I've Played The Same 'Pro Evolution Soccer 5' Match For 15 Years
Words: Ross McIndoe
The very final plan I had in place before things got too sketchy for socialising was pretty humble: me and an old friend were going to get together and play Celtic versus Rangers on Pro Evolution Soccer 5. The same match in the same game that we've been playing on and off for 15 years now.
When PES 5 first came out we were both in the early days of high school, so football and video games were pretty near the top of both our priorities lists. As born and raised Glaswegians, the centre of the footballing world was and remains the Old Firm derby - a divide which we fall on respective sides of, him repping Rangers and me supporting Celtic.
Over the years we've both changed jobs and moved home and gone to uni and dropped out and gone back. At this point the game disc, the controllers, the console and the living room it sits in might all be different than from when we first began; but the players, the teams and the game are always the same.
There's something about Konami's PlayStation 2 classic that makes it endlessly re-playable. It embodies something which is at the very core of why we enjoy sports, why we keep coming back to see mostly the same thing, game after game, season after season.
PES's great rival, FIFA has always aspired to be the ultimate football simulation, using cutting-edge graphics and covering itself head-to-toe in official licensing to look as much like the real thing as possible. PES, on the other hand, has always aimed to be the ultimate football game - to capture the feel of a match in action as viscerally as possible.
FIFA 20 represents the most realistic depiction of football you'll find anywhere in gaming - the motions are smooth, the animations intricate and intuitive, everything looking weighted and hefty, and the player likenesses are as good as they have ever been. But spend a few hours with it and you'll likely find your experience bounded by the same guardrails that have always been present in FIFA games. The ball pings perfectly from one player to another, never really feeling out of control no matter how frantic or unlikely the pass. Pretty soon you'll find yourself scoring mostly the same goals over and over.
To keep its high-class veneer intact, FIFA retains an iron-tight control over what can and can't happen in any given matchup. It's like watching a very slickly choreographed impression of football - the movements are all there but there's something a little lifeless about it. It lacks the spontaneity that brings real sport to life.
PES, on the other hand, has always been a faithful agent of chaos. Each game feels like 22 bodies flinging themselves around a grass rectangle, a rubber sphere pinballing between them. There are collisions, miscues, ricochets and rebounds galore. The best laid plans are quickly torn apart by a halfway-line thunderbolt or a defensive mishap. Each match is a work of constant improvisation.
That's what real football is all about, too. The ball is almost always in motion, active, alive with potential. That's the thrill - watching something elegant and intentional emerge out of the maelstrom. The moment the ball rips into the back of the net, an infinity of possibilities are erased and one unlikely reality comes into being. Of all the potential stories the match might have told, you're seeing one suddenly burst into existence.
It's that spontaneity that makes sport so vitally different from other forms of entertainment - it's organic drama, a narrative crafted in real time. For all its wonkiness and flaws, PES 5 still captures this better than any other game.
This spontaneity is then multiplied when you're playing against another human opponent. It's the same reason people can now sink hundreds of online hours into their Call of Duty of choice, or Fortnite - human players competing across a game that both rewards skill and facilitates the wacky imperfection and ingenuity of human players. You can play forever without feeling like you've seen all there is to see.
There's something about gaming together in particular, whether online or on the same couch, that provides the perfect level of intense focus and relaxation that guarantees a constant supply of bizarre banter. After 15 years of PES 5 together, my friend and I are left with jokes we no longer remember the beginnings of - micro-memes that make sense only to us, and only barely at that.
At some point in the game, one of us will feel compelled to holler, "DON'T FORGET TO TRACK BACK, DON HUTCHISON!" in a weird, high-pitched, maybe-Invernessian accent. I don't ever remember ever watching Hutchinson play. I don't remember having any feelings about his defensive work rate. I can't think why he would be relevant to this match, given he never played for Celtic or Rangers; and I don't know where the accent came from. And yet this happens, every single time.
It was funny when we were 12, eating microwave popcorn and playing video games all night. It's funny when we're 27, taking a break from life and work to regress for an hour or two and score some wonder-goals.
It's that precise type of different-but-the-same feelings and moments that long-term friendships are full of. You go to the same places, order the same drinks and talk about the same things. But you're also bringing all the new stuff, all the little changes in your life and the incremental developments you're making. Processing them through that familiar old connection often makes them that much easier to understand.
It's not about being stuck in the past - video gaming has moved on and opened up whole new worlds that we couldn't even have imagined back in high school. And all other aspects of our lives have broadened and deepened and shifted in ways we never would have guessed. But it's cool to have an old place to go back to and ground yourself in.
For other people, maybe that's a hometown or an old movie or a local bar. For us, it's Celtic versus Rangers eternally replaying the Old Firm derby in Pro Evolution Soccer 5.
Featured Image Credit: Konami