I had not been to Windsor before I was invited to Konami’s offices to discuss the upcoming game with Klaus Ganer, an associate director at the Japanese company, and Owen Adkins, their European PR Manager.
As soon as I left the station, I knew I was in the presence of royalty. It wasn’t the massive castle that dominated the skyline as I followed the rickety streets that laced through the centre of town; it was knowing I was edging closer to the home of Castolo, a Brazilian magician I idolised as a kid. Forget Ravoldi or Roberto Larcos, the braided assassin with a bit of pace was who I wanted to be.
Licensing is incredibly complex, Klaus tells me, using Brazil as the case in point, a country in which PES requires an individual license with every player in the league. His knowledge is exemplary from the minute I walk into one of their conference rooms. He’s setting up a PS4 and I can see there are two controllers on the table. This is not what I expected.
Within ten minutes, I’m watching Bayern Munich and Manchester United walk out of the tunnel at the fully licensed Allianz Arena. Klaus passionately points out the finite detail they’ve gone into with upcoming release: “When you’re playing as Bayern,” as he is, “the stadium lights up in red, as it would in real life.” He’s already told me they’re his favourite team to play with and that they play it every day in the office. I wasn’t expecting to be playing the game but now I was, I was expecting a drubbing.
Klaus wanted to talk football. I wanted to play football. I grew up playing first to ten games with my best mate. It would take all afternoon, with it regularly finishing 10-9 to one of us. I desperately wanted to avoid embarrassment but was also hanging off of every word he said, with each snippet of football insight more interesting than the last. I wasn’t just sat with a data entry clerk, Klaus seriously knew his football, and genuinely lived for it.
“We’re not making 90 minutes of football, we’re making ten minutes of highlights,” he says, using his controller to emphasise the point. “When you’re playing with Lionel Messi, you need to feel like you are him through the controller. If you’re using Virgil van Dijk this year, for example, you can just push the small guys off the ball. If you’re using Romelu Lukaku, his first touch won’t be great.”
Klaus had tickets to see a non-league side play a pre-season friendly at the weekend. It’s not because he supports them, rather he just loves live football. “I wouldn’t want them in PES, though.” Most games of football are boring, Klaus believes – I don’t disagree – and that’s why PES focuses on the top leagues.
Joining in 2012, Klaus has been part of the Live Data Team ever since. His attention to detail is what he gives as a reason for his hiring, and it’s obvious in how he puts his team together. Responsible for creating and implementing “the heartbeat” of the game, they “deliver Player ID and Team ID, weekly updates, and communicate daily with [their] 150+ football experts.”
Most impressive, however, is Klaus’s attitude to the implementation of Konami’s aims. “Our team has also done football scouting and analysis courses and we will continue to educate so we can innovate. Members of our team are certified performance analysts, which includes: analysis in the coaching process, match analysis, physical and trend analysis and data and recruitment in football. We are always making sure that our internal staff is updated on the latest in football tech trends.”
Given the direction our conversation has taken, I use the opportunity to ask a question I’m always keen to put to those who work in football video gaming. It’s a timely one, too. My dad, like many others, often referred to this part of the football calendar as “silly season”. The transfer window, the gossip, the 10-0 preseason friendly scorelines, the idle headlines typed out of desperation for some relevant ‘content.’
“Every time my club [Southampton] is linked with a player, someone will say ‘well they’re good on Football Manager/PES/FIFA,’”, I open with, “and another will shout him down for basing his opinion on a video game. Where do you stand on this?”
“We use professional scouting tools as well as the methods of a professional scout to evaluate all players to give players a rating. Scouting is about gathering information and creating a report. Using information that has been gathered from a video game title might be as solid as from a local scout. In the Netflix series Sunderland Till I Die, the scouting team suggested Zlatan Ibrahimović as a potential transfer target for a Championship team. When playing a season in Master League, you will never encounter anything like that.”
As a long-time fan of the mode, I felt it had been neglected in recent years and mentioned a few of the problems I had with it: teams leaving 85 rated left-wingers on the bench and starting with 64-rated left midfielders instead, just to abide by the formation, and the transfer budget-wage budget dynamics being broken, to name a couple of issues.
“It won’t happen this year,” he vehemently states. He tells me of PES’s three-year plan for Master League, PES 2020 being the second year of it. “The Master League overhaul with story-driven cut scenes and more realistic transfers brings excitement. The inclusion of Legend managers such as Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona are pure magic. But the best part is always the Player ID in combination with our exceptional gameplay.”
This Master League, by the sounds of it, is set to be the most realistic of the series, and that’s something I’m very much looking forward to. In two hours of chatting and three games of playing, Klaus has brought me back into the fold. I was an easy convert but without going in that day, PES 2019 would’ve been my last in the series. I beat him 1-0 in that first game and the story I am sticking to is that is all that matters, as he then promptly beat me twice with Juventus as I fumbled around with Arsenal.
One aspect of PES I have always admired – fantastic gameplay aside, which has again improved from my experience of playing the test build with Klaus – is their dedication to talent identification and getting future stars into the game at a young age. It’s a highlight of my Master Leagues to unearth a young player I haven’t heard of, and all the better if they have one of PES’s beautifully executed face scans.
“We have always been good at identifying and recreating young talents. Many young players get a very detailed implementation to the game, including a photorealistic game face with real kicking and running animations. The wonderkids Martin Ødegaard and Vinícius Júnior already had a real face in the game before they turned 18. We have many leagues in the game and what I am most proud of is that we deliver high-quality content for many leagues not only the top ones. The care and detailed look of the many leagues in South America and Europe is second to none.
For any lovers of the game, Klaus was able to provide me with an exclusive list of the ‘eFootball PES 2020 Top 20 U21s’, complete with their overall rating:
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Considering the relentless and unswerving push from most video games and platforms to move all gaming online, I was curious as to why there would be a focus on getting young players so accurately represented in-game. My experience of playing online taught me one thing: the majority of gamers all end up with teams that are at least halfway identical.
Klaus’ answer was heart-warming and unexpected. If I could pin down one thing he said all afternoon as the point at which I decided I’d fire up Master League once more come October, it was this: “I think we have a responsibility to accurately depict young players at the start of their career. For many of our gamers, it will be the first exposure they have to this player. They may not have seen him play in real life or follow the league he plays in, so if the first exposure to that player is through playing PES, we have a responsibility to make that player move, kick and shoot exactly how he would in real life.”
PES has undoubtedly come a long way since Adriano leathered shots in willy-nilly from 50 yards – Klaus also tells me that “in the beginning, [they] edited on Excel documents,” before moving their data to an online web tool – but to move forward, they’ve taken a step back and refocused some of their attention to the offline modes that football gaming was founded on.
While the above list simply details the best under-21s in the game, Klaus’ desire to give me some of his personal suggestions for under-18s to sign in Master League indicates this year’s mode is going to have the longevity old-timers of the series valued so much back in the day. He gave me seven names he considers future stars: Rodrygo, William Saliba, Yari Verschaeren, Mohammed Ihattaren, Mohammed Daramy, Adam Hložek, and Ryan Gravenberch
“[He’s] just moved clubs for £40m,” he says of Rodrygo, “[he’s] highly skilled and exciting winger that has proven his worth in Campeonato Brasileiro Séria A and the under-20 team of Brazil. Saliba is in talks with top teams in Europe. He is incredibly mature for his age and draws comparisons to Raphaël Varane because of his size, speed and passing ability.
“Verschaeren made his debut last season and has instantly shown that he is not only the future of Belgian football but also the present. A small playmaker with incredible vision and tight ball control, his new coach has already praised his performances and made it clear to the media that he is going to have a fantastic career.
Top teams from the best leagues have already shown an interest,” Klaus remarks on Ihattaren: “He is a skilled dribbler with great vision and a fantastic left foot. Daramay is another dribbler he believes will soon make the move to Europe. “The starlet has drawn interest from clubs all over Europe at the age of 16. He combines speed, vision and dribbling abilities and therefore can play as striker or on the wing.”
Another 16-year old he recommends is the Czech striker Adam Hložek: “He made his debut for his club last season. Despite his age, he was one of the key players for his team in the playoffs and helped the team secure the third-place domestically.”
“Gravenberch is hailed as the Dutch version of Paul Pogba because of his size and technical abilities,” Klaus reveals. “Gravenberch made his debut at the age of 16 last season. He is a very imposing figure on the pitch and a highly skilled box-to-box player.”
What was clear when I was discussing the game with Klaus is that he is not just a suit, he’s not just inputting data into an algorithm, and he wasn’t just singing PES’s praises. He was full of football knowledge, clearly passionate about the sport in every aspect, and sincerely feels responsible for accurately portraying the highest level of realism possible.
He was visibly excited when the pre-match cut scene was playing as the teams walked out at the Allianz, proud of what his colleagues had created, and delighted with the new tackling and physicality mechanics in tussles for the ball. When one of his shots was well saved by David de Gea, he was at pains to show me in the replay how the goalkeeper had behaved. He wasn’t insinuating he was ‘superkeepered,’ he was thrilled with the movement of the digitised Spaniard.
I’ve spent years defending PES to my mates who have never played it or long ago gave up. This year, I wasn’t going to because I had no intention of playing it myself. However, this year, I won’t have to defend it. This year, PES has taken a step back to move forward, and in doing so, I think it will move ahead of its rivals.
By Jordan Florit @thefalselibero