Having a kickabout with your mates or featuring for your local 11 aside team should in theory trump playing out a game sat on your sofa like a couch potato but in truth – many lack the ability to truly express their ideas and football intelligence out on the pitch - hindered by their lack of athleticism or technique. In contrast the virtual arena removes such barriers and seeks to turn pre-existing footballing hierarchies on their head.
So that explains why the masses take personal interest in the virtual world of football – but what makes a great football video game?
The greatest games are addictive, innovative and reflect the tactical depth of the game without getting bogged down in the detail and taking away the fun factor. Graphically they are timeless - games you could replay decades later and still enjoy them. Such games should also offer an outstanding online or offline single and multiplayer offering…
The leading games also offer challenging gameplay which manage to still flow as naturally as the beautiful game itself – successfully circumnavigating feelings of ‘frustration’ or accusations of ‘scripting’. They have iconic genre-defining soundtracks but more importantly they afford you the virtual opportunity to express yourself as liberally and as faithfully as possible, whether it be an off-the-cuff skill move or a shrewd tactical manoeuvre.
So which games managed to succeed on most if not all these fronts? Well without further ado, Pythag presents the Top 10 Greatest Football Video Games (click pics for link to Gameplay Videos):
We start off with the Granddaddy of Football games… On 12 March 2007, The New York Times reported that Sensible World of Soccer, the sequel to Sensible Soccer (1992) was shortlisted as one of the ten most important video games of all time by Stanford University; becoming the first video game to encompass the world’s most popular sport into one game, with a total amount of approximately 1,500 teams and 27,000 players.
The ground-breaking career game mode enabled players to manage a club through 20 seasons. Every player had individual skills (speed, tackling, heading, finishing, shooting, passing, ball control) and player prices were calculated relative to their skills. Stronger players could be acquired by earning money through winning various competitions and job offers from other interested clubs/national teams would also roll in.
Graphically the game was simplistic by the standards of the modern era with its top down view but it was very bright and colourful. What really made it stand the test of time was its mastery of ball physics with the aftertouch feature being the stuff of legend. Unleashing a shot and applying some deadly late swerve to catch the keeper out was incredible fun and modern mobile free-kick games still utilise this feature.
In truth EA Sports first foray into the world of Football in the mid-nineties was deeply flawed but it captured that ‘key’ ingredient… successfully translating the real world excitement of the beautiful game onto the virtual pitch and providing a difficulty level which presented more of a challenge than the simplistic gameplay of Sensible World of Soccer.
Graphically the game would not prove as exceptional as Actua Soccer or Virtua Soccer, with every player built like a 16-bit Arnold Schwarzenegger, bar varying shades of skin tone, and each one having a fictional name but it did have an iconic isometric broadcasting angle which was positioned as if looking down on the pitch from one of the stadium’s corners. This new perspective captured the players’ entire bodies and team’s entire tactical systems, closing the distance between video game and televisual representations of the sport.
Tactically the game was more advanced than Sensible World of Soccer – with pre-match strategy having a demonstrable impact. You could choose to go all out defend or all out attack and anything in between, not to mention adjust the zonal pitch coverage of your defenders, midfielders and attackers. In terms of realism, unlike previous football games, where the ball appeared glued to the player’s foot, FIFA was innovative and enabled players to knock the ball forward and chase after it. The players due to their robust physiques had more presence and the tackles had a lot more bite and oomph than any 16-bit rivals.
Criticisms include the fact that even back then the game was struggling with ‘scripting’. it was easier to score from distance than closer to goal. If you dribbled the ball at a certain angle and took a shot, you were guaranteed a goal every time and yet superhuman goalkeepers would save what otherwise seemed like certainties. Furthermore, passing was exasperatingly difficult and lacking in logic – it felt like playing with your hands tied behind your back.
In conclusion… once upon a time, children became football fans through Panini Cards, but the original FIFA changed all that… it made football video games mainstream and provided a gateway for youngsters to get into the beautiful game. In the first four weeks alone, over 500,000 sales were made, and despite its December release, FIFA International Soccer was the bestselling game of 1993. A behemoth was born.
