun to play, but if you wanted a soccer game that actually played like soccer, with many players involved in every attacking move, Konami’s series was your only choice.
Before becoming the worst-reviewed Steam game of all time under the name eFootball 2022, the Pro Evolution Soccer series was one half of the biggest rivalry in sports gaming history.
Even die-hard FIFA fans should be grateful for the existence of PES, as it pushed Electronic Arts to keep improving their franchise for the past two decades, rather than sell games that were little more than squad updates at full price.
The Evolution of a Name
The forefather of the Pro Evolution series was called “Goal Storm” and released exclusively for Sony’s PlayStation in late 1995 and early 1996 around the world. In Japan, it used the name “World Soccer Winning Eleven.”
A key selling point over FIFA 96 were the polygon-based graphics, which looked better from more angles than its competitor’s texture-based graphics.
Goal Storm allowed players to play international matches between 36 national teams. In a foreshadowing manner, those teams didn’t use the real names of the players, unlike FIFA 96, which was the first game in that series to use real player names.
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The next game in the series arrived a year and a half later, under the name Goal Storm ’97 in North America, World Soccer: Winning Eleven ’97 in Japan, and International Superstar Soccer Pro in the rest of the world. The game’s main innovation was on the tactical side, as it let players choose between 13 player formations and 8 strategies.
ISS Pro 98 was the first in the series to use misspelled versions of players’ real names. The next game was called ISS Pro Evolution, which included a way to deal with the lack of licenses, as the players could be edited, with the changes being saved to a memory card. It also included what would become a staple of the series: Master League mode.
Originally, the Master League was a simple league with fictional versions of 16 of Europe’s best club teams. You could choose to play as any of those teams, but the squad would be replaced by one made out of fictional players. As you won matches you gained points, which you could spend by adding players from other teams to your squad.
ISS Pro Evolution 2 introduced several improvements to the series. Notably, many players had their real names, and the Master League was expanded into two divisions, with promotions and relegations at the end of each season. It wasn’t released in North America, though, where Konami and Saffire released the fully licensed ESPN MLS GameNights.
The Golden Years
In 2001, Winning Eleven 5 was released in Japan and North America. It was the first game in the series to be released for the PlayStation 2. It brought a huge upgrade to graphics and ball physics. When it was released in Europe later that year, it was called Pro Evolution Soccer.
In Japan, the PS2 version of Winning Eleven 5 sold over 500,000 copies. The Final Evolution update, released around the same time as FIFA 2002, sold more than 275,000, and the EA game didn’t get near that. In Europe, PES grossed 21 million Euros (indicative of selling about 500,000 units) in 2001, compared to the 52 million (about 1.3 million units) that FIFA 2002 made.
The FIFA game not only had PlayStation versions, but was also on Nintendo GameCube and more importantly, it had a PC version — with an online mode. PES was the better game, but not everyone knew it.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2 was called Winning Eleven 6 in Japan, and Winning Eleven 6: International in North America. It was first game in the series to be released for a non-Sony platform, namely the GameCube, also expanding the number of (unlicensed) club teams to 40. The game had a single fully licensed team: the Japanese national team, thanks to an exclusive agreement that kept Japan out of the FIFA series until 2016.
Winning Eleven 6 was the best-selling PS2 game in Japan in 2002 with over 1.1 million copies, and the second-best selling game in general, behind only the Game Boy Advance games, Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire. The Final Evolution update added another 400,000 units, with FIFA 2003 failing to get close. In Europe, PES 2 sold more than 1 million copies in 40 days, but FIFA 2003 eventually beat it with 2.5 million sales in 2002, adding Xbox, GBA and mobile phone versions.
PES 3 was the first game in the series to be released for PC, while dropping support for the original PlayStation and GameCube (in-game menus of both versions assumed that you were using a PlayStation controller, though).
Gameplay was made more complex, with more stats affecting the abilities of different players. The game included 64 club teams, 6 of which were licensed, and the Master League was expanded into 4 first divisions. It sold as well as its predecessor, setting a launch sales record in Europe with a million copies on the first day of release.
