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As Konami hopes to avoid past console transition mistakes, PES 2022 is under pressure to deliver

Squeaky bum time.

I turned to the dark side. Not of the Force - of video game football.

I'm sure I was not alone. I am of the generation raised on Pro Evolution Soccer, what was once the best, most popular football game on these shores. On PSone and PS2, it was the football game. A few two-versus-two games to get warmed up before a big night out, a sip of a drink every time the ball went out of play. And of course we're running late - we had to have a rematch, and another, and another...

And then Konami completely messed things up. The transition to the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation was a disaster for PES, as EA Sports' rival FIFA series took hold. PES, you could argue, has yet to recover from that own goal. I moved over to FIFA along with a huge number of PES players, and didn't look back.

As we approach the start of a new console transition, Konami is desperate to avoid past mistakes. And in order to make sure it hits the PS5 and Xbox Series X running, PES is, effectively, taking a year off. PES 2021 is a stop-gap game, a season update, and it is cheaper as a result. I was shocked to hear the news. PES hasn't done anything like this ever, really. I doubt EA would ever consider such a thing.

Some are wondering if this now points to a new way. Could we see Konami issue cheaper season update games in between mainline entries? I think there are plenty in the community who would like to see that kind of model. And what can we expect from the series next year, when Konami is under pressure to make a big splash with PES 2022, all singing and all dancing on the Unreal engine? Can Konami loosen EA's vice-like grip on the UK?

I had a chat with PES' Lennart Bobzien, the European brand manager for the franchise, to ask about Konami's master plan. Bobzien is someone I've spoken to before about PES and he's always been refreshingly candid about the challenges Konami faces. There was much he couldn't say during our recent chat, but plenty I think is interesting.

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I think it's fair to say it was a surprising decision not to release a full, brand new version of PES this year, and instead go with the season route. What's the thinking behind that?

Lennart Bobzien: If you look into what we're planning for next year, our team decided they just need more development time to basically make the transition from current-gen to next-gen. And instead of delivering a product, which maybe will not meet the expectations from our users, our team in Japan, they're really high-quality driven. PES is a really high-quality product. Our team want to make sure that when we are launching on the next-gen next year, we want to deliver a product which meets the expectations. Therefore we've decided to make this step that this year, basically releasing the season update, and then the team can now fully focus on the future of PES.

I don't think I've ever seen this before. But I do know Konami has had issues with PES making console transitions before. Did that experience help inform this decision?

Lennart Bobzien: As you said, we had some challenges in the past, and I think the team has learned from that. Instead of forcing it and releasing a product on next-gen and then not delivering on the expectations, the team just decided for this year to take a step back, and then to make sure the product next year is a fully embraced next-gen title.

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People have reacted positively to this. Annualised sports game have suffered criticism in the past for being little more than roster updates, and not always justifying a completely new game at full-price. People are now wondering whether this is the way to do things in the future, or is it a one-off?

Lennart Bobzien: We've seen people really appreciated our decision. Annual titles, they have a challenge. You release one product, and then within the next 12 months, you have to release another product. So the development time is really tight for making big new changes. We saw after our announcement that loads of people really appreciated our decision.

If this will now become something regular, I cannot really comment on that. All I can say is we've made that decision for PES 2021 now, and we have to evaluate once the product life-cycle for PES 2021 is over. Then we need to see whether our decision was the right one. Or maybe there were some pros, some cons, some things went well, some things maybe we should improve. This is something Konami will discuss internally to see how the good things can be applied in the future.

Obviously PES 2021 is going to be a roster update, but are there any gameplay tweaks at all?

PES 2021 is a season update game - a first for the long-running series.

Lennart Bobzien: The gameplay will be the same as PES 2020. Whether there will be any tweaks in the future, I cannot comment on that right now.

Okay, but in terms of what Konami would typically do post-launch with a mainline PES game, I'm talking myClub stuff, gameplay updates, is this stuff that will all happen with PES 2021, or will it be different?

Lennart Bobzien: Put it this way, we will still release data pack updates with new content. There will be new kits released. And also the same with myClub. Last year we introduced the Iconic Moment Series. That's something we will still run for PES 2021. We also have the Euros added right from launch. So there will be some Euro-related content happening in myClub, but also in matchday at a later stage. So there is new content coming to the product.

