At the end of last week, my friend and flat-mate PG packed up his stuff and moved to New York. Well, he didn’t actually pack it; his company paid for some burly men to come round and do it for him – a testament indeed to the impressive portfolio of skills from which the American economy stands to benefit over the next few years. Despite several attempts to explain it to me, I have to admit that I don’t really understand what his job involves, although I do know that while I would spend many an evening hunched over my ageing PC playing even older games, he would be juggling with gigantic spreadsheets while being shouted at by angry city traders.

In between, though, we managed to find time for the odd game of Pro Evolution Soccer. Actually, that something of an understatement – it would be more accurate to describe our encounters as a titanic struggle for supremacy which started when I bought my first Playstation and a copy of International Superstar Soccer Pro Evolution (as the series was known then) and continued, pretty much unabated, ever since.


In terms of hours spent playing a game, it comfortably eclipses anything else I’ve ever had in my collection – relegating even the mightily compulsive time-sucker Championship Manager to second place. Though I’ve always been partial to a decent football title, as someone loyal to the clunky old PC in the face of console flashiness and who generally views gaming as a solitary pursuit (Quake III begone!) it seems slightly strange to me that the most significant title of my gaming career has been on console and best enjoyed in multiplayer. When it came to Pro Evo (as it shall henceforth be known) my normal conservative game-purchasing logic went out of the window, too, and on release day I’d make sure I was down at GAME ready to slap down the full asking price for the latest version.

It’s difficult to describe exactly why Pro Evo is so much better than any other football game that’s ever been released, but for me the main reason is to be found in the many, many two player matches PG and I played over the years. However good AI may be these days, in sports games it’s still usually the case that the computer players can soon be dispatched with relative ease once you’ve put a bit of time in, and for all their qualities even the latest Pro Evo games are no different in this respect. With two human players, though, the game itself is put under much greater scrutiny – whether there are any obvious holes or flaws, and, most importantly, whether any of these can be exploited by an unscrupulous player to score goals with monotonous regularity. I remember quite enjoying a couple of FIFA games in the 90s until I played against my neighbour who would quite happily use the same trick over and over again to slam several goals past me and it killed the enjoyment. Faced with a choice between suffering a fearful beating while taking the moral high ground or employing the same predictable tactics as my opponent, there seemed little point in playing any more: the game itself had been exposed.

I’m pretty sure my opponent at the time thought I was just sulking because I lost, though, and I have to admit that there have been a number of occasions (far too numerous to recall) when I petulantly threatened never to play Pro Evo again. Nevertheless, I always ended up coming back for more, and while defeats were difficult to suffer, it wasn’t because the game was broken. Moreover, the opportunity to tinker with something – make changes to the team, alter the formation, or just play a slightly different kind of football – always promised the chance of success in the next encounter, no matter how bad the previous performance may have been, and increasingly the ups and downs of Pro Evo mirrored those encountered when following the real-life game. This was football, in all its marvellous unpredictability, and it soon fostered a similar long-running love-hate relationship, bringing glory and despair, triumph and frustration in equal measure.


Yes, the game is great. But I must also pay tribute to my opponent for his part in our epic battle. There have been some tense and expletive-laden times, from pretty much the moment our occasional one-off matches became regular three or five game sessions, with the stakes seemingly increasing every time we picked up our controllers. The intensity levels reached their most ridiculous heights a couple of years ago, when daily five-match encounters were mandatory. Unwisely, the decision was taken to activate Pro Evo 5’s Memorial Match mode, allowing us to keep track of our cumulative results in the hope of one day finally establishing who was ‘the best’. Unsurprisingly, this only served to heighten tension during matches, with the importance of the ‘overall’ result either taking the gloss off the victory for the winner or compounding the misery for the loser.

