Pro Evolution Soccer goes free-to-play: will this move the goalposts for football games?

After 26 years, Pro Evolution Soccer is, well, evolving into a free-to-play game: PES Efootball. What does this mean for the future of football video games and its long standing battle with FIFA?

The football war of FIFA vs PES has taken on a new dimension after 25 years, as Konami look to shake up their tactics to try and end FIFA’s period of dominance. The decision to switch to a free to play model is a classic underdog move, capitalising on an industry trend and trying to create a novel experience for players.

PES is no more. ‘eFootball’ has arrived. The rebrand represents a seismic shift, Konami will have to raise their game and design a new platform with an entirely new online ecosystem — but, the question remains: can it be successful?

FC David vs. Goliath United

The FIFA franchise had a head start — FIFA 96 was the first football game to feature real players — and PES didn’t launch its first installment until 2001. Where FIFA focused on the bright lights and the big names, PES focused on gameplay, to create a realistic football simulator.

And they were successful. To this day, Pro Evolution Soccer 4 might be the best football game ever made — it even outperformed FIFA 2005 in sales — but when you want to play as Manchester United and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and you get Man Red and Ryan Von Nistelrom, it was difficult to suspend disbelief.

The team at PES were certainly up against it. Despite holding image rights for Chelsea, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Barcelona at various stages, it was impossible to compete with FIFA’s bureaucratic and financial muscle. That came with access to top leagues, top players and big money for marketing.

Konami’s signature game mode, the Master League, tried to turn the lack of real names and teams into an advantage. It was an ingenious ploy, to use the competition’s strengths against them, but it ultimately undermined PES’s position as the more realistic football simulator. It also paled in comparison to FIFA’s trading-card inspired Ultimate Team mode. Essentially a Master League but with real players, it represented the final nail in the Konami coffin when it was released in 2008.

Since then, FUT has accumulated over 25 million players, while PES’s numbers have slumped. It comes as no surprise that they felt the need to shake things up. As any disruptor brand will show you, the only way to beat a bigger, more financially powerful rival is through ingenuity. PES might have been around for a long time, but they will have to adopt this mindset to succeed going forward.

What is eFootball?

Moving to FTP comes with its advantages: your game is immediately more accessible. You’re also more likely to get a share of younger eyeballs — and a share of those who are priced out of the bigger titles. FIFA 22 will likely cost between £50 and £90 (depending on the edition) and that’s before you get into FUT and the endless opportunity to spend real money for the chance at packing a Ronaldo (spoiler alert, you probably won’t).

But it also represents a challenge: how will the format work? Traditionally, football games offer you different game modes, loosely based on real life tournament formats. A free to play game gives you a unique opportunity to create new, time-based tournaments. Daily or weekly cups with an arcade style can offer an alternative to FIFA’s pay to win mechanics. Could a Battle Royale football game work?

Battle Royale is a fast-growing, extremely popular format. Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone have cultivated huge player bases — and that is exactly what Konami will hope to do. We’re not sure what a BR format looks like for a football game just yet, but if Ultimate Team is ever to be toppled, a more immediate, more skill-based game with more immediate rewards could do just that.

Inviting players to join tournaments at the same time would require a whole new online architecture. Going FTP may bring in players, but as the saying goes, “easy come, easy go.” If the game is glitchy or complicated, people aren’t going to stick around. FUT experiences massive outages about 10 times a year, which represents a massive chance to poach players — if the PES infrastructure is up to it.

Either way, Konami has had plenty of time to study industry trends, and they’ll be well aware of the potential pitfalls. We’re thrilled that they’ve made the bold decision to jump on the bandwagon of free to play games.

Microtransactions and free games

EA Sports has no trouble selling FIFA to fans, but the franchise is often criticised for its ‘pay to win’ mechanics. As we alluded to earlier, to get the best possible squad on FIFA Ultimate team, it would cost a player £40,000!

eFootball could have the upper hand here: players could feel more comfortable investing money into a game they got for free . The psychology behind this is well known, FTP console and mobile games generate huge sums of money every year from in-app purchases.

Konami has already confirmed that eFootball will have paid DLC in the future, so we can expect innovative content and customisable options when the game is released.

The future for eFootball and Konami

We can expect to see football games’ oldest rivalry resume some time next years. Much like FIFA, eFootball will be available on all next generation consoles as well as PS4 and Xbox One, and we’ll see some mobile releases.

In an interview, Konami have told us to expect “weekly live updates to reflect squad changes” and “real-world transfers.” There will also be in-game campaigns and tournaments, but there is no information on these so far. The question is whether FIFA fans will be tempted.

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This article originally appeared on Deconstructor of Fun.

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