eFootball PES 2020 hands-on feels brilliant and ever-so-slightly desperate

An image of Lionel Messi in eFootball PES 2020

The shock news is that Konami's long-running Pro Evolution Soccer series has rebranded as eFootball PES 2020. What's less clear is why PES has focused on eSports and how it affects long-term fans of the series. We sat down to play 30 minutes of PES 2020 (we can't bring ourselves to type eFootball yet) at the E3 2019 games show, including a brief chat with European Brand Manager Lennart Bobzien to clarify some of the changes, including gameplay, Master League, the new Match Day mode, licensing and more. Bottom line: it's both reassuringly confident on the pitch, yet even further removed from EA's FIFA 20, which might prove mixed news for die-hard fans. We outline the key updates below, including the effect of the new Finesse dribbling system, which was consulted on by Spain and Barcelona legend Andrés Iniesta. After being confidently outsold by FIFA last year, is PES's change of direction a Hail Mary from an acclaimed but tortured artiste; a visionary reinvention that will shape the future, or… basically the same game with a stupid name? 

Gameplay and new skills

Lionel Messi is the pack star and has been reproduced in incredible detail.

Lionel Messi is the pack star and has been reproduced in incredible detail.

This is where PES has always excelled and eFootball PES 2020 is reassuringly familiar. We've only played 30 minutes, playing as the PES Legends team (including stars of yesteryear such as Kahn, Totti, Ronaldinho, Beckham and Batistuta) against a fully licensed modern Barcelona side. The Legends line up also includes slightly less stellar legends such as Park Ji-sung and Hidetoshi Nakata, who are sure to delight the series' large Asian following. Visually, its a step-up from PES 2019, if not a revolution, with incredible player likenesses (still better than FIFA, in our estimation) and suitably impressive pre-match cut-scenes. The biggest change isn't immediately obvious. Konami has changed the default camera mode, so instead of selecting Wide view to maximise your positional understanding, there's a new preset camera that sits relatively fixed to the middle of the pitch, which tracks the action and ever-so-subtly tracks left and right. Until it's pointed out, you might not notice it, but the impact is that you always get a great view of the action. It's zoomed-out when you need to spray a cross field pass, but close enough when you're implementing the new Finesse close dribbling skills.

In pure gameplay terms, it's initially similar to PES 2019, only perhaps slightly slower and heavier. This isn't a bad thing. The animation is detailed and sufficiently well transitioned to make players look - and feel - unique, as if their feet are genuinely connecting with the pitch. For example, when Vieira was tracking the tricky Coutinho (using the R2 stance to square up), you could really feel him connect with the grass, making one-on-ones a real contest. When Coutinho feints, then speeds up, Vieira's mis-step allows Coutinho to break clear, and it feels very fair. Players have weight and presence, unique to each individual.

Elsewhere, it's business as usual. Passing is crisp, but player control is fairly determined by stats and positioning. AI teammates make smart runs, and there's a new feature where they'll react to certain 'Inspire' players. For example, when dribble master Messi has the ball, they'll shift further away to allow him space to dribble into. Ball physics are unpredictable, yet impressive: balls skidding off the back of heads, 50-50 balls leading to fizzing collisions and heavy players imposing themselves in the tackle. We hooked a lofted through ball to legendary striker Batistuta, and he took the bouncing ball on the full, imposing his technique - but sadly into the keeper's hands. We worked a one-on-one with Beckham, who used the shot modifier to spin a disguised right foot pass into the bottom corner.

The Finesse dribbling skills (via R2) have moved to another level, allowing you to use zig-zag right stick sweeps in conjunction with left stick juts and bursts to ghost through opposition defenders or make impossible turns. Once upon a time, football games were terrible at representing 'touch' players whose key attributes were ball control, awareness and agility. This made superstars like Andrés Iniesta impossible to replicate since the game favoured power and pace. In a neat touch, PES 2020's Finesse dribbling mode is literally being consulted upon by Iniesta. The former Spain international lent his expertise to the new Finesse dribbling and dummy pass system, allowing way more delicate feints than the standard circle + x cancelled passes.

We tracked through the skills and moves menu and all looked familiar, from Sombreros to Boomerang Traps. Tactics are formations are also familiar, although there was an Anchoring option in Advanced Settings, allowing to 'lock' a player to a zone of the pitch e.g. for a holding DMF like Kante. Classic Brazil star Ronaldinho (the cover star of the digital-only Legends edition) provided mo-cap for the game, and some of his famous chest trap and rainbow flick skills are represented in the game.

Master League and manager likenesses

Diego Maradona's interactive dialogue trees should be a thing of divine beauty.

Diego Maradona's interactive dialogue trees should be a thing of divine beauty.