The PC version did come with an advantage: the “option file” contained changes to unlicensed teams which could be saved and easily shared over the internet. Thanks to the work of hardcore fans, the game became practically licensed for everyone who downloaded a mod file (PlayStation modded game discs were also around for the same purpose).
At that point, teams could be changed entirely to create whole leagues that weren’t included in the game. Fans could even look for “localized” option files that had all the correct info about their favorite teams and players.
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Heavier mods included many additional changes such as jerseys with real-life sponsors, and even real-life fan songs, including ones that would never be included in a commercial game. In one popular Israeli mod from the era you could hear the fans sing, “If you’re not jumping, you’re a ref,” which sounded like “If you’re not jumping, you’re a cop”… which Israeli fans would sing, while hopping at times of tension with the police forces in the stadium. This is just one example of fan-made modding that happened across the globe with plenty of localization features, well beyond of Konami’s doing or control.
PES 3 became the first game to be played in the PES League in 2004, just before the release of PES 4 in Europe. At first, the tournament was open only to a few countries in Europe, but the small number of contestants in the final tournament encouraged many preliminary tournaments in those countries.
The number of countries kept growing in the following years. EA quickly followed suit with the FIFA Interactive World Cup, even though its games had been part of the World Cyber Games for years. In later years, the preliminary PES League tournaments moved online.
PES 4 added support for the original Xbox, and was the first game in the series to feature full leagues, including 3 licensed ones. It was also the first title in the series that showed the referee during gameplay. You could finally play with a club’s real squad, but most importantly, a key addition was that players could improve or worsen some of their stats after every game, based on age and playtime.
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That change set the Master League’s recommended strategy for the rest of the series: sign young players with low salary demands on long-term contracts, see them improve for several seasons, and sell them for a fortune just before their contracts end and their salary demands become ridiculous. Personally, I played several Master League campaigns until my team’s squad had been replaced almost entirely.
PES 5 was the first game in the series released for a handheld: the PlayStation Portable. That version was generally well-received, despite limitations due to the console’s fewer buttons. The PlayStation 2 version was the first in the series to have an online mode.
PES 6 dropped the Xbox version for the Xbox 360, which had improved graphics and ball physics, but lacked a fully functional edit mode. It also had a version for the Nintendo DS, which was not received as well as others. This year’s North American release was the last to use the “Winning Eleven” moniker: Winning Eleven: Pro Evolution Soccer 2007.
The Wiiddle Ages
Konami started branding new releases with the year following the actual game’s release, just like EA had been doing with FIFA. PES 2008 saw a (2D) version for mobile phones, but most significantly, it was the first to have PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii versions. Unlike the DS version, the Wii game wasn’t a limited port, but a revolution in sports gaming.
The Wii Remote’s point-and-click mechanism made the game feel almost like a real-time strategy game, with through passes being more accurate than on any other platform.
Most of the game’s versions were generally well-reviewed, with criticism centered around technical issues, but I can still remember it as a low point in the series in terms of gameplay.
Everything was moving too quickly, with the ball seemingly sticking to players’ boots as they received a pass. If I wanted a game with players that played more like comic-book superheroes than their real-life counterparts, I could simply opt to play FIFA.
PES 2009 was the first game to take advantage of Konami’s exclusive license for the UEFA Champions League. It was also the first to include the ‘Become a Legend’ mode, which let you control an individual player, similarly to FIFA’s ‘Be a Pro’ mode, which was introduced a year prior. It didn’t have a DS version, but the Wii release added support for the console’s Classic Controller.
Gameplay was thankfully slower than its predecessor, but not enough to remain the obvious choice for soccer fans, as the FIFA series was starting to get better. FIFA 09 had more realistic physics than its predecessors, and an online “Be a Pro” mode for 20 players, with each player tasked to control a single player on the field other than the goalkeeper. A later update brought the Ultimate Team mode, a combination of the usual FIFA gameplay with a trading-card game, to the series.
