‘ve been to a lot of stadiums in my lifetime. I’ve been in the Metrodome–which at its loudest is like being serenaded by a jet engine–during a playoff win. But I had never actually been intimidated by a stadium until the evening I went to see Santos FC take on Bolivia in the Copa Libertadores–the South American equivalent of the European Champions League. Heading up the stairs to stand with a hardy group of Bolivian supporters in the visitors section, the Estadio Urbano Caldeira was literally shaking with the anticipation 15,000 fans whopping and hollering for their team. The stadium–a utilitarian structure devoid of creature comforts like hot dogs or even seats–felt unstable, the home fans rowdy. In the event of an upset, I found myself hoping that I wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire and set on fire.
It’s a feeling that can only be had at a live sports event, and it made for an interesting contrast to the day before, when I experienced soccer in a much calmer setting–a hotel meeting room where Konami was showing off Pro Evolution Soccer 2013. In comparison to that wild (but exhilirating) death trap, it was quiet… almost clinical. It was there that we dutifully took notes as Konami representatives explained how we would now, finally, be able to manually control the height and power of our shots, and make perfectly timed challenges with two quick taps of the ‘X’ button.
PES 2013 has always been among the most mechanical of sports sims, which is not a bad thing per se. It is, after all, deeply dissatisfying to play a sports sim–any sports sim–that feels off. That feeling that you’re playing more of an arcade game, or NFL Blitz, than the actual sport. For years, Konami’s soccer games were the ones that got the mechanics of the game ‘right,’ earning it a devoted fanbase. But I also think Sterling McGarvey was on to something when he said in his review of last year’s edition of PES: “It’s too obtuse for a newcomer to the sport, but those who understand the gravity of the phrase, ‘downloading the right Option File‘ and all that comes with it, PES 2012 is worth a look…”
That line was running through my mind as I stood squinting at a control card at one of the demo stations, unaware that I would be (half-jokingly) fearing for my life the next day. Konami is throwing in even more moves this year, adding to a moveset that would make Street Fighter blush with features like Dynamic First Touch. Now it’s possible to traps the ball gently using R2, then hold R1 and R2 while pushing the stick 45 degrees to either side to produce a ‘nutmeg’– a move in which a player rolls the ball through an opponent’s legs. Another new combination allows for a rapid one-two pass that can be used to confound keepers on a breakaway.
The moves aren’t particularly easy for a newcomer to pull off–I swear I stared at that little control sheet for hours trying to memorize all the moves–but they’re required learning for anyone who wants to score with regularity. In real life though, Santos players like Neymar–a gifted young strike who would score two goals against Bolivar–makes it look easy. On one goal, he toys briefly with a Bolivian defender, breaks right with absolutely breathtaking speed, then passes to a teammate who puts it away.
A part of me understands why sports sim developers are enamored with replicating such moves–they just look that cool. It’s easy to sell elaborate dribbling and unbelievable goals to gamers. A large part of Konami’s PES 2013 presentation is devoted to showing a particularly cool move in real life–like the rapid one-two passing mentioned earlier–and reproducing it with a clip from the in-game engine. It’s shorthand for, “Our game looks exactly like the real thing.”
In the end though, it’s actually a clip of Chelsea’s John Terry flopping like a dead fish that gets my attention. It’s not much more than a throwaway joke amid the specialized collection of animations developed for soccer’s superstars, but it’s the only that tells a story. It’s likely a reference to this hysterical dive in the 2010 World Cup, which came during the height of a scandal in which he was accused of being involved in an affair with the ex-girlfriend of a former teammate. It’s the sort of thing you never see in a game like Pro Evolution Soccer, but such scandals are as much a part of the game as a move like the nutmeg.
Storylines are the one element of sports that tend to be neglected by sports sims; which is funny, because we’re obsessed with them in real life. As a Minnesota Vikings fan, every single season is loaded with the baggage of the past–the Gary Anderson kick, the Brett Favre interception, those four lost Super Bowls. I’m wondering if Adrian Peterson will recover from his devastating knee injury and Christian Ponder will be the quarterback of the future. At their own game, Santos fans basked in their third league championship in a row while hoping for even greater glory in the Copa Libertadores tournament. Neymar was hoping to continue his ascent as one of the game’s best players. And Santos itself was looking for a measure of revenge after being upset by Bolivar the month before.
At times, sports games come close to capturing those sorts of feelings. The ‘Superstar’ mode, for instance, is compelling because it represents one player’s journey from rookie to Hall of Famer. Football Manager‘s insane attention to detail has given us some fascinating stories over the years. Pro Evolution Soccer, though, is proud member of the old-guard, where realism matters most.
Konami is rightfully proud of their progress over the past couple years. After a difficult transition to the current generation, PES 2011 represented a real breakthrough in terms of AI, graphics, and animation. With PES 2013, Konami is offering more options on the field and tweaking the AI even further; and if the development team’s comments are anything to go by, they will finally be overhauling the long dysfunctional online play–an artifact of the old PlayStation 2 days.
All of these changes have been made with the singular goal of producing the most authentic product possible on the field, and there is little reason to believe that PES will be abandoning that approach anytime soon. At the end of the session, I asked producer Naoya Hatsumi what his thoughts were on the future of sports games, and I think his response is informative of PES 2013′s overall outlook. In his mind, the future of sports games is in specialized mobile apps that somehow extend the experience away from the television. He would also love to find a way to pull off cross-platform online play, presumably between the PlayStation 3 and the PC.
But as I soaked up the atmosphere at Estadio Urbano Caldeira, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t more to capturing sports than all that. Everywhere I looked, I saw another little facet of the game that had nothing to do with what was going on down on the field. When Bolivar lined up for a free kick, up went dozens of cameras and smart phones to capture the moment. Up in the press box, a Santos fan leaned out of a window following each home goal and pointed and jeered, the Bolivar fans responding with middle fingers of their own.
PES 2013 will undoubtedly be a fine soccer sim. As I acclimated to the controls, I couldn’t help but struck but the level of detail on the field, and the amount of control I had over the players. But as I left the stadium amid a tide of Santos fans delirious with joy over their 8-0 demolition of Bolivar, I felt like sports sims still had a ways to go before truly capturing that moment of victory. After all, sports are as much about what goes on off the field as on it. Every team, player, coach, and yes, fan has their own story to tell. It’ll be when PES 2013 finds a way to tell that story as well as it reproduces moves like the nutmeg that it’ll really be on to something special.
Kat Bailey is a 1UP contributor. As a Minnesota native, she spends a great deal of time thinking about how tortured her favorite sports teams have been over the years. She secretly hopes that EA or Konami will find a way to turn sports disappointment into a stat so that her teams can be rated 99 overall in something for a change.