Today football and video games go hand in hand. Every match on TV is filled with FIFA 23 advertisements, with the game becoming so significant in the world of football that come the start of every season youtube and social media is filled with professional players reacting to their ratings in the newest instalment of FIFA Ultimate Team.
Many of the current generation of players will have grown up playing one of FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer, or my own personal vice, Football Manager.
In modern titles, Ultimate Team has become all that seems to matter in FIFA titles, with EA making Billions over the years from microtransactions in the form of FIFA points. A pay-to-win, luck-based system that doesn’t necessarily reward the money you put in, it’s a pretty questionable system that can feel wildly unfair.
If you’d rather get what you pay for, you can cut-out the randomness and buy Fifa Coins with SkyCoach, to avoid the crushing disappointment of spending £20, only to pull an 83 rated Right-Back.
The First Soccer Video Games
A long and comprehensively explored gaming genre, the first example of videogames and football coming together took place in 1976, thanks to the release of a long forgotten console called the Binatone TV Master MK IV. A Pong-based system, this machine, whilst lost to the sands of time, boasts the first example of digitised soccer and one of the worst console names to grace the market.
Exclusive to European versions, a football variation of Pong was included within the system. In America this was instead replaced with a Hockey alternative, though there was essentially no difference in game play.
At this point almost any innovation would bring the sport-game industry forward, but through Intellivisions NASL Soccer, a whole world of colour would be introduced. Quite literally. Whilst it may not look like much, the leap in gameplay would put NASL Soccer in a different stratosphere in comparison to the Binatone.
1980 would bring a further leap towards modern video games, but this wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. As Pele’s Soccer was released for the Atari, the world would see the first licensed football game. Atari weren’t shy about it either, each cartridge adorned with a golden “endorsed by Pele sticker”.
At the same time, we’d also get one of the first instance of a video game relying on fancy licensing to sell copies, putting gameplay second. The Intellivision’s earlier title featured far more ambitious gameplay, with an alternative perspective and players that resembled rudimentary humans. Whilst Pele’s Soccer was just a slight, coloured, improvement over Pong, that was somehow incredibly confusing.
Ironically enough, later releases of the game were stripped of the inclusion of Pele’s name, with Atari losing the rights to his likeness.
Adapting the Beautiful Game
The Commodore 64 would bring the next big advancement, their 1983 title International Soccer featuring animated crowds! From here, multiple titles were released, as small innovations came and sometimes went, it became steadily clear that, excluding America, Soccer games had real potential to sell copies.
Meanwhile, as home console games became commonplace, the arcade game Tekhan (Formerly known as Tecmo) World Cup released in 1985, showcasing by far the most fluid and enjoyable gameplay yet.
Using a top-down perspective to allow for better field of vision and a bizarre ‘trackball’ controller that allowed for huge technological leaps including a first in sports video games. The ability to control both the direction and power of a pass or shot.
By far the most enjoyable soccer game up to this point, its exclusivity to arcades and unreliable controller, prone to technical issues, meant that despite its innovative gameplay it failed to find financial success later titles would find. It would however inspire the first soccer-game franchise.
Tekhan World Cup would be adapted to home systems in 1988, with sensible software adapting the gameplay to create MicroProse Soccer, the predecessor to the cult classic Sensible Soccer.
The First Franchises
Just a year later, the first long running soccer franchise would release it’s first installment. No not FIFA or Pro Evo, Kick Off would quickly collect awards and help transform the landscape of home console soccer. Inspired by Tekhan World Cup, it too adopted a top-down perspective and was one of the first games to feature independent stats: Pace, Aggression, Stamina and Accuracy.
The Kick Off series would continue to innovate and build, but it’s spin off, Player Manager would leave an indelible mark on soccer video games.
The first of its kind, this albeit rudimentary Soccer management game would be the first to incorporate transfers, detailed individual stats of players, detailed team tactics and League play.
It undoubtedly paved the way for later management games, and the career modes for FIFA and PES titles. Just 2 years later, the first familiar name in today’s Soccer game landscape would rear its head, as the first Championship Manager game released.
The predecessor to Football Manager, Championship Manager provided the most in depth simulation of football management up until the publishers Eidos split from Sports Interactive, resulting in the birth of Football Manager.
The new Football Manager series eventually proved to be too successful for the original Eidos team to compete with, their final Championship Manager installment coming in 2011.
Back to the 90’s though, and sure enough, the management elements of Player Manager were included in the Kick Off 2 sequel, with the two games essentially combined, allowing management and the player to control their team. In a potentially negative innovation, Kick Off was also one of the first ever video games to feature an early form of DLC (Downloadable Content).
Released in the form of expansion disks, new leagues, competitions and general updates for Kick Off were included in these expansions. It could be argued that this is one of the first examples of companies releasing unfinished games for full price and using paid DLC to make up the rest of the in-game content.
The Kick Off franchise featured 6 games in total, with Kick Off 2002 preceding the poorly received Kick Off Revival that released in 2016.
A Little Too Realistic…
Now firmly in the 90’s, the first game I personally have some experience with came out, though I was not alive to play it until years after its release. Sensible Soccer, transfixed football fans across a wide range of systems, from the Amiga CD 32 to the SEGA Master System.
Despite its graphics taking on somewhat of a downgrade to the Kick Off titles released a few years before, the wide variety of systems it was playable on made it hugely popular, with the title taking after Kick Off, centering the game around a career mode.
