Dark and light. Birth and death.
In his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, American author Joseph Campbell teaches us that all great origin myths and hero stories are dependent on opposites and a transition from the mortal to the divine, eventually returning to the living world to save the day. It’s not an easy read, like, not one for the beach, but in The Hero... Campbell had no idea he’d written a prophecy that would be fulfilled to the absolute fullest fifty-nine years later.
Spring and autumn. Bitter and sweet.
A 23-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, on the verge of a move to Real Madrid, in a Portugal jersey, and a post-injuries, 28-year-old Michael Owen in a Newcastle United jersey. Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 embodied the spirit of a classic monomyth in its cover image and never erred from it. In the days before online gaming was really a thing and you could still remember what your mates looked like in real life, PES had the greatest feature ever created for a football game. They called it Masutārīgu—MASTER LEAGUE.
For around seven years of my life, I cared more for my Master League team than I did for any real (and what is “real” anyway?) team. The Master League was a feature in Pro Evolution Soccer in which you could choose to begin with a team of default players for your chosen “real” club, or either of the default teams—‘PES United’ or ‘WE United’ (standing for ‘Winning Eleven United’,after Pro Evo’s Japanese name). These two teams had their own respective rosters of fictional players, but if you wanted a proper, personalised journey, you’d choose to make your own club. Most of the default lads were distinctly average, some of them were next-level useless, and one of them was a Brazilian hero called Castolo.
Obviously, anyone with any sort of joie de vivre whatsoever is not going to continue under the beige, meat-and-two-veg name of ‘PES United’, so the first thing on an aspiring Master League champion’s agenda was to change the name of your club to whatever the fuck you want. This is not an online community, this is your world; there were no boundaries. If you want your club to be called ‘Mr. Rowland Is A Bellend Rovers’ after your bellend maths teacher then you could bloody well go for it. PES is your mate, it always supports you. PES agrees with you, always. Once you’ve given yourself a brilliant club name that ends with a cool suffix like ‘Spartans’ or ‘Casuals’, it’s time to choose your favourite stadium and create an eye-catching kit, probably with adidas drei streifen running down the sleeves and with an away kit at the opposite end of the colour scale because you’re not fucking daft, are you? Hold on tight. Choose the red pill. Stay in Wonderland. This is where the fun begins.
You’ve started out in Division 2. You’ve struggled with your default players. Ivarov has made a few howlers in nets, but Castolo has salvaged crucial points with his eye for goal, and with his other eye, which is also for goal. You’re just outside the automatic promotion spots, and the mid-season transfer window could not have come at a better time for Atletico de Andrew Is Cool FC. You earn points for goal difference and finishing league positions. These points are used for transfers and player contracts. You need to buy cheap. You need a bargai...
Wait. What’s this? A list of “Newcomers”. All free agents. They’re all seventeen-years-old. Some of them have very high market values; probably worth a punt.
Could do with a centre back, couldn’t you? And who’s this Dutch lad? Bos? Can also play as a sweeper. You know what? Fuck it. Fortune favours the brave. He’s signed. Good. Quick look at his future development curve… Oh. My. Merciful. Christ. He’s the next Paolo Maldini. On a free. He’s the next Maldini, and I’m the next Alex Ferguson. Except I’d never be nasty to Kevin Keegan. Never ever ever.
Bos was my first love, but as it turned out, he would be the first of many. Every mid-season transfer window, these ‘newcomers’ would appear, and every time there’d be at least two or three gorgeous diamonds-in-the-rough, waiting to be hewn and cut into the crown jewels of your club. It was the ultimate youth policy. No transfer fees to pay, all you had to do was get in there and take a chance on them before the big boys got involved.
Three or four seasons in and you could realistically have a decent team made of exclusively fictional (mythical, if you like) players and, because they didn’t actually exist in real life, they felt like they were all your own. You quickly begin to learn their best traits and attributes, their weaknesses. You’ve saved replays of wonder goals and last-ditch, goal-saving tackles. Before you know it, you’ve started to assign personalities to Shimizu (the Japanese Messi) and Kaiser (the German Beckham) and Jean (French centre half, blonde ponytail, womaniser; the British lads in the squad pronounce his name like “Gene”because it pisses him off, even though they know how to pronounce it in French, just like ‘John’ with just a little more swazz on the front end). They don’t throw a hissy fit if you leave them out the squad like certain players in Football Manager are prone to, they just accept your decision because they respect you. And isn’t that what we all want? To be respected by our (real or imagined) peers?
Soon enough you’ve got a team full of mythical world-beating club legends, and you’re tearing up Division 1 with ease. Bored? Are you shite. Have a guess why. It's because when the old players at the start of your game retire (think Giggs, Rivaldo, Figo, original Ronaldo etc.), they respawn as 17-year-olds in the Newcomers list, with all their best years ahead of them. Death and birth! Return of the divine hero! Get in here, Joey Campbell. You’re my new assistant manager, you dead comparative mythology don!
If your best striker is getting on a bit, you have two options: sign 29-year-old Fernando Torres for 25,000 points, or you could sign a seventeen-year-old Dennis Bergkamp on a free. It was a baffling and beautiful system.
Here’s the thing, though. Yes, the Master League concept is fantastic and would be fantastic in any sports-related game. It’s a self-regenerating masterpiece. But what made it so great was that it was unrealistic. I’m sure Konami were shooting for true-to-life authenticity in their gameplay and, in the context of the technology available to them at the time, they probably did a very good job, but I am so, so glad that they weren’t quite able to emulate the real world as closely as the current games do. I don’t want realism. If I want realism, I will go down to the nearest Power League and get my shins splintered by 43-year-old defenders wearing big leather astros that weigh more than their first-born child. Don’t get me wrong; I love anything like that—each bruise is like a brown and blue military stripe of sporting validation. But if I’m settling in for the night with a cup of tea and a packet of Jaffa Cakes, I want escapism. Give me folly. Pure uncut folly. I want the game of football with a delicious side of reincarnation. PES and the Master League provided that.
I’ve spoken to plenty of people whose problem with Pro Evo is the lack of licensing. The lack of real team and player names, stadium names, kits, were all a huge turn-off for them. But this is one of the reasons I loved it. We all knew who Classic England’s number nine, ‘Shirare’, was supposed to be, and I, for one, am very glad that he turned down Man Red for Tyneside and scored that unbelievable volley against Merseyside Blue. The inventive and often bizarre names given to players, stadia, and teams that Konami didn’t have the licensing rights to only added to the fantasy element of the game. And if you love proper team names so much, you can just edit them, can’t you? If it bothers you. My friend and I missed our mythical Master League players so much that we once created a team on FIFA from scratch, based on our Master League team, recreating each mythical player as closely as we could. It took hours and hours. We seriously considered buying jerseys with our favourite Master League mythical players’ names and numbers on the back. I longed for a ‘Bos - 5’ or a ‘Nijkamp - 8’ (Dutch midfielder, impeccable technique) jersey, but then we were excitable teenagers with very little income, and fruity cider does not buy itself.
In short, real life is boring. I want to score 40-yard screamers with a reincarnated Ronaldo in the body of an imaginary teenager or not score at all. You can keep your finely-tuned game mechanics and shove them up your fully-licensed arse. Master League forever. I want Zinedine Zidane to return as a sprightly youth prospect, rising like Lazarus with a velvet first touch, his prematurely balding pate all aflame. His cycle is set: dazzling and inspiring, each career culminating in him head-butting a massive defender to pieces in a World Cup final before he exploding. And each team he is immediately reborn, seventeen again to start the journey once more, forever and ever, amen.
And really, who doesn’t want that from their favourite players?