Football video games are bigger and more realistic than ever as two gaming behemoths battle for domination of the sport in the digital realm – Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) and EA Sports’ Fifa series.
Since 2001 when the first PES launched, (Fifa predated it with a 1993 release), the titles have clashed in the hunt for market supremacy, looking to win the hearts and souls of passionate football fans appreciative of the distinct styles and gameplay offered by each franchise.
However, as eSport increasingly gains momentum, spawning more and more professional gamers who have to commit their time to individual titles, the battle of the gamers has never been hotter.
In 2017, Fifa, which has traditionally boasted the lucrative licenses of many federations and clubs, went on the defensive as the Japanese title PES sealed partnerships with teams such as: Barcelona FC; Dortmund; Liverpool FC, River Plate; Red Bull Brasil; SC Corinthians Paulista; CR Flamengo, and the Brazillian Football Confederation.
The Barcelona acquisition in particular could have dealt a particular blow to Fifa, as it had ran Argentinian forward Lionel Messi as its cover star for a number of years. Instead, Fifa held a social media-driven vote in response, and Dortmund (also a PES partner) player Marcos Reus triumphed.
PES’ seizure of the rights to Euro 2016 (downloadable content for PES 2016) and the UEFA Champions League rights in 2017, make it a serious contender – if it is indeed a lack of licensed teams that is sending gamers straight for Fifa.
Joe Smith, senior strategist working at 101 London, an agency handling the Game account, one of the UK’s leading video game retailers, says that there seemed to be a massive gulf in the marketing budgets of the games, with Fifa 17 dominating. He raises the point that the EA Sports title managed to secure an appearance from the Special One Jose Mourinho at leading gaming convention E3. PES on the other hand reportedly hosted journalists in a meeting room.
This is nothing new he argues as “PES has always been happy as the challenger brand” for the last 15 years offering something different in its gameplay. "A different kind of football game for a different kind of fan," he adds.
Traditionally establishing the gulf between the brands was the licensing which Smith described as PES’ Achilles Heel – although it has finally replaced the infamous Merseyside Red (what the club was unofficially titled) with Liverpool FC.
Clubs, leagues, players, badges and kits were largely unofficial, although snagging arguably the largest football club in the world in Barcelona FC will not go unnoticed.
Smith warns: "The battle lines have been drawn and it will be interesting to see whether the two franchises will enter into a bidding war for exclusive rights to different players, clubs and competitions in future. If so, it might be gamers who lose out.”
Liam Thompson gaming marketing executive of HSE Cake, that represents both EA and sporting body Fifa pitches-in too, drawing from his experience also as a YouTube gaming influencer. He says that PES’ status as the underdog gives it “a good opportunity to do something extra special.”
He says that while “both games heavily play on promotion through player engagement, real football talent is involved in the marketing,” adding that FIFA does this very well with their FUT player cards – a feature that merges card collection with the series’ gameplay to build a roster of top players.
Commenting on the differences between the games, he says: “The recent PES reviews claim the game flows nicely, the pacing is crisp and the shooting feels incredible. These gameplay factors are what reviews are shouting about, whereas FIFA is getting the praise for its soundtrack, authenticity and graphics.”
Now PES has to focus on building its brand, having nailed the gameplay aspect of the series – if early reviews are to be trusted. To snap up the Fifa legacy fans, it will have to expand its overall all experiences to compete with the Fifa’s evolution, which now includes a story mode called The Journey, a brave and well received effort to weave a narrative through the game.