Spurred by FIFA’s dizzying success, new competitors entered the market. The original Virtua Striker, released in 1994, was the first association football game to use 3D computer graphics, and was also notable for its early use of texture mapping. It became an arcade sensation and in terms of gameplay was the best football game in the world until the late nineties.
Despite being made in 1994, its 3D graphics hold up even now and the players move so realistically, with collision mechanics and ball physics/manipulation way ahead of its time. Shooting, passing, dribbling, tackling – it all felt fantastic and there was a genuine sense of freedom… you did not feel restricted when playing this game. Furthermore it gave the sense that you were right in the action of an elite encounter and that everyone around you was a sentient physical being.
Criticisms include the fact that the game did not have any real tactical depth or offer a sustained career mode… The game consisted of a single-elimination knock-out tournament with 16 teams (like in the knock-out stage of the FIFA World Cup), with each match lasting two minutes by default, plus injury time and, if the match ended in a draw, one extra minute of sudden death.
Ultimately this game would become the ‘what if’ game of the 90’s as whilst thousands dreamed of being able to play it in their bedrooms – when it did arrive on a home console, in the form of the Dreamcast, it was underwhelming and had been left behind by the rapid progress of the FIFA franchise. Nevertheless the original would remain the purest footballing experience until the rise of Pro Evolution Soccer.
Championship Manager 2 is usually considered the management sim of the 90’s, laying down the foundations for what would eventually become Football Manager. But take a look at it now and it has aged terribly in terms of its User Interface – no modern gamer would have the patience to play it.
For me FIFA Soccer Manager had the more timeless interface, its striking Royal Blue background so eye-catching, with a plethora of easy to access squad management options at your fingertips - all of which had a demonstrable impact on the well-being of your team. Tailoring training regimes for all your players was actually fun and it was refreshingly rewarding.
Graphically, the game was a powerhouse with its Virtual Stadium match engine being incredibly ahead of its time and allowing games to be played out before your very eyes. However it took this innovation one step further by allowing you to save full matches or highlights for further review. Whilst no one in their right mind would actually go and re-watch their virtual games, just having the option to do so in of itself was mind blowing.
Era wise, it was set a year before the 1998 World Cup - for my money one of the most exciting periods of football the game has ever seen in terms of the variety of strong teams across Europe and the player pool in general. The game featured Ronaldo Fenomeno at his peak, the likes of Batistuta, Maldini in their prime and budding versions of Beckham, Zidane and Figo. Despite overflowing with Galacticos, the game was incredibly realistic and did not allow you to build super teams easily.
Peculiar quirks included the fact that you could not save the game when you wanted - it automatically saved it for you so it was not possible to restart the game if you suffered an injury to key personnel. Managing concessions such as the Burger Shop was part of your job and you could also upgrade your stadium and watch the building works progress. A slight criticism is that regen players very rarely progressed beyond a player rating of over 82… which meant the game had a short shelf life once the real players all retired.
Many rightfully fawn over FIFA: Road to World Cup 1998, with its historical intro music in the form of Blur’s Song 2 but for me FatBoy Slim’s The Rockafella Skank was THE iconic FIFA tune. Blur’s song would arguably have been just as iconic even without its link to FIFA but for me… The Rockafella Skank needed FIFA just as much as FIFA needed it. The 1999 soundtrack set in stone the enshrined principle that a great football experience necessitated the need for a brilliant soundtrack underpinning it.
Compared to the other 3D marvels of its time, ISS Pro, Actua Soccer and Virtua Soccer - FIFA 99 graphically holds up the best and is still replayable even now. Whereas players all still looked rather identikit prior to this edition and ISS Pro player models were all very similar - FIFA 99 began to bring the cult of personality into the game through the inclusion of basic facial animations and different players' heights as well as certain other cosmetic features such as improved kits and emblems.