Yes, that's El Diego, the Argentinian legend largely regarded as the greatest football player in history appearing as a manager in PES 2020. The game will feature a number of celebrity manager likenesses, including Dutch master Johann Cruyff, and Brazil legend Zico. Konami will confirm more likenesses in due course, but it appears they're 'double dipping' on classic players who they already have licenses for who went on to become managers. The Master League continues to improve after PES 2019's tweaks, with interactive dialogue trees allowing you to affect the story, plus a more realistic transfer system. You'll be able to create your own manager if the legends don't appeal, altering their body shape, hair and appearance. The game's menus have been overhauled (genuinely this time), and while we weren't able to test Master League, this should make for a more contemporary experience. The main menu uses little bubbles for each mode, and it's simple to scroll around them.

Licensing

Arsenal's Emirates stadium in all its glory.

Arsenal's Emirates stadium in all its glory.

Konami are yet to reveal the full suite of licenses, but it looks like business as usual: we'll likely get two premier league teams, two Spanish teams… and fully licensed leagues that will delight those who live in South America. The teams in the demo were Arsenal, Barcelona, Flamingo, Palmeiras, River Plate, Boca Juniors, France and the PES Legends team i.e. nuts and gum together at last. After last year's damning loss of the Champions League license (which went to FIFA), we're yet to see if PES can steal a march in another league or competition, or will double-down on legacy stars. Almost certainly, FIFA will remain the licensed home of the EFL, Bundesliga and La Liga, which is some advantage. Sure, PES's amazing editing options mean all this can be fixed with an save file patch, but not everyone has that dedication. Konami claim they will have new licenses to announce in due course.

The new Matchday mode

This mode works as it sounds. Every week, Konami will selected a featured match e.g. Barcelona vs Real Madrid, likely with a focus on teams who they own the license for. Players worldwide will be invited to pick a side and play off online in a series of one-on-ones, scoring points for their team. The interesting element is that you won't just score points for goals and victories, but also for passing and other metrics. It's likely you'll be rewarded for playing the beautiful game, to an extent. At the end of the week, the two highest scoring players from each side and invited to play off in an online final. Expect more details on Matchday mode in due course.

eFootball PES 2020 demo release date

Keep your eyes on the PES League World Finals on June 28-29, live streamed on Twitch, when Konami will reveal the PES 2020 demo release date and formats. The annual PES demo has been more ambitious each year, with the PES 2019 demo offering 12 teams, and Exhibition, Co-Op and Online Quick Match modes. This was the first time the online mode has been bundled in the main demo, and not part of a separate beta trial.

What do we think of PES 2020 so far?

We’ve played far too little of PES 2020 to judge the success of all its gameplay changes, but the initial feel is highly promising. By building on PES 2019’s nuanced foundations, it’s likely that PES 2020 will be the most-refined, realistic, football game yet. The combination of adaptive team AI, clearly-defined individual players, unpredictable-but-realistic physics, and satisfying physicality, just feels *right*; especially for die-hard fans who crave the series’ hard-learned subtleties. Konami’s hope must be that focusing on eSports, new online modes, and adaptive team AI, can create an elevated proposition. One that establishes PES as the hand-crafted Bentley to FIFA’s mass-market, yet high-quality, Ford. You can see the rationale in growing persistent online revenues by delighting hardcore fans and leveraging the sponsorship potential of elite eSports players. The worry is that it sounds like something Manchester United’s commercially-astute chairman Ed Woodward might say to a new tractor sponsor when the team just lost 3-0. The whole eFootball thing just sounds a little bit… desperate, but maybe we’re being naive.

"Konami’s hope must be that focusing on eSports, new online modes, and adaptive team AI, can create an elevated proposition"

It's likely that PES is seeking an entirely new audience, and will lean even harder into its recent F2P experiment with the online ‘Lite’ version of the game. PES's physical sales have dropped every year over the last five years, according to VG Chartz, with Eurogamer reporting that PES 2019's first week sales were down 42% year-on-year, but this neglects growing digital sales. EA's FIFA series may be increasingly globally dominant, but PES is still very profitable for Konami, with strong sales in Asia, and licensing footholds in South America. In a wider sense, much-maligned publishers Konami have recorded five years of sales increases, with the PES mobile game achieving 80 million downloads.

There’s also the possibility that the new direction *is just a silly name*, and the game is essentially the same. This would defeat the point, though. PES needs to make material changes to grow a new audience and stem defections to FIFA. EA have eroded PES’s player base by dominating the licenses and scale begets scale. Who buys a multiplayer game like PES if all of their friends play FIFA? And, hey, maybe we’re over-thinking it. efootball PES 2020 will almost certainly be excellent, and if a game featuring the Merseyside Blues managed by Diego Maradona can find its place in the world, then football will once again prove that anything is possible.