Ask a football fan who they support and you'll get one of several hundred answers. Ask a console-owning football fan who they support and, yes, you'll also get one of several hundred answers.
Ask them which football sim they prefer though and the field narrows substantially. To two: Konami's Pro-Evolution Soccer or EA Sport's FIFA.
Rivalry between the factions can be more passionate than Liverpool Vs Everton, Spurs Vs Arsenal, or United Vs City - only with less violence and considerably fewer scarves. FIFA fans used to rave about the silky smooth gameplay, the accurate graphics, the skills and flourishes. PES fans used to rave about the grittiness, the grinding out of results, the depth of realism...
However, in recent years, the lines have blurred somewhat. For a few years, Pro-Evo was THE footie sim of choice, a universally acclaimed console interpretation of the beautiful game. Towards the end of the last decade, though, the paradigm shifted. There was a sense that Konami was resting on its laurels, a mood that EA picked up on.
EA, you see, pulled out all the stops for FIFA '09 - seriously, the overtime bill must have been HUGE - added assorted bells and whistles and improved just about every aspect of their product. Whatever the overtime bill, it was worth it as the general consensus was that they'd finally trumped PES. Personally, I wasn't convinced. As a long time PES devotee, it was going to take more than shiny graphics and fluid player movements to overcome my prejudice.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't dislike FIFA. Far from it. As a distraction on a boys night in, FIFA's accessibility gave it an edge over its rival. Within a game or two, you could be smacking 30 yard volleys over Peter Cech's head, exchanging cheeky one-twos with Stevie Gerrard, or smacking Beckham-style cross-pitch passes.
The thing is - and I know this sounds masochistic - I don't want that. It might be more fun to watch a 5-4 thriller with every strike a contender for goal of the season but there's a problem: that ain’t football. Sometimes, football is about grinding out a 0-0 draw with superior opposition. It's about coping when your star player is out for 11 weeks with an injury. It's about tweaking your side and still balancing the books. It's about dominating the match for 89 minutes only to see the opposition nick it with their one attack of the match. And that, you see, is what you got with PES - and, it must be said, in latter versions of FIFA.
The ease of earlier incarnations was still possible in the charmingly named Lounge mode but set the skill level high enough on the League or Cup modes and you had a much greater challenge than before. For once, I found myself wavering. PES 2009 was good but even I had to admit that FIFA was snapping at its heels. There was still a sense that FIFA was playing to the crowds while PES was playing to the fans but PES had missed a few tricks. Why were the squads out of date? Yes, the changes were available as an instant update but, for example, Berbatov had moved to United TWO MONTHS before the game was released. And why hadn’t they changed the commentary? A season of Jon Champion and Mark Lawrenson burbling the same clichés was too long, but two seasons? You’re testing my patience Konami...
And that’s perhaps why late last year, I found myself purchasing FIFA ’10 before Pro-Evo, and playing it. A lot. The graphics are impeccable. The skills and moves are realistic and instinctive. The commentary by Clive Tyldesley and Andy Gray made a refreshing change. Other tweaks also impressed, particularly the ability to create a player and take them online for team challenges and the ability to store your best goals online so you can show them to friends.
But then something happened. I don’t know what pushed me over the edge. It was possibly Andy Gray talking about my goal celebration “the aeroplane is what it’s called” and speculating on whether I was about to take off for what felt like 14 times a game. Or it might have been the season in Be A Pro mode when, despite setting the difficulty level to World Class, my third season team record read played 24, won 24, scored 153, conceded 2 – oh, and I’d just scored my sixth consecutive hat trick for England. Yes, it’s a buzz to do it, but there’s no satisfaction when it’s virtually served on a plate and the game's learning curve clearly needs more adjusting.
And so FIFA went back in the box – unless the boys are coming around – and I’m back on Pro-Evo. It’s tough, it’s frustrating, it’s blooming difficult to score, and that’s the way it should be. Konami – I’m sorry I ever doubted you, but well done for taking the lessons of FIFA onboard. And well done for EA for giving them, and their game, the kick up the Arsenal it clearly needed. I, for one, look forward to the 2011 tussle...