Speaking of the Euros, the current plan is the real tournament will take place in 2021. How will it work in PES?

Lennart Bobzien: I'm not working for Uefa, so I can't comment on the Euros. We're just relying on the information that's publicly available. Right now, the current plan is the Euros will take place next year. Whether it will be played behind-closed-doors or not, no-one really knows how football will work out next season. I would say the situation is still quite serious.

For PES 2021, we have the Euros in the game from launch, so people can experience the tournament right from launch. Looking at the content calendar regarding MyClub, I'm sure there will be content around the Euros happening in myClub, when it comes closer to the tournament.

I recently spoke with EA Sports about their plans regarding reflecting real-world football. You're both making sims, both striving for realism and authenticity. FIFA 21 is completely ignoring coronavirus. Do you have any plans to reflect the changing nature of real-world football in either PES 2021 or beyond?

Lennart Bobzien: PES 2021, we will not have any massive changes. Are you referring to having empty stadiums?

That would be one of the changes, yes.

Lennart Bobzien: This will not happen for 2021. 2021 will be similar to 2020. Whatever happens in the future, I can't comment on that. But the coronavirus situation slowed down things. It did not stop us from developing or from running campaigns, but it slowed down things. And it made it difficult for us, for example, to get access to clubs or the staff. Usually around that time we'd do some campaigns with the clubs, but now with all the restrictions, it is still possible but it is a challenge. But the good thing is we are working with our partner clubs very closely, and they are trying to support us as much as possible so we can get content done, which we then can use for the future.

You recently announced PES has lost the official licence for Inter Milan and AC Milan. What message do you have for fans this year who are concerned about licenses for PES 2021 as well as the future, given we haven't had any high-profile announcements from Konami on gained licenses this year?

Lennart Bobzien: Just to comment on AC and Inter, it came to an end. Working with both clubs was amazing over the last couple of years. But unfortunately it came to an end. At the end of June we made the announcement on our website where we informed people, look, this is happening, because we just want to be transparent. That's the thing we want to do with PES 2021, to be transparent right from the beginning with the product, but also with the content of the product.

Obviously, our competitor, they've announced their new partnerships. I cannot comment on anything, but all I can say, similar to when we spoke two years ago, we are always exploring opportunities. How can we get new leagues or clubs or tournaments on board, like what we did last year with the Euros? This is something we've done for the last couple of months. We've spoken to various clubs, and there will be announcements coming soon.

Are you losing anything else?

Lennart Bobzien: Again, I cannot comment on that. But what I can say is PES 2021 will have more or less the same type of licenses as in PES 2020. The only difference will be, you have clubs which have been relegated from certain leagues, so some clubs we will lose just because they have been relegated. But overall the licence portfolio will be very similar to PES 2020.

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So you've still got Juventus, then?

Lennart Bobzien: Yes. With Juventus it was a long-term deal. It's not short-term, like a one-year contract. That's what we do with all our partner clubs. We're not going into details, like for how many years we are signing clubs, but every time we sign an agreement or partnership with a club, we're always thinking long-term. A one-year deal doesn't really make sense because you can't really achieve something. We want to do a long story with all those clubs.

Yes, but the Juventus one is different isn't it? Because it's not just that you're partnering with Juventus. You've got the exclusive rights to their name, which forced EA to change the name of the club in FIFA. I was surprised at that. PES getting such a high-profile genuine exclusive was a hell of a coup, I thought. Is that something we can expect more of from Konami in the future, or was it a special case?

Lennart Bobzien: It depends from discussion to discussion. It also depends on the clubs and their restrictions. Every time we talk to a club we explore the possibility of exclusivity, but with some clubs it literally doesn't work because they still have agreements with their domestic league, for example. But if there's an option to go into exclusivity, we definitely want to explore that. In the end, it's a case-by-case scenario.

If you look at our clubs in South America, we have some exclusives there. If there's a chance to sign a club exclusively, then we would look to do that.

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I'd like to talk about Nintendo Switch. EA puts out a half-arsed version of FIFA on Switch. Isn't there a big opportunity on Switch for a really good version of PES that isn't just a crap version of the main games? Will Konami step into the breach and save Switch owners who are looking for that experience?