The gameplay was leagues ahead of what we had seen in FIFA 95 but it was not as ground breaking as Virtua Striker, whose mastery of ball physics and player movements would not be surpassed until PES 5. Nevertheless FIFA 99’s passing was crisp, as was the turning with the ball - had roulettes ever felt so good? Slide tackles were very satisfying as was the variety of goals… and the tempo of the game felt more attuned to the real game than any of its rivals.
One of the peculiar quirks of the game was that Ronaldo Fenomeno was nowhere to be seen on the game due to EA Sports failing to secure a licence for him and was replaced in the Brazil and Inter Milan teams by some bloke called 'A. Calcio'. Fortunately, player editing mode made it possible to change his name but it proves how great this game was, that this ‘glitch’ only served to enhance the games legacy rather than be used as a stick to beat it with.
‘One, take control of me? You're messing with the enemy..’
As soon as Kasabian ‘Clubfoot’ begins to ring out, I am transported back to 2005 when I first took out the CD and booted up PES 5…
Before this game I was a self-confessed FIFA fan boy and refused to countenance the possibility that Pro Evo was the franchise which could offer the best footballing experience on the market. Yet truth be told, ever since the turn of the millennium I had felt disillusioned with the FIFA franchise but did not know where else to turn.
My interest in PES was piqued when we had a games day at School and were permitted a PlayStation tournament, in which we played PES 4. Despite being annoyed that I was getting torn apart due to not being at all familiar with the game, I begrudgingly acknowledged that overall it had more realistic graphics and faster flowing game play than FIFA 2005. Zidane felt like Zidane, Ronaldinho felt like Ronaldinho...I simply had to buy the next instalment.
There are so many elements of PES 5 which made it the perfect football video game. Gameplay wise, the ball physics were unbelievable… Each shot or pass felt like it was coming off your own foot – with the shooting and passing animations leaving room for player intuition and invention. Furthermore you did not need to abuse obscure skills to get past players and yet defensively if you had the requisite defensive IQ, you could keep a clean sheet. Positioning, tackling, individual and team pressing worked like a dream… who knew defending could be fun?
PES’s offline offering was the greatest a video game has ever had to offer – period. There was the training arena itself which was phenomenal. I have never put as many hours into the training arena honing my craft as I did on PES… its situational training and challenge training was fun, relevant, and challenging. The varied training modes on FIFA today pay tribute to the foundations laid by PES.
Master League involved having to develop a team of no-marks to the point where you earnt enough coin to build a star-studded squad. Nothing revolutionary perhaps but it was extremely competitive and challenging. Progress felt natural, the matches did not feel scripted and each AI opponent seemed to present a different set of problems. You could throw hours into it and it never felt repetitive.
Tactically you could tailor your side exactly how you wanted. Messing around with work rates and positioning genuinely made a difference. It was worth putting in the extra time to squeeze out that extra 1% from your side. This was a game which sought to cater for the purist and football geek… not the casual gamer.
Memories include Arsenal playing in that wonderfully iconic dark burgundy kit and possessing a very strong roster but they weren’t the only ones… Real Madrid, Barcelona, United, Chelsea, Inter, AC Milan, Juventus – there was a tonne of brilliant sides and that is before you even look at the international sides. There was so much quality across the board and each with their own distinct styles compared to the boring Barca/Real hegemony we have seen in recent FIFA games.
Finally, the greatest thing with PES was that everything I envisioned in my brain seemed to be expressed on the pitch. The symbiotic connection between gamer and game was unparalleled - there was nowhere to hide... your team was the personification of your very soul and the truest representation of your football IQ and you couldn’t hide behind lag or ‘this is scripted’… if you won or lost, it was off your own back.
Some will be perplexed about the inclusion of this game but for me some of the most engrossing football experiences I had was playing Super Mario Strikers which managed to capture the pick up and play, end to end, fluid, high-tempo skillzfest that is 5 aside football without the stodgy gameplay that plagued the FIFA Street series.
The game was criticized in some quarters as repetitive and lacking in depth but there was sufficient variety in my opinion in the form of skill moves and powerups. More impressively, the underlying mechanics of the game were solid even if they did at times defy gravity – which only served to enhance the surreal experience.
