Football gaming is perhaps the most stagnant of all sports genres. FIFA’s pay-to-win, arcade hegemony lords it over PES’ clunky menus, but realistic gameplay. Rinse, reskin, and repeat.
But this year that’s all changing. And when I went to Konami’s Windsor HQ for a hands-on event for eFootball – yes, the PES, aka Pro Evolution Soccer moniker is dead – I was intrigued as much by the gameplay as by their vision to make this bold experiment the future of sports games.
Happily, the pre-release build I got my mitts on was excellent fun. That build was a hybrid of pre- and post-release. So some advanced gameplay mechanics that won’t be coming to the game until later this autumn (essentially, variations of shots and passes) were included, but other key features, such as PS5 haptics, were missing.
Devs mentioned the words “simulation,” “intensity,” and “physicality” multiple times. And I think that, based on what I’ve played so far, Konami has largely delivered. Each one-on-one feels like a chess match in miniature. eFootball invites you to get your shoulders – even elbows – stuck into the opposition to battle for possession, with this year’s ball feeling pleasingly untethered to your player’s foot. Football games have historically had a tendency to ‘lock on’ to the ball when at your control, but here the ball feels like a volatile, independent object that needs to be taken care of or hunted down – much like the real thing.
This invites the defending player to press high and hard, referencing modern football nicely. Jurgen Klopp would be proud. I actually think pressing is slightly overpowered in the build I played – but I expect a lot of balancing tweaks will be applied in eFootball’s weekly updates after launch. Think of pressing as a slightly overpowered SMG on Warzone. Hopefully it doesn’t get nerfed entirely, just brought down a touch.
A new feature much vaunted by Konami is the ability to quickly recycle the ball after going out for a throw, including the addition of ballboys. This is hardly ground-breaking (FIFA has had quick throws for years now) but eFootball’s quick goal kicks specifically are an exciting new weapon to exploit an opponent’s limited attention span. I myself nearly got caught out from a quick CPU restart, meaning the ball was already bypassing my midfield before I had turned back to the screen. It’s a fun system that might truly allow us to live out our Trent Alexander-Arnold/Divock Origi quick-set-pieces of dreams.
eFootball also takes aim at some of the series’ historical failings. PES 2020 (and the reskinned 2021) had particularly painful commentary, menus, and refereeing. Pleasingly, all three are much improved. While not flawless, commentary is much more invisible and immersive. Referees can still frustrate, but are much fairer than last year’s officials, who were intensely relaxed about on-pitch assault and battery.
But the big win here is in the menus. Konami has finally binned PES’ teeth-gnashingly awful aesthetics for a modern and clean system. Changing players, kits, and the weather and time of day is far less taxing than before. At their best, some menus were actually downright pretty. Again, I played a very limited demo build, so this will be put to the test when it comes to more complex game modes and team management. But so far, so good.
Another area that the eFootball team have overhauled is the camera, creating a new ‘duel’ camera system, dynamically zooming in to isolate key on-the-ball battles, before zooming out to show the full tapestry for those raking, cross-field passes. I expected this to become frustrating quickly – and if it is, you can turn it off. But I was pleasantly surprised by how refined this camera system is already. It’s a promising new tool.
Intrigued to see how all this combined into one cohesive, competitive experience, I quickly jumped into matches against the devs and got a sense of how eFootball plays in a competitive context. My possession tactics and high line were punished by my counter-attacking opponents – but, conversely, I could inventively invite their pressure and punish them. It was fun and, crucially, fair.
Questions do linger though. While this was a gameplay event, the new F2P model was the large elephant-as-service in the room. The initial offering is sparse, launching with the game on the 30th of September with just a handful of teams and a pinch of modes. The major fall update, which sees the game launching on mobile and offering a more fleshed out suite of modes, has to create a moreish offering that keeps players coming back across all major platforms (which sadly doesn’t as-yet include Switch).
Clearly, the idea is to foster the kind of competitive, cross-platform infrastructure only seen thus far in the battle-royale format. But that ambition leads to questions of its own. This is a “console-first” experience, but it seems like the PS5 is particularly favoured – especially the DualSense controller. Haptic implementation was a feature that the devs seem particularly proud of, mentioned several times. Will Xbox and last-gen players be left behind?
This could be a new dawn for football games – I really respect the ambition of the team behind the gameplay, and they’ve hit upon a core loop that hooked me in the session, and has left me wanting more. So that’s half of the job well done. But with FIFA still ever dominant, and new upstarts like UFL waiting in the wings, eFootball’s success ultimately lives or dies based upon its post-launch appeal and support. Time will tell.
Daniel Curtis is a freelance writer, producer and filmmaker. He’s also a long-suffering Chesterfield FC fan. Say hi to him on Twitter @danielpdcurtis.