Lennart Bobzien: I have a Switch at home. I love the Switch as a console. But I can just comment about PES 2021, and this will just be available on the current console generation, which means PS4, Xbox One, and PC via Steam. There will be no Switch version for this year.

Two years ago we talked about how PES was doing. Now, how is the game doing generally?

Lennart Bobzien: I cannot go into specific numbers, but PES has definitely grown overall globally. Last year we had a really big year with our new partner clubs, and there was new content coming to the game with matchday and Iconic Moment Series. We had loads of new stuff coming to the product. As you can imagine, the Juventus announcement had a big impact on our Italian market. The product quality helped us to grow the PES brand globally, but also within Europe we've definitely noticed an increase of sales digital especially, but also for physical as well.

Can you say anything about how PES is doing in the UK? When we last spoke we were talking about how tough it it in comparison to FIFA here.

Lennart Bobzien: Again, I can't go into sales figures. The UK is still tough. It's a tough market. The UK is a market dominated by our competitor. It's not a secret. We are growing, but I would say in the UK we are growing slightly slower than in other countries, just based on the dominance of our competitor. The partnerships we have with United and Arsenal help us massively to help make people aware of our product, to showcase our product. We 3D scanned both partner clubs in the past, and that just helps us show the quality to their fans.

All eyes on PES 2022 and Konami's next-gen efforts.

Everyone's talking about PS5 and Xbox Series X. Will PES 2021 work on next-gen in terms of backwards compatibility?

Lennart Bobzien: In terms of backwards compatibility, we're really leaning on the first-parties and their messaging in terms of what they're saying will and won't work. We're doing testing at the moment in Japan. Microsoft has been very clear that virtually all games going way back to Xbox will run on Xbox Series X. We're not putting out too much publicly because we want to do that testing first ourselves. But we're confident at launch you will be able to play PES 2021 on these new consoles. But it's a question of optimisation and what will and won't be so good. That's why we're hesitant at the moment. We're doing all that testing, and then we can put out some clear messaging as to what the advantages will be by playing on these new consoles.

So it will work, basically.

Lennart Bobzien: From what we've seen from Microsoft. We're still waiting on Sony's public messaging with regards to backwards compatibility. We're doing that testing at the moment. And there will be more public-facing messages that we'll put out hopefully before launch.

You've decided to change game engine for PES 2022 on next-gen, switching to Unreal. Why did you decide to do that?

Lennart Bobzien: Our development team in Japan tried it out, and they've seen they have so much more opportunity to do different things on the pitch when it comes down to gameplay visual effects. When they played around with the Unreal engine, they just decided this was the engine they wanted to use to make the step into the next-console generation. The Unreal engine is the base for the future of the PES series. The teaser, even though it's just a snippet, it shows the beginning of the future of the PES series.

You're doing standalone PES 2021 club editions for Arsenal, United, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern. Konami has said they come with bespoke content. What is it, exactly?

Lennart Bobzien: It's something the clubs are asking for. They want to distinguish themselves. Two years ago, for PES 2019, we had Coutinho. From a cover or artwork point of view, it just makes it difficult for our other partner clubs to promote this edition. But with club editions, we can work closely with our clubs, and they can push it out to their fans as well. The clubs want to offer out some unique content to their fans, which you can only get with the Manchester United edition, you can only get the Iconic Moment Series player Beckham if you buy that edition. If you go with the Juventus one you get Ronaldo. And so on.

What if you want some of this exclusive content but you don't want to buy multiple copies of the game?

Lennart Bobzien: If you take United as an example, it's not the case this Beckham version is only available if you buy the United edition. Beckham will be available at a later stage in the myClub campaign. The only full uniqueness are the themes we're giving away, for the PlayStation for example. Also we're giving away a digital retro kit. Those two items are fully exclusive to those club editions. But the other content, such as Iconic Moment Series players, they will be available at a later point. But to be fair, if you are a Bayern fan, you would look into getting the Bayern edition with the Bayern retro kit. Obviously if you love football you would love to have all those retro kits, but in the end it's up to the user. They have to make the decision.