Jude Bellingham’s late stunner reminded me why Pro Evolution Soccer hit the target

Football, like everything else important in life, is about stories. People implant themselves into the narrative: where they were when they saw Maradona’s handball, the strangers they hugged when Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored that historic last-minute winner at the 1999 Champions League final. No doubt new tales are already being conjured around Jude Bellingham’s scissor kick against Slovakia in the dying seconds of Sunday’s Euro 24 match. Sport is a nostalgia machine – and this is as true for video game simulations as it is for the real thing. Every gamer has their favourite footie sim, but for me, and many other players of my … ahem, vintage … it was Pro Evolution Soccer, numbers 3 to 6.

This was the early 2000s, the age of the PlayStation 2. I was a writer for hire at Future Publishing, basically hanging out at its office in Bath, working mostly on the Official PlayStation magazine. But every lunch time, all the magazines would get together and play PES – especially during major tournaments, where we’d organise our own versions. Fifa? Forget it. Konami had already proved its ability with footie games through the excellent International Superstar Soccer series on the Mega Drive, Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, but the introduction of PES in 2001 brought a new level of dynamism and detail. Pace was fluid, player abilities were defined by 45 different stats, adding depth and variety, controls were intuitive yet expansive. “These games felt like authentic football,” says Ben Wilson who was editor of Official PlayStation at the time. “There was genuine joy to be had in grinding out a 1-0 win. Modern football games have as much in common with basketball as football – you shoot, I shoot, you shoot, I shoot, final score 6-4.”

There were no showboating special moves to select, any moments of magic were contextual. You had to work for them. “A game developer once described PES to me as a series of split-second Street Fighter 2 battles held all over the pitch, over a course of minutes,” says Dan Dawkins, now content director at Future Games Show but then deputy editor of Future’s unofficial PlayStation magazine, PSM. “The game made each player feel utterly unique, and the ultra-precise controls made each moment of gameplay a series of high speed, chess-style, tactical decisions about how to beat the opponent and progress the ball – all based on the relative attributes of each player.”

Ultra-precise controls made gameplay a series of chess-style tactical decisions … Wayne Rooney in Pro Evolution 5. Photograph: Konami

Watching the Euros now, I can’t help but recall those days. A dozen of us gathered around the massive CRT television in the office games room, which was an old storage closet, complete with a wire-mesh door, earning it the name The Games Cage. “I have so many, amazing, ludicrous memories,” says Dawkins. “We used to refer to players like we were locker-room pals. ‘Use Eddie (Edgar Davids) to shore up the middle!’, ‘A Bertie (Roberto Carlos) curler!’. We even developed our own lexicon for each version of the game’s quirks, like Captain Pan Hands, for when goalies used to inexplicably fumble a shot, or Jimmy Ghost Legs, when your defender would let an attacker virtually walk through him.” Meanwhile, I earned the nickname Mr Chips, due to my obsession with trying to dink the ball over the head of every keeper I faced.

And I’m sure we weren’t alone in how heated things could get, mostly due to the intensity of the game, and its unique ability to simulate the sheer unpredictability of the sport. “My fondest memory is probably the day that PSM2 beat the Official PlayStation Magazine, 9-1 in a co-op match,” says Dawkins. “Magnanimous to the last, we paraded a small trophy around the office, and kept a Mini-DV recording of the match on our desk titled ‘A Fistful of Dellas’, in testament to Roma’s Greek defender who scored our ninth goal from a glancing header.” And what happened to that video evidence? “We stuck the footage on one of PSM’s cover discs,” recalls Nathan Irvine, who worked on PSM with Dan. “Yes, we were that petty.”

A cruise to glory … PSM media cup story. Photograph: Nathan Irvine/Future Publishing

Through the next five iterations of the game, Konami’s team gradually perfected its interpretation of footie simulation, adding new animations and moves, but never messing with the core gameplay: complexity and unpredictability. Your control of the players was “limited” to eight directional movements, but, as in Street Fighter, this gave a supremely reflexive level of control. “The d-pad was genuinely the best way to play,” says Dawkins. “Fifa later introduced ‘true’ 360 player movement, but for many years, this had the effect of feeling floaty, versus PES’s surgical movement precision. For all of the control simplifications and limitations, it just felt like football: an illusion of control in a sandbox of chaos. It had the ability to crush you with moments of player ineptitude, or fill you with elation as a striker surged on to a last-second sweeping cross.”

Even the game’s eccentricities were endearing. Famously, Konami gained fewer official licenses than Fifa, so Manchester City was Man Blue, West Ham was inexplicably Lake District and Kenny Dalglish was known simply as Durlmints. “PES made up for this by offering the most extensive Edit mode of any game, allowing players to correct all the athletes’ likenesses and names in microscopic detail,” says Dawkins. “The internet was a different place in 2003, and the PES fan community (PES fan, PES Gaming, Reddit) would be rife with players sharing totally updated save files, that made the game even more accurate than Fifa. This culminated in the legally dubious existence of ‘Magic PES’, as I recall, where fans were sharing fully downloadable, illegal, versions of the game with all the licensing fixed. We had a few copies knocking around the office for ‘research purposes’.”

Although fans will make a case for PES 2013 or PES 2017, PES 6 was arguably the zenith of the series: the Brazil 1970 of footie sims. It was the last to lead on PlayStation 2 before the series jumped to PlayStation 3 with the heartbreakingly mediocre PES 2008. The buzz that went around the Future office when a gold disc version arrived; the furtive whispers, everyone checking their watches, waiting for lunch. The sound of several magazine production schedules grinding to a halt.

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The Brazil 1970 of footie sims … Pro Evolution 6. Photograph: Konami

“This, for me, is the pinnacle of video game football,” says Irvine. “Anything could happen in that version, which made for unbelievable passages of play and goals. Oh, and I won the PES Media Cup in Dublin on PES 6. The PES media cup? Yes, that was a thing. “It was a time when PES was everywhere – it had incredible awareness and we knew we had to build on it,” says Steve Merrett, then handling PR for Konami in the UK. “Our official Media Cup started off with 16 people in a London pub, and within four years had 64 entrants and hundreds of liggers as venues went from wine cellars to the suites at the Emirates. We did all we could to support all forms of press, and knew in particular how Future had embraced it. I probably spoke to Dan Dawkins more than my wife back then…”

PES 6 launched in April 2006, just a head of the World Cup in Germany. “As soon as it arrived, the next few days were spent crammed into the Cage playing against each other,” says Irvine. “We got told off for being too loud by the mags around us. It’ll make me sound like an old angry man, but the magic of PES – specifically 5 and 6 – hasn’t been matched. Graphics have improved and licenses now put you on the pitch with your favourite players, but creating memorable moments out of nothing has been left in the changing room. In an effort to be ultra-realistic, they’ve actually become dull and predictable. In PES, the ball felt like it could go anywhere. A simple drop of the shoulder or fake shot move past an opponent took genuine skill and played like football. Not like the 300 pirouettes and rainbow flicks of today.”

There was something so PES 4-6 about Bellingham’s goal. It didn’t look choreographed as it would have done in Fifa. It came from nothing, from nowhere; a moment of instinct and fortune, timed to perfection. I’d been cynical about the tournament up to that point, but after the match I just wanted to play PES. I wanted to chip a goalie. I wanted it to be 2006 again.


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