New licences and a new feistiness see PES take the fight to FIFA
Konami reaches for the big guns with PES 2017.
The media room deep inside the west stand of the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona has hosted all manner of announcements and unveilings over the course of the famous stadium's 59-year history but not many, you suspect, quite like this.
Sure there are some footballers present - former Barca and Brazil stars Rivaldo and Balletti, smiling for the games journalists seated in front of them in a manner that suggests their comfort zone is some distance away - but they are not the reason we are here.
Instead the focus is on the more businesslike figures of Tomotada Tashiro, the president of Konami Digital Entertainment, and Francesco Calvo, the Chief Revenue Officer of this most monied of football clubs.
This unlikely pairing are here to announce a new partnership between their two organisations that could have as much of an impact on the future of football video games as the €35m deal being concurrently completed for Portuguese star Andre Gomes will have on the Catalans' midfield .
As the two men stand either side of a red and blue football shirt bearing the number 17 and the name 'PES' on its back, Tashiro states this is a 'proud moment for Konami and a statement of intent for us'. Calvo talks in similarly optimistic tones about the opportunity for FC Barcelona to forge a digital alliance that will help them reach a young, global audience of millions.
This is, they stress, a strategic partnership rather than a straight licensing deal - although there is a strong element of the latter in the arrangement, of course. Barca's frightening array of superstar footballers have all had their faces scanned for the game, and their likenesses adorn the box art. Great players from the club's illustrious past - including Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Carles Puyol and, of course, Rivaldo and Balletti - will be playable in several of PES 2017's game modes, with the option to dress them in authentic kits from their eras.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the Camp Nou will appear exclusively to Konami's game. It's a seemingly minor detail that could potentially have the biggest ramifications of all, as it means the ground won't be available in this year's instalment of FIFA - a franchise which has built its formidable market share on a foundation of authentic match day experiences made possible by a plethora of official licensing deals.
The irony is not lost on Adam Bhatti, PES' super passionate global product and brand manager who has spent years fending off fans frustrated by his game's near-comical fictional team names like Merseyside Red (for Liverpool) and North East London (for Spurs).
When I put it to him a couple of hours later that Barcelona will have to play their home games in FIFA 17 in a generic ground - perhaps they could call it The New Catalonia Stadium - he roars with laughter, bellowing a good-natured but, you sense, still heartfelt riposte to his counterparts at EA Sports: "Now you know how it feels!"
Football loves a rivalry narrative, the simpler the better. United vs City. Reds vs blues. The giant vs the underdog.
For too long now PES has had to play the latter role. Adam Bhatti has a graph that shows the relative review scores of his game and FIFA's over the past decade or so. It looks a little like the outline of a boiled sweet in its wrapper with the lines criss-crossing at either end.
There is an entire generation of gamers who are blissfully ignorant of the fact PES once dominated the virtual football scene like Liverpool did the real one.
(Come to think of it, those same kids probably aren't aware of that either. Trust me, it happened).
The balance of power shifted perceptibly with the releases of FIFA 08 and 09, the first of which marked the franchise's debut on Xbox 360 and PS3. A change in philosophy at EA Sports towards more realistic gameplay and super-polished presentation chimed perfectly with a new generation of console owners thirsty for HD titillation, online thrills and football games featuring real players.
A complacent Konami was caught ball-watching. It never even saw the challenge coming.
It's been a long and painful rehabilitation ever since, both for Konami and also Bhatti, who first joined Konami as a Community Leader in 2013 but quickly broke into the first team squad on the strength of his knowledge of, and commitment to, the PES brand.
The 2014 instalment saw the first real shoots of recovery, green or otherwise, with the decision to rebuild the game on Hideo Kojima's powerful-but-not-entirely-suited-out-of-the-box Fox Engine. It was by no means an easy task and the resulting game was fundamentally flawed. More importantly, the technical foundations were laid for the team to focus on rediscovering the series' classic feel for the following year - which they did in some style.