Thankfully, such a schedule proved too exhausting to sustain for long, and after it provoked the latest psychological breakdown from yours truly (evoking memories of Kevin Keegan’s ‘LOVE IT’ speech as he watched Newcastle’s bid for the 1996 Premiership title evaporate) a short break from the game was taken. When we returned the atmosphere was more agreeably laid-back, with controller-throwing and furious swearing but a distant memory (well almost).

At other times too, there have been relaxed moments, with plenty of good-natured banter, most of it (unsurprisingly) football related. As fans of lower-division clubs sadly not featured in Pro Evo (one thing FIFA does have over its rival) a variety of teams were chosen to represent our respective footballing visions over the years, but for some unknown reason we eventually gravitated towards English clubs for which we had little affinity in real life. While Liverpool and Spurs fans may disagree, their 2006 squads were hardly world-beaters, largely consisting of mediocre players, save for one or two notable exceptions. Perhaps it was the lure of squad rotation that drew us to these teams: after a defeat, there was always the chance that eventually you could shuffle the deck and finally draw out a winning formula.


PG used to tinker relentlessly with his Liverpool team, one minute declaring gangly ball-winner Mohammed Sissoko (now with Juventus) “the best player in the world” before later banishing him to the substitutes’ bench without another word. And, like real-life Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, he had some trouble finding his best striking combination, with each forward delivering only in fits and starts. “Crouch is the answer!” he would exclaim as he threw the robot-dancing striker into the starting line-up. But he wasn’t.

There was quite a bit of comedy mileage in the mocking/praising of players, especially if their fortunes in real life had taken a turn for the worse since the release of the game. Bald-headed creative midfielder Danny Murphy, for example, was a key player in my Spurs side, leading to frequent claims (from me) that he was surely in line for an England recall. In reality, however, he’d been shipped off to Fulham, playing a bit-part in their slide towards relegation this season. PG, on the other hand, would constantly eulogise about the performances of his unlikely wing-back pairing of Jermaine Pennant and Boudewijn Zenden, with the growing influence of the mulleted Dutchman, in particular, at odds with his underwhelming spell at Liverpool in real life.

Other players were barracked relentlessly and blamed for all of the team’s ills – the hapless Jermaine Jenas was my favoured Spurs scapegoat, and I’d often bring him on towards the end of a defeat just so he could take the blame for the team’s performance. Just occasionally, usually after a heavy defeat, I’d have a brain wave and install him in the starting line-up, only for him to suffer a humiliating first-half substitution after one misplaced pass.

Further amusement was provided by the in-game commentary, a notorious weak-spot of the series. Admittedly, it did improve slightly over the years, but only from an extremely low starting-point, when total unknowns Martin Williams and, later, Chris James were charged with the task, alongside “expert summariser” Terry Butcher (favoured catchphrase: “I AM Terry Butcher”). As the series got more successful, Konami splashed out some cash on some more famous names, and Peter Brackley and “Sir” Trevor Brooking were quickly recruited once the series moved onto PS2. Sadly the scripts didn’t improve much, with cockney blabberer Brooking in particular coming out with ridiculous statements, whether it was mentioning how he had “no complaints about the state of the pitch” in his end-of-match summary, or congratulating a successful penalty taker on having “dummied the keeper great there”.


Sadly, if there is to be any more great dummying of the keeper it will be now be during a hollow victory over the computer, for the rivalry is no more. There was brief talk about purchasing Xbox 360s and playing online against each other, but as such a plan would have involved PG leaving work in the middle of the afternoon to fulfil a fixture, it was hastily abandoned. We never did find out who was “the best” – in truth we were pretty evenly matched, and despite us both dealing out (or suffering) occasional drubbings, most matches were close. Attempts to hype up the last match as “the ultimate decider” were in vain, and though I did emerge victorious courtesy of a fortuitous late strike by sulky Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov (I had to mention that) the desire to perform extravagant celebrations was tempered by genuine sadness that the last game had been played. Now that I’ve hung up my virtual boots, all I can really say is a big thank you to Konami, and my arch-nemesis, for all of the great games we’ve had over the years. PG – good luck in America mate.