With the Pro Evolution Soccer (‘PES’) series having struggled for so long – and in all plausibility, so needlessly, given the preexisting code – to regain its exhilarating essence, we at Mediolana have recently been reflecting on the Konami Digital Entertainment franchise at its imperious best: the years from 2003 to 2006 which gave the world what are still probably the greatest iterations of computer soccer ever created.
The strengths of Pro Evolution Soccer editions 3 to 6 inclusive were many, but beyond the oft-mentioned game dynamics and stunning replication of individual footballers’ playing styles, the sheer attention to detail and devotion to quality oozed from these products’ every pore. And while later versions simply did not contain the core of what made PES raise the pulse of every soccer devotee who ever had the privilege of experiencing it, certain more peripheral elements still contained traces of glories past.
One of these elements in particular – the credits music which would accompany PES’ long and illustrious list of contributors, headed up by no less a figure than fabled producer Shingo ‘Seabass’ Takatsuka – has long fascinated us, and set us thinking about how some artistic works end up being perceived as great works while yet others languish in obscurity.
The credits music for Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 is perfect illustration of this dynamic. A deeply melancholy and contemplative piece tinged with liberating aggression, it is built around a group of ten recurring notes of relative complexity. (Comparisons with the opening notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 may prima facie appear far-fetched, but the parallels are nevertheless discernible.)
And yet the deeper paradox of this profoundly moving composition is that it is buried in an optional mini-movie within a video game which is the best part of a decade old. Someone has had the vision to upload this short film to YouTube, where it has amassed barely 1,000 views and will likely continue to exist as an unloved digital museum exhibit.
It is of course widely recognised – at least in some circles – that human systems often function in a highly imperfect manner; the world of culture is certainly no exception to this rule, and at best can be said to work as a semi-meritocracy. However, the chasm between the beauty of PES’ credits compositions and their frankly non-existent critical reception places even this characterisation under suspicion, and leads one to wonder how many more brilliant musical works are destined to remain – to all intents and purposes – anonymous.
The Internet meme has developed an unsettling and predictable proclivity towards lowest-common-denominator sensibilities, but recently we at Mediolana chanced upon an electronically-shared concept with a difference: the non-player character (‘NPC’). Precise definitions of this phenomenon vary, but the central idea is simply that in today’s world, a startlingly large proportion of the population is effectively acting like the ghosts in Pac-Mania or the unedited, identikit footballers in computer soccer simulations: robotically proceeding through a life devoid of critical thought, deeper analysis or complex emotions.
The idea of the NPC has attracted plenty of invective, partly because it