Published on February 22nd, 2013 | by Toby Ross6
Xaor’s Cave: Professional FIFA
The opportunity to watch the best battle it out on FIFA for cash in Las Vegas should make for an awesome, gladiatorial spectacle – but did the EA Sports Challenge Series live up to the hype?
Last fortnight I published the first article in the new Making Football series, and the second will be on its way in the coming weeks. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t want to give up the soapbox. I’ve moved from my dingy corner to a still dingier cave, and I’ll be coming here to rant, rave, and generally get things off of my chest. Hopefully moments of profoundness and slithers of constructive feedback can be found amongst the doom and gloom.
As interested in FIFA as I am, I’ve never really been one for watching others play. To this day I find myself amazed at the fact that watching FIFA has become such a popular activity amongst this community, whether it’s watching those who are primarily entertainers or those who are professional gamers. I made an exception to my usual rule though, and decided to watch the Challenge Series.
If there is one thing that professional gaming always highlights, its problems with the game they are playing. No type of player will go further to exploit the issues in a game’s design than one who is both rewarded for doing it and skilled enough to do it reliably.
Having said that, if a game is working well, watching it played by the best should be the best way to watch. It should be where we can see the pinnacle of how FIFA can be played, and also the pinnacle of football simulation. In fact, watching the pros play can often give you an entirely different perspective on a game. Certainly this is true with fighting games – as a mediocre playet the games often seem poorly balanced and the games too easily won via button mashing – but watching the pros shows you how wrong you are. I remember once playing someone really good at Marvel vs Capcom 2 once and being almost literally put into a combo from beginning to end.
So with FIFA, which is it? Do you see the best of FIFA when you watch the professionals play, or the worst? You likely know what I’m going to say – watching the pros go at it is mostly a sad confirmation that the often frustrating competitive experience for us amateurs is really just the tip of the iceberg.
To be clear, I don’t have anything against series itself, or the people who compete in it. They’re playing to win, and they do it better than anyone else, and they have a total right to do it. I will say just one thing about the competition which I felt was entirely unnecessary – the cheerleaders, if they could even be designated as such. Paying a horde of young, attractive and underdressed women to stand around like window dressing at a gaming tournament seems totally regressive. Gaming receives a lot of valid criticism regarding sexism, both for the way women are portrayed in games and the way they are treated in the industry.
The industry needs to grow up, boothbabes at conferences and cheerleaders at gaming tournaments should be an obvious no. Let us hope that women feature in these tournaments as contestants, not eyecandy.
Onto FIFA though. I didn’t watch the entire show, there was far too much downtime and filler and not enough FIFA for my liking. You’d think that this could be dealt with using some cleverer scheduling. What FIFA was shown was pretty repetitive. It’s no surprise to see that Real Madrid was the team of choice for almost every player really, it’s practically the case online as well. Naturally people flock to the best team – but I suppose it is worth questioning why the best team in FIFA is Real Madrid at all.
Why not Barcelona, a team few would deny are the best in the world, a team which arguably are the best the world has ever seen, and even the team which features FIFA’s main coverstar. Why in FIFA are they not only not the best, but not even that close?
In real life, Barcelona are awed for their technical skill and their creative prowess, which supports their lethal strategy of high pressure and stifling possession. In FIFA though, Barcelona don’t really have that speciality. They have the stats, this isn’t a case of Barcelona being underrated. The problem is, those stats just aren’t that important. In general, physical stats are the most important, and the mental ones are practically irrelevant. Technical stats are a mix, but in general there isn’t that much of a noticeable difference between the mid-80s and the mid-90s.
Real Madrid have the advantage in stats where it matters, and actually so do quite a few teams who are inexplicably better than Barcelona. With Messi, you see very much the same thing on an individual level – the best player in the world, arguably the best ever – but nowhere near as effective when it comes to FIFA.
He is still one of the best players in the game, but he just doesn’t purvey the sheer insanity that Messi does in real life – that sense you get that he really is on another level to any of his contemporaries, or any that have come before him. In FIFA though, his dribbling just doesn’t really set him apart from the rest, and it belies a game which doesn’t quite get dribbling, particularly as an attacking force.