In terms of offline career mode, online play – this game was not going to score very highly but if you are looking for a quickfire game against an opponent who would not normally fall into your usual type of opponent…i.e. a younger sister/cousin, this was the ideal multiplayer game to get the juices flowing and for that reason, it holds a unique position in Football video game history and I would love to see Volte Mode take a leaf out of its book and embrace Super Mario Striker’s zaniness and fluidity.
With Mourinho mania hitting its zenith, the cult of the manager had never been so prevalent in the world of football. FM 2007 was not necessarily the most ground-breaking of Football Managers - FM 2005 was more innovative but with its Matalan Coat wearing model gracing the front cover, this was Football Manager at its most polished.
What made this edition particularly special was that football world was undergoing a significant transition of the old guard with the likes of Zidane, Henry, Ronaldinho and Maldini coming to the end of their careers whilst the likes of Kaka, Ronaldo, Rooney, Robben and Messi were on the cusp of greatness.
This made the transfer market incredibly dynamic and it was exciting to see how FM predicted their careers would pan out. A revamped scouting engine allowed for more efficient scouting of potential stars. including the ability for scouts to "learn" from their experience. A "scout report card" was also included, in order to provide easier access to important, detailed information about scouting targets.
Due to the effectiveness of the scout report card concept, I recall leading Plymouth Argyle to a Champions League win after years of shrewd investment including Vincent Kompany, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Sergio Aguero… all in their teens at the time. Perhaps it made the game too easy but it made team building very enjoyable and it rewarded those who sunk hours into building the clubs support staff network.
In terms of interaction, the game succeeded in offering a more immersive footballing experience than anything seen before it. Team talks could now be dished out before the game as well as at half time and full time. Feedback would be provided for individual player's reactions, meaning you could gauge how to approach pep talks in the future thus rewarding those with higher emotional IQ and superior man-management skills. The game also introduced enhanced media interaction, including the ability to make comments on any player in the game world.
As for the match engine, it was still in many ways behind FIFA Soccer Manager in that it remained a 2D affair but the games remained riveting and nail-biting. Somehow the 2D dots were infused with elements of personality and you could really feel each players individual quirks and styles of play. There was a genuine vibrancy to the games which has not been captured since the move to 3D after FM 2010.
The game received almost universal critical acclaim on release, with GameSpot describing Football Manager 2007 as a "truly immersive football experience", while PC Gamer suggested that "no other game comes close”. It was also nominated for a Golden Joystick Award and won the Gamers Award at the BAFTA.
After PES 5, Konami failed to meaningfully take the series any further and just kept using the same technology with updated rosters. By the time the next generation consoles arrived, PES’s ascension came to an abrupt end and it had nowhere else to go.
FIFA which had not produced a game of note for close to a decade sniffed the chance to recapture the disillusioned football gamer market. By 2006, there was a sign that things were on the up as the revamped gameplay finally began to resemble the modern FIFA we see today but graphically the game was not up to scratch and it took until 2010 for everything to come together and for FIFA to finally produce a game which converted the PES diehards of the noughties.
So what made FIFA 10 so special? Well for the first time in football video games history, we had a game which possessed a fully functioning exciting career mode (not quite Master League good but right up there) as well as a terrific online offering perfecting modes such as Ultimate Team (which began to resemble the monster we see today with features such as TOTW and the ability to run your team via a Web App) and Be a Pro.
Virtual Pro, a new addition within the Be a Pro game mode allowed gamers to create a player in their own likeness and then play him across a plethora of game modes, including local multiplayer, Manager mode, and even the practise arena. Whenever you played with your virtual pro, he gradually improved mentally, technically and physically while also unlocking new goal celebrations, tricks, and clothing, like GTA’s Carl CJ Johnson but in Predators.
