I haven’t followed football in years, but there’s something electric about being in Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. It’s hard not to get swept up in the scale and spectacle of the place. We’re gathered here for the second European qualifier for the Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) League finals, where some of the best players in Pro Evolution Soccer are going to try and win a spot in the PES league final, where $200,000 is up for grabs.
It’s clear Konami are playing up to that sense of spectacle. It’s clear as we sit in the room where Liverpool holds its press conferences to watch the team’s all time best goalscorer Ian Rush (346 goals) drawing player names for tomorrow’s group stages, that Konami want this to feel as close to the real thing as possible. Games are played Barcelona v Barcelona, endless mirror match-ups using PES 17, the most recent game in the franchise’s yearly release schedule.
This, combined with a mix of esports design choices informed by Konami’s own sensibilities, have positioned the PES league in a unique position in the esports landscape. The similarities to football, crowd and setting all come together to create an esport that’s not for esports fans, but still left me roaring with triumph when something impressive happens, totally swept up in the crowd.
This year, several Konami employees tell me, is the year the company wants to take PES League to the next level, and by pairing with Liverpool at Anfield and Barcelona for their first qualifier at the Nou Camp stadium, they’ve made a smart move of tying the physical sports world to their digital offering. The $200,000 prize fund for the final, and $20,000 for the winner of this qualifying event have certainly helped people pay attention, too.
For Lennart Bobzien, the PES League Manager, this year was about letting their players feel like stars. “We’re proud of the access we’re giving our PES players this year, especially with those two regional finals in Europe where we’re giving players the opportunity to come to Camp Nou or Anfield. We’re trying to give them this kind of experience where they can play PES in a stadium and just feel like proper esports champions.” If the event has some similarities to a more traditional football tournament, says Bobzien, they’ve succeeded.
It could be the venue, or the fact all of the competitors are clad in official PES League tracksuits, but as Bobzien suggested, there is definitely the feeling that we’re here for a sports tournament that has been missing from so many other esports events I’ve visited: over the next couple of days I’d discover that PES is a surprisingly engaging esport, although it’s totally different to the sport on which it’s based.
The event still had plenty of engaging narratives too, even for a newcomer. We’re barely ten minutes into the draw when the first gasp passes through the room. Dex ‘DexK’ Kord and Ali ‘Bad_Boy_G’ Sufi are the only two UK contenders, long-term training partners who’ve spent the last few years helping each other to reach the top tier of international PES play. They’ve also been drawn against each other in the group stage, with their match being the first to take place in the morning. Kord is the most successful British PES player of all-time, and Sufi has never beaten him offline, despite having a UK championship win of his own.
PES, as a game, is much faster paced than football, both in terms of the time investment and the speed at which the game plays out, with counter attacks whipping the ball back and forth over short five minute halfs. The next day, during Kord and Sufi’s first match, the game is drawn 2-2 within 17 minutes of game time (just a couple of minutes of real time), with each player having the ability to turn the game on its head with a single move. The short matches and unpredictable action feel nearly tailor made for sharing using gifs and YouTube, especially as most people have a base level of literacy in football despite a lack of familiarity with the game, enough to appreciate the beauty of a screamer from just outside the box, or a long ball floating into the net from the halfway line.
There are plenty of those in the tournament, from a mid-game equaliser causing Sufi to leap to his feet with a yell of “Come on”, or a last minute goal in the final confirming a $20,000 dollar win that sees the crowd go wild, but Italian player Ettorito97 remaining calm and confident.
It’s grown massively since Bobzien joined the team for 2014’s Road To Berlin tournament, which had online tournaments followed by offline competitions and a world final taking place in Berlin. Since that year, PES League has been the official esports tournament year on year for the UEFA Champions League. 2017 is another milestone though, not only are we in a real-life football stadium, or at least a freezing code indoor space between the turnstiles and the pitch itself, but this is also the first year that the PES League has been integrated with the game itself.
“It’s been such a big year for us, with our focus largely on these changes to the structure and online competitions surrounding the PES League,” said Bobzien.
“We’ve received loads of feedback from the community when it comes to say, cheaters or the PES League mode. We’ve tried to take all of this onboard and implement as many changes as we can, but we’re also taking that information forward to next year, so we can keep improving the way PES League integrates with the game.”
Since access to the PES League is now open to every owner of PES 2017, and the free-to-play PES offering, they claim they’ve seen a big increase in the number of players.
“The game itself shows real football,” says Bobzien. “It’s always shown the realism of the game, the beauty of football. By broadcasting it online, we’re taking advantage of how quickly most people can pick up football, and we’re seeing that in our streams, with audiences turning out in massive numbers.
The winners, sharing out the event’s prize pool
I quickly got wrapped up in it myself, genuinely feeling dejected when a series of tough matches meant that neither Kord nor Sufi advanced past the group phase. The PES League is smaller in stature than many of the other esports events you might have heard about, but it’s an esport that should instantly appeal to sports fans, with the trappings of real sport providing a key touchstone for those on the outside of esports looking eagerly inside.
With the finals a month away, both Bobzien and the team at Konami are hoping the $200,000 prize pool will capture the imaginations of esports fans, in addition to the hordes of sports fans that may not be that into video games or esports, but love watching the PES League play out anyway.