It's no small source of pride for Bhatti that his game has now rated higher than its more illustrious competitor for two years running. The same can't be said for sales - yet - but he can't help but draw comparisons between PES' recent history and what EA Sports are currently attempting by moving FIFA 17 onto DICE's powerful-but-not-entirely-suited-out-of-the-box Frostbite platform.
"I came over from Ubisoft to work for Konami as PES 2014 was being developed," Bhatti explains. "I remember looking at it with scared eyes after seeing what Ubisoft went through with the whole Anvil engine. And knowing and looking at what [EA Sports have] released and what they've produced, seeing that, I feel like they're struggling. And I think we have a great opportunity."
Bhatti uses a metaphor from a different sport to describe the battle, likening it to a Formula One race in which one team elects to make a pitstop earlier than the other and ends up coming out with new tyres at just the right time to take advantage of the conditions.
"We did that with FOX Engine, we did that with PES 2015, and we're really seeing the rewards now of putting that investment, that development time in. Going forward we're doing some really exciting things with the FOX, you've got all the new hardware coming out and we feel like we can stay ahead."
They'll certainly never have a better shot. PES 2017, it must be said, plays like a dream. The marketing buzzphrase for this year is 'Control Reality' but its strength is the way increased authenticity has been blended with the flair and fluidity of the franchise's imperious phase.
Take the new Advanced Tactics options, for example. Two offensive and two defensive strategies can be mapped to the d-pad and implemented on the fly, such as instructing full-backs to overlap, a forward to play as a 'false 9', or your side to employ Jurgen Klopp's famous - but stamina sapping - gegenpress.
The effects aren't just noticeable, they genuinely affect how the game plays out. Set Barcelona to 'Tika-Taka' and the players form passing triangles all over the pitch; instruct France's wingers to hug the touchline and Anthony Martial becomes a potent counter-attacking threat. And then compare to FIFA's more limited tactical options which feel more like moving sliders than people.
Other comparisons aren't quite so flattering, of course. PES might prove to be the better game but the masses seemingly want a recreation of what they see on the TV rather than what happens on the pitch. And in that respect Konami have never had the clout to compete. Until now, that is.
When I interviewed Adam Bhatti immediately before the Champions League final in Milan back in June he spoke at great length and with great purpose about the ethos that had sustained PES for two decades, namely how investing time to perfect the gameplay was more important than spending money to secure licences.
And yet here we are, some six weeks later, sat in the Camp Nou in front of branding boards proclaiming Konami to be the official gaming partner of one of the biggest football clubs in the world. What's changed?
"The partnership with this club is a key tactic for us, it's not about wanting to get into a bidding war," Bhatti explains. "We want the Premier League but to get the Premier League we're talking about silly money. We want the Bundesliga but to get the Bundesliga, it's difficult. We have to be tactically aware of what we need to do. What we want to do now is to sign partnerships with teams."
Barcelona, he stresses, are the first partners of many. They're the natural choice for a first reveal on all manner of metrics - sizes, success, sexiness, they've truly got the lot. But they're also a great extended metaphor for PES, for its history and its aspirations.
FC Barcelona is famously the club of its people, owned by supporters who consider themselves to be Catalonians first and Spaniards second, if at all. Famously more than a club, in fact. The motto 'Mes que un club', coined by Barca president Narcís de Carreras in the late '60s, is proudly writ large in yellow coloured seats across the middle tier of the Camp Nou's enormous east stand.
Their great rivalry with Real Madrid extends far beyond the white lines of the football pitch; Los Merengues, as the side who play predominantly in white are known, are the team of the government, of corporations, and oppression.
During the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona were banned from flying the Catalonian flag inside their stadium or using the Catalan language in their club documents. To be a member of FC Barcelona was to be a dissident. In 1936 General Franco's troops shot Barcelona's club president, Josep Sunyol, due to his membership of a left wing party.
Barca's modern reputation for football purity was forged in the late 80s and early 90s when Dutch master Johan Cruyff founded La Masia, the infamous talent factory that schooled youngsters in the ways of Holland's total football and shaped such luminaries as Pep Guardiola, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and, of course, Lionel Messi.