PES 2010 enabled true 360-degree control of the players through analog sticks. It featured UEFA’s Europa League alongside the Champions League. For the first time in the series, it had an iPhone version, which was simplified but looked and felt similar to the other versions.
PES 2011 added versions for Android, Symbian and Windows Phone. PES 2012 even had a version for Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play phone, alongside one for Nintendo’s 3DS, which was received better than the DS games as it leveraged the analog stick.
Except for those changes, the game did feel too similar to previous releases, letting FIFA take the spotlight with its improved Career Mode and outselling PES by the millions.
Return to Form
PES 2013, which didn’t have any mobile version, was highly regarded and received better than previous games, with improved gameplay that resembled earlier games in the series.
PES 2014 was the first in the series to be developed using the Fox Engine, alongside the Havok physics engine, but was seen as unpolished.
PES 2015 dropped PlayStation 2 support and all handheld versions in favor of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. That game was seen as the best title in the series in about a decade. Unfortunately, the quality of the game didn’t translate into sales. With its quantity of licenses and polished Ultimate Team mode, FIFA 15 sold over 18 million copies compared to PES 2015’s decent but comparatively paltry 1.72 million.
PES 2016 was praised for its gameplay, and later received a free update utilizing the UEFA Euro 2016 tournament license. It was also the first game to include “myClub” mode, which was similar to FIFA’s Ultimate Team and was also available for free.
PES 2017 launched iOS and Android versions once again, and these were in a whole different league than FIFA’s. While EA’s mobile versions looked like low-budget PS2 games with no real soundtrack or in-game crowd, PES was basically myClub as it was on the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. On the PS4 and Xbox One, PES 2017 was critically acclaimed for the upgraded graphics, but the PC version was criticized for looking like a port from the older consoles.
This was rectified with PES 2018 which looked as good as the Xbox One and Playstation 4 releases. The real hit, however, was the mobile version, which was downloaded over 150 million times.
With PES 2019, the PS3 and Xbox 360 were dropped. For the first time in 10 years, the game didn’t feature any UEFA tournament either.
Change in Direction
In 2019, Konami released eFootball PES 2020. Barring the name, the game was similar to previous games in the series, with the mobile versions getting an upgrade to Unreal Engine 4 and downloaded over 300 million times.
The game added the online Matchday Mode, where fans of two teams that were scheduled to play against each other in real life could play the scheduled match and help their team “win” it, at least in PES. An update added the exclusively licensed UEFA Euro 2020 tournament, even though in real life the tournament would only be played one year later.
In 2020, Konami didn’t release a full game but only the eFootball PES 2021 Season Update, which was the same game as with updated leagues and squads for half the price. It was available for the same platforms as PES 2020, plus the new Xbox Series X and Series S.
In 2021, Konami released eFootball 2022 – the first game in the series with no “Pro Evolution Soccer” in its name. It was available for all platforms that received the 2021 Season Update, as well as the PlayStation 5, but downgraded to the level of mobile versions on all platforms.
The game quickly generated 92% negative reviews on Steam, with screenshots representing the game’s bugs and graphics, often called “atrocious,” going viral.
After falling behind the behemoth that is FIFA, part of the explanation behind the radical eFootball move was going free to play, but clearly that has not worked out as well as expected. The initial release only featured the option for 1v1 matches against a local player or online, and “challenge events” between 9 teams (the only available to choose from), with paid upgrades planned.
Originally, Konami said it would release an update to address the game’s main issues in a matter of weeks, but only released a minor update eventually, with the main update delayed to the spring of 2022. PES fans can only hope that this catastrophe will make Konami reconsider recent decisions and release a worthy successor to PES 2020. Even another Season Update will do in the meantime.
Bad decision-making aside, the Pro Evolution Soccer series should be remembered for all the gameplay mechanics and innovation it brought over the years. The future of the series looks blurry, but the legacy it leaves behind cannot be questioned.
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