Sensible Soccer would also adopt a zoomed out bird’s eye view, to give a view of half the pitch at all times, letting you see much more of the pitch at once than any game before.
Though a small change, this ability to see more than ever before meant far more fluid counterattacks and general gameplay. The ability to see your defenders and attackers at the same time and plan passing moves accordingly, made gameplay so much more enjoyable.
Good games are able to make players passionate about the gameplay and suspend your disbelief, making the player care about winning far more than they should. A game is never much fun if there’s nothing on the line.
Sensible Soccer’s engaging and at the time immersive gameplay had particularly gripped my Uncle, who after reaching the FA Cup final with Middlesbrough, threw his console at the TV when his star player, Juninho, was sent off.
The First Rivalry
The graphics may pale in comparison to modern titles, but at the time Sensible Soccer was one of the only ways to get a football fix when there was no football. As such, much of the enjoyment comes from players living out fantasies of their favourite team becoming world beaters.
It’s only natural some get a little carried away in the moment, as most who have gotten a little too invested in FIFA or Football Manager will attest to. I know I’ve damaged a few controllers in my adolescence to poor, computerised officiating.
Kick Off and Sensible Soccer would be the first rivalry in the world of soccer games, both borrowing from each other as subsequent titles released.
Fans of Kick Off preferring the series for its better graphics, Sensible Soccer players preferring the gameplay, happily sacrificing the graphical edge Kick-Off had over Sensible Soccer, mirroring the duel between PES and FIFA, 10 years later.
These two dominated the early 90’s, until a few familiar names would dip their toes into the water…
The Rise of the Dark Arts
In 1993 a little company called Electronic Arts would take advantage of the exciting new advancement of 16-bit technology to create an isometric camera angle that displayed football like never before.
It wasn’t quite 3D, but by utilising an isometric camera it was able to mimic the 3rd dimension, with the football’s elevation clearly shown from the side, unlike previous titles where the ball would simply grow in size to denote airtime.
The game lacked some of the career elements of Kick Off and Sensible Soccer, only featuring national teams without any real player names. Nevertheless, the new, slick graphical engine that allowed for isometric camera angles proved hugely successful.
The 3DO version even came with better graphics and additional camera angles, one of the few games to successfully utilise the 3DO’s more advanced capabilities to improve upon the base release. It single handedly prolonged the dying, high-priced system’s life-span, showcasing a glimpse into the future of later titles.
With nothing coming close to the advancements of FIFA’s first title, EA had a brief monopoly over football games, which showed in the sales of the title. Though EA didn’t anticipate the game performing anywhere near as well as it would.
EA expected FIFA to sell around 300,000 copies across Europe, underestimating just how thirsty the world was for evolution in Soccer titles. In the first 4 weeks Fifa International Soccer would sell over 500,000 copies in the UK alone, making it the 5th best-selling game of 1993, despite being released on December the 15th of 1993.
It would top even the American SNES charts through 1994, receiving rave reviews and considered by far the best football game up to this point, as EA created a new standard to hold Soccer games against.
Following its success FIFA released FIFA 95 the subsequent year, starting a tradition that has continued until this year, where FIFA 24 will be forcibly renamed to EAFC 24.
A New Hope
At the same time Konami were working on a title of their own, as International Superstar Soccer(which was later abbreviated to ISS and then became Pro Evolution Soccer) released for the SNES and Super Famicom in Japan. Again only featuring International teams, it would fail to reach the same heights as FIFA, with weaker sound design and less fluid controls.
Still, it was received well enough, and Konami would set to work improving their game, as the race for supremacy between the two companies began.
A 3-Legged Race…
The battle for the first football game to use full 3-D graphics seemed like it could only go one way, but it wouldn’t be EA or even Konami to make the breakthrough.
Actua Soccer released in 1995, developed by British studio Gremlin Interactive, with the Sheffield-based company using actual Sheffield Wednesday players as motion capture models, would come through, releasing the first fully 3-D soccer title.
Whilst the game sold over a million copies, running on MS-DOS, it’s “sloppy controls and poor Artificial Intelligence” left much to be desired, with the series overshadowed by SEGA’s Worldwide Soccer released late in 1996, and Konami and EA’s sequels continuing to push the envelope in innovation.
After Actua Soccer’s initial success, it would fall quickly to Konami and EA, as EA and Konami released their own 3-D sequels that brought much better controls and AI to the table. From here, the duopoly of FIFA and PES would bloom, with FIFA striking first blood through the iconic FIFA World Cup 98 for the N64.
Victory For The Empire
PES would stay competitive for years, often seen as the choice for those favouring realistic gameplay over graphics and gimmicks. The PES games lacked in skill moves and licensing, but often excelled through fluid, realistic passing and motion.
This would be exemplified by the 2006 releases, with FIFA 06 looking better and boasting engine enhancements, a more indepth career mode and many extra features. PES 06 was able to attract fans through its more realistic gameplay. Sadly, this duopoly would soon become a monopoly, as the last PES title to come close to FIFA in terms of sales would come in 2009.
From then FIFA dominated, and in 2009, EA revived an experimental game mode first trialled in their 2006 Champions league edition of FIFA that featured opening packs containing players to build a dream team and play against others. The landscape of real-time soccer games would never be the same, as Ultimate Team became both the EA and the player’s main focus.