If you want a rivalry narrative, the simpler the better, then it's easy to draw the comparisons. PES is Barca, of course, the football purist's choice, informed by an outsider's mentality; conversely FIFA is Real Madrid, the great capitalist behemoth content to buy its considerable success. It's the beautiful game of Cruyff vs the arrogant ambition of Ronaldo. Hipsters vs Galacticos. Culture vs capitalism. Good vs bad.
Adam Bhatti doesn't quite go that far, of course, but does admit the values of Barcelona are one of the reasons they're such a good fit for PES.
"Barca is about respecting everything," he explains. "Respecting the footballers, respecting the fans. How they act, how they are in public. And the club demands that from players. I remember reading a story about Xavi always flying economy and never driving a flashy car to training. And that's also a very Japanese culture, in terms of the respect you have for each other.
I put it to him that I couldn't imagine PES signing a similar deal with, say, Real Madrid.
"Definitely not now! But it's very interesting. I think what you're trying to say - and I don't want to be rude about Real Madrid - is that they're seen as the power club. They've got the money and the money comes from the government or wherever it comes from, and they're expectant rather than appreciative. They're a club where the fans are always demanding everything.
"I remember watching a Barcelona match - I think it was when Chelsea beat them and Torres scored and Neville had the 'orgasm' - and when the match finished the crowd stayed and applauded at the end. It wasn't a case of, 'Get off! Get out!' They appreciated what had just been achieved. And I'm not saying that Real Madrid fans wouldn't but Barcelona fans, you know they would every time. It's a club with so many values - and we want to keep signing with teams that share these values because we want to be a part of their family as well. That's really important."
The obvious fear here, of course, is that we're now embarking on a dangerous bipartite path that, ultimately, will hurt the fans. It's no great leap to imagine a scenario where EA retaliate by signing an exclusive deal with Real Madrid. Then they get Manchester United and Konami in return sign up City. And so on and so on, until we have a situation that makes timed console exclusive releases look like an act of subversive communism by comparison.
"I don't think it will be a retaliation, I think it will be more along the lines of what they have been doing," considers Bhatti. "We have to avoid any kind of battle. Where PES is right now, we sign licenses and we are sustainable. That's really important. We can't then go and sign a huge league license and pay 20, 30, 40 million a year to somebody. For what? We'd be relying on more sales, relying on us growing. Whereas now, we're selling really well, we're growing at a really decent rate for our brand and the investment we make on the game."
Bhatti pauses a moment before changing tack slightly.
"So that might happen... but I think it's what they've been doing already. The key thing is that now we're doing it, how do we do it? And we do it with the right clubs. Speak to me after Gamescom and by then we'll have a number of teams announced as partnerships and you'll be able to link them all together."
Barcelona will do for now, though. The virtual recreation in PES 2017 is impeccable, easily the equal of the impressive replicas to be found in FIFA, and it feels somewhat surreal when playing on demo pods situated on a balcony halfway up the Camp Nou's west stand to watch Messi and co celebrating a goal in the virtual stadium only to catch the real equivalent out of the corner of my eye. The only distinguishable difference is the lack of spectators.
The attention to detail runs to authentic crowd chants, captured directly from audio files supplied by the club, and even player-specific celebrations. Luis Suarez runs to the stand and kisses his wrist and fingers in tribute to his wife and three children and, in a first for a video game, Neymar can be made to remove his shirt - a planned legacy of the full body scan he undertook after being selected as last year's cover star. And, yes, he will get booked for doing so.
Will these partnerships be enough to tempt the mainstream back to PES? We'll have to wait and see, but if contests were won on confidence alone then this one would already be in the bag.
"As long as the game is amazing - as it is now - and it keeps the quality, who knows where it could go?" considers Bhatti. "We should take advantage this year and hopefully - God willing - we will stay ahead."
There's a long way to go yet and EA Sports have yet to show their hand in full. But In this year of triumphs for football's less fancied teams, you wouldn't want to bet against one final upset.