The biggest new gameplay feature was the 360-degree player control, which shockingly was not a EA gimmick... it genuinely ensured that FIFA 10 provided the most fluid and complete ball-carrying experience in history. Being able to slow down before accelerating out at an angle made players like Messi and Robben sensational to use but for those more into their skill moves, the game still allowed tricksters like Cristiano Ronaldo to tear up defences in the right hands.
Set Pieces and in particular free kicks could be customised and in general were a joy to master and not scripted - building on the mechanics which first came to the fore in FIFA 07. There was a ‘right’ way and ‘wrong’ way to take them, not the arbitrary rubbish we are accustomed to now.
In terms of realism, the differences in stats such as height, weight, agility and strength had never been so faithfully represented in a virtual arena. Zlatan felt like Zlatan, and whilst it could feel frustrating being in control of a lumbering oaf like a Nicklas Bendtner up front.. at least it was true to the real game and therefore figuring out your own style of play and which teams/players suited you was pivotal to getting results.
The only real criticism I had of this game was that the ‘finesse’ shot was incredibly overpowered. Literally any Tom, Dick and Harry could bend it like Beckham and plant it into the top corner whereas normal drilled shots or power shots with the outside of the foot were ineffective. Matches would therefore become a battle of working your players into certain angles to get a finesse shot off thus there was a slight lack of complete freedom compared to PES 5.
FIFA enjoyed a period of utter domination post FIFA 10 but in many ways the evolution of their game stagnated after FIFA 12 in which the last major significant change ‘Tactical Defending’ was introduced. Whilst some were adamant that it had been incrementally evolving year upon year, I like many was disillusioned until the magnum opus that was FIFA 2018.
What made it different? Well the dribbling was the most smoothest it had been since FIFA 10. It rewarded old school changes of directions such as ‘feints’ which were incredibly effective and had to be timed to perfection. Tactical defending was the best it had felt since its introduction, with charged tackles being incredibly effective and thus ensuring there was a better balance between defence and attack.
Finishing which has since been destroyed with the introduction of timed finishing was arguably on the easy side in FIFA 18 but at least it was logical. No one can deny it did not feel very satisfying when drilling it in into the bottom corner and long shots were the best I have experienced in a football title full stop. Finesse was underpowered but there was more than enough ways to score goals to keep attackers happy.
In terms of set pieces; corners and penalties were excellent but there was certain ways you could ‘game’ the system in order to become more effective at them which raised questions on the ‘scripted’ nature of the game. As for free kicks, they were a nightmare… nigh on impossible to get right unless you had time to watch a billion YouTube tutorials.
Other poignant criticisms included the fact that Seasons mode and Career mode were in a state of utter neglect and the game was becoming heavily focused towards the promotion of the Ultimate Team game mode. In FIFA 18, FUT Champions reached its peak, leading to broken pads and thumbs all across the globe.
Personally speaking I can testify to Ultimate Team’s sheer addictiveness and in its defence = even without resorting to paying for packs etc… it was still possible to build a good side and have a lot of fun. However the sheer relentlessness of the ‘Weekend League’ concept eventually led to a huge backlash with comments on its negative impact on people’s pay packets and their mental health.
In terms of tactical depth, the game had not really significantly undergone any real change since FIFA 10 and if anything had gone backwards as suddenly a lot of teams seemed to play the same as one another. That might be a reflection on the real world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate team’s styles of plays but I recall in FIFA 10, some people having a penchant for using target men and preferring physical sides. In FIFA 18, everyone seemed to be playing slick Barcaesque football.
Despite the negative tone towards the end, I still rate it as a cracking game and the best of the last decade.
The greatest football video game? In terms of gameplay, the King for me remains PES 5 which for me represented footballing perfection. It was the closest I had come to feeling like I am out on the pitch albeit with a controller in my hands. In terms of the range of excellent game modes and balance between offline and online play, it would be FIFA 10. For sheer immersion factor of living and breathing the world of football, it would be FM 2007.
All three represent landmark achievements in the world of Football Video games… but it is a shame we have not seen anything which leaves them in the dust a decade on… lets hope we see some ground breaking instalments on the next gen consoles.