The history of football video games

The history of football video games

It may seem strange, but football games represent one of the oldest genres of the videogame industry, finding an ideal meeting point between one of the most popular sports in the world and the electronic entertainment that aimed to spread in the living rooms of homes since end of the 70s.

If we add to this some elective affinities, such as the proximity of the United Kingdom to the sport in question and its fervent development activity for a good part of the 80s, it is easy to see how the common characteristics between football and video games are different and have given way to a fruitful collaboration whose results are still visible today.

Suffice it to see how one of the best-selling titles every year is FIFA, another series with a long history that would probably deserve an in-depth study in its own right. On the other hand, we have decided to retrace a bit the genesis and evolution of football simulations starting from a news with a historical flavor: the divorce between Electronic Arts and FIFA, which will require the adoption of a new title for the famous sports series.

While we await the results of the transition to EA Sports FC, once the nomenclature of the world federation is abandoned (but we will have to wait a couple of more years), we therefore see the long path that these games they have done to become more and more spectacular and faithful to reality.

The origins

NASL Soccer on Intellivision (1979) The first experiments with electronic football are confused with the beginnings of the videogame in general: after the advent of Pong, towards the end of 70s some strange devices to connect to the TV began to spread in the houses, which basically provided the possibility to play different variations of Pong among which somehow also inserted a sort of "football". The Binatone TV Master IV, one of the best known and most popular of these devices, had a Football among the "pre-installed" games, although the connection with actual sport was decidedly daring. In fact, it was a variant of Pong with double paddles and "gates" at the edges of the screen that narrowed the area in which the ball could exit, thus simulating the goal. The representation of football was so vague and hermetic that the game itself, in North America, was called hockey, without even having to make any changes to the structure.

In 1979 something more concrete began to be glimpsed with football. Intellivision, thanks to the arrival of NASL Soccer by Kevin Miller and Mattel. The look was still somewhat primitive, but the graphics had made leaps and bounds over the extreme symbolism of early video game machines. NASL Soccer, if nothing else, staged a match on a soccer field, with a side shot and structured in a similar way to the actual dynamics of the sport in question and with as many as 22 players on the field (although only 6 are visible from time to time in the framed portion of the screen).

Pele's Soccer, Atari, 1980 The following year was the turn of another important step in the evolution of football games: Pele's Soccer by Atari was the first example of an officially licensed title, which would be then it became more and more frequent in the following years. With high-angle shot and still decidedly immature graphics, the game for the Atari 2600 was still a long way from refined gameplay, but getting closer and closer to real simulated football.

A few years later, on the same console , it was the turn of RealSports Soccer, which was based on a similar setup to NASL Soccer, but with only 3 vs 3 players and no goalkeepers, oddly enough. However, perhaps the most particular title of the first half of the 1980s turns out to be Tehkan World Cup (of what would later become Tecmo), an arcade game that perhaps convincingly replicated a football match for the first time, with 11 players. per team and a field represented with considerable wealth of detail.

Exciting Soccer, arcade (Alpha Denshi, 1983) The most bizarre feature, however, lay in the control system, since it involved the use of a trackball to control the players, which made the machine rather fragile. Its direct evolution was the Alpha Denshi Exciting Soccer series, also for arcade machines, which initiated a technical evolution destined to lay the foundations of the genre by the Japanese industry, with results that would appear evident after a few years. In the meantime, in 1982 Football Manager was released on ZX Spectrum, destined to start a parallel history of managerial video games on football, moreover characterized by numerous cases of homonymy.

The era of British football

Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, Audiogenic (1988) The second half of the 80s and the first of the 90s can be considered the classic era of football video games, a real Arcadia that has its geographical center totally aimed at Great Britain. The explosion of home computers together with the luxuriance of the development landscape in this area led to the first true masterpieces of this genre, which can be summarized in the duopoly formed by Kick Off and Sensibile Soccer. Before these, however, other titles emerged that deserve to be mentioned: in 1983, Commodore itself launched International Soccer (or Cup Final) on Commodore 64, distributed in the rare cartridge format and also for this not very widespread. However, it laid the groundwork for other similar scrolling side-shot titles, notably the 1988 Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, by Audiogenic, later re-released under the title Retee! In a version that even counted on the official licenses of the Italian Serie A. to be more open to increasingly technical and interesting approaches, also because the attention had shifted from 8-bit machines to more performing 16-bit computers, with the passing of the baton in favor of Amiga and Atari ST.

Kick Off, Anco, 1989 In 1988, the legendary Jon Hare and his fellow adventurers from Sensibile Software proposed a first interpretation in this sense with Microprose Soccer, still immature but already endowed with a particular magic that would be exploded later, while the historical rival, Dino Dini, was preparing to launch on the market the first pillar of the classic era of video games: Kick Off, which arrived in 1989 and hailed by many as the "best game for the Amiga" ever, at least for a few years, strengthened by the release of Kick Off 2 in 1991.

So we come to 1992, a year that for many represents the culminating moment of this football season of video games: from the quiet town of Chelmsford, in Essex , a colorful group of developers launched Sensible Soccer, and gaming football was never the same again. It took up part of the Kick Off setting and the particularity of the "imperfect" ball control, that is with it not remaining attached to the player's feet, introducing some fundamental variations in the gameplay that led to the more frequent use of passages and tactical schemes, favorites even from the distant shot that showed a large area of ​​the field.

Sensible World of Soccer, Sensibile Software, 1994 The natural evolution was Sensibile World of Soccer, which added an important managerial component thus building a complete package and responding in one fell swoop to the excellent Player Manager series from Anco, publisher of Kick Off. The debate on which was the best football game between the title of Dino Dini (who in 1993 published Goal!, the unofficial sequel) and the Sensible series was one of the most ignited in videogame history and has never found a univocal solution.

Between Japan and the West

Super Sidekicks, SNK, 1991 Outside of PC and home computers, the history of games by football is written mainly in Japan, but there is no shortage of western sorties. On the other hand, in the 90s most of the successful titles on Amiga and Atari ST are still converted to SNES and Mega Drive, often with surprising results, given that instead of simple ports we were faced with games basically new. While SNK, as often happened, meanwhile made its own story with the spectacular Super Sidekicks series in the arcade, with a strongly arcade interpretation of football but definitely playable and partially shot and evolved in 3D by Sega with Virtua Striker, on consoles it is witnessed new experiments, some of which destined to become cornerstones of the football tradition.

In the mid-90s, the Amax team and Epoch started a series destined to remain mostly confined to Japanese territory with J- League Excite Stage, another arcade game based on the Japanese football league license.

International Superstar Soccer Deluxe, Konami Sega, in addition to the well-known Virtua Striker that would have depopulated in arcades and bars also in Europe, launched the excellent Victory Goal on Saturn in the mid-90s, giving rise to the franchise also called Worldwide Soccer and destined to continue up to the Dreamcast with the 2000 edition.

Almost simultaneously, we are witnessing the birth of a series destined to become fundamental in the history of videogame football, with a name change which took place later in the following years: after the first experiments, Konami launched Jikkyou World Soccer: Perfect Eleven in 1994, reaching international fame with the name International Superstar Soccer in the West the following year, giving life to a long series that has spanned generations from the Super Nintendo to Nintendo 64 (on which Jikkyou World Soccer: World Cup France 1998 was also released) to PS2, Xbox and Gamecube in the early 2000s, with subsequent name changes from Winning El even at Pro Evolution Soccer.

El Clásico: PES vs FIFA

The first FIFA International Soccer From the second half of the 90s the challenge that would have monopolized the entire panorama kicks off football in the following years, with the emergence of the two contenders Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA, the first coming from Konami's school of Japanese gameplay and the second as a result of a continuous refinement of Electronic Arts on its interpretation of American "Soccer", strong of a remarkable technical spectacularization and of the official license already placed in the name. It is curious to note, among other things, how these two series have in fact completely absorbed all the attention of developers and users between the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, with the progressive disappearance of any other pretender to the throne. , or even just any alternative experimentation on the market, except for the managerial ones (generally flattened above all on the Football Manager of Sports Interactive / Sega).

FIFA International Soccer, in 1994, amazed the world with the particular shot isometric, a decidedly unusual choice and which in fact would not last long, considering that it was adopted again in the second chapter and then abandoned starting from FIFA 96, with the gradual transition to full 3D, first starting from the field and then also involving player modeling. FIFA: Road to World Cup 98 represented the definitive evolution to polygonal graphics applied to every aspect of the game, kicking off a constant progression that has gone through various graphics engines and subsequent technological solutions up to this year.

Reconstructing the history of Pro Evolution Soccer can be more complicated due to frequent name changes and differences between the versions distributed in different markets. It is basically a direct evolution of International Superstar Soccer of the 90s, which in Japan was called Winning Eleven, which became Pro Evolution Soccer starting from 2001 on PlayStation platforms.

Winning Eleven 97, Konami, 1997 The series then acquired the international name "PES" from the 2008 chapter, keeping it until the last few years when it became eFootball PES and later in eFootball in 2021. Konami performed a radical transformation since Winning Eleven 97 / International Superstar Soccer Pro in 1997 on PlayStation, when the game was built entirely on a new 3D engine, while maintaining the classic setting with side-view and refined gameplay, derived directly from the tradition of the chapters previous. From then on, the evolution was constant, as well as the rivalry with FIFA, giving rise to another historical dualism in the world of video games, which however gradually saw the EA series prevail in terms of sales.

Future perspectives

eFootball 2022, Konami By 2022, we are probably experiencing a period of crisis in football simulations in the world of video games, at least as regards the innovative thrusts and technical evolutions that have become almost intangible between one chapter and another. The two series that continue to dominate the landscape are facing major changes: FIFA will lose its historical name and the official license that has always distinguished it, although this will probably simply lead to a change of branding, while Konami has been looking for, for some time, to make more substantial changes to eFootball, which in the meantime has become a sort of free-to-play platform in evolution and structured as a live service game with micro-transactions. In both cases, it cannot be said that the fans are really happy, but it must be said that, at least on the EA front, simulated football continues to be a real steamroller on the market, able to total impressive sales.

As historically happens in epochs of crisis and transition to new eras, new shoots begin to emerge from the cracks of the established order, which could eventually lead to a modification of the status quo with the appearance of new important actors.

UFL, one of the first images of the new soccer game Some new challengers are in fact starting to appear: UFL and Goals are proposed as possible alternatives to the historical duopoly, and after many years users are starting to look elsewhere with a remarkable curiosity. Not only that: the removal of the official FIFA license from the Electronic Arts series, which will become EA Sports FC starting in 2023, means that the rich legacy of the brand could go to some other manufacturer. In this regard, some speak of a possible entry on the scene of Take-Two or some other large-caliber publisher, which could suddenly represent a turning point in the landscape, and although they are only rumors, they still indicate a ferment that up to a few years ago it was impossible to think in the rock-hard soccer simulation genre.

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