You see the pros use dribbling to their advantage quite a lot, but it’s usually lots of stop-n-start, lots of zigging and zagging, and the occasional fake or McGeady turn. The modus operandi for the attacker seems to be to avoid getting close to the defender at all costs, something forced upon the attacker by an overly large tackle radius. Watching Messi illustrates how over-the-top the defender’s tackle radius is in FIFA. How many times do you watch replays of him practically dribbling through people’s legs, touching it around in the inches of space next to players feet?
In FIFA, you can never get that close, you always have to give defenders a wide berth and this ultimately makes taking on multiple defenders almost impossible because in beating one you almost certainly will give the ball up to the second. The very slick dribbling that you can do makes up to it for an extent – it generally means that it’s a bit too easy to avoid being tackled, but very hard to actually beat a man and get away. These type of issues which lead to attributes not being properly highlighted are prevalent across the game, and it’s one of the main things which reduces the sense of personality that you get from FIFA. EA should really be able to use Barcelona and Messi as yard sticks – while they aren’t the best, something is wrong.
Similarly, EA should be able to look to professional gamers to assess their assistance systems. Simply put, if the best in the world need the highest levels of assistance or feel it benefits them, something is not quite right about the assistance being offered. Games should try to aid people in playing good football, while not overpowering them nor constraining them. The least experienced players will need the most assistance, but you’d really expect to see that better players were dropping the assistance to take advantage of their skill.
With FIFA, two issues coincide. Firstly, the assistance does become highly exploitable for better players, and secondly the lower-level assistance options (ie. semi and manual) just aren’t competitive. There is no option to gain more freedom without a disproportionate cost, particularly for throughballs and longballs where there is no semi option.
Even though the assisted control scheme is pretty constraining in terms of what you can actually do, it does some things so well that it easily makes up for it, and don’t the pros know it. It’s a sad state of affairs that even when watching the best players, you see a game of football which primarily reflects how FIFA’s assistance works, rather than the individuality of the player.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I have never watched one of these matches thinking “wow, I wish I could do that”. When I watch a pro play a fighting game, a strategy game, or a racing game, I tend to see something I know I couldn’t recreate. When I watch FIFA I just see people who are especially good at doing what most people online do all the time. One twos, balls over the top, low crosses across goal, running down the wing with a quick player before cutting inside – there really isn’t a great deal more to their game.
Certainly, it’s difficult to see much resemblance to real football. Perhaps that’s natural given how short the matches are – I definitely feel this tournament would benefit from more realistic match lengths – but it’s always so hectic, always revolving around the next counterattack. There are huge passages of play where neither player takes more than a single touch before playing the next pass. It would be one thing if any of these players were emulating a tiki-taka style, but they’re not.
These aren’t tight passing moves to break through packed defences, but series of pass which span the entire pitch, width and length, like a hot knife through butter. Pass, pass, pass. There is no real concern about the difficulty of the pass, it’s just bang on almost every time, assuming there isn’t a player right between the passer and the receiver. It’s all too familiar, yet all to alien to real football. How subdued, incidentally, does first touch control seem when you watch these guys go at it?
For me, it is familiarity that I take away from watching the Challenge Series. It’s an ultra concentrated version of the competitive FIFA you can experience in Seasons. I don’t really see the attraction from the point of view of the watcher, and I don’t really see the attraction from the point of view of the competitors either. Aside from the big payout if you are lucky/good enough to get to the end, I don’t think I could imagine anything more annoying than competing for money on a game like FIFA – a game which more than pretty much any I have ever played is prone to unpredictable, and in a lot of cases, unfair results.
But obviously, given the hype surrounding this affair and the FIWC, and obviously, given the sheer amount of money up for grabs, this is a big thing for FIFA and the FIFA community, and you can only foresee it getting bigger. I certainly hope that the Clubs scene can get going at this level too. Ultimately though improving the spectacle is primarily up to EA. The need for a focus on balance could never be clearer than it is now – and it would be great to see some serious strides in this area. We need a paradigm shift, away from the high pressure, the pingpong, the assistance, and the addiction to speed and strength.
Fortunately, there is no more appropriate time for such a shift than right now, as we all prepare to move from one generation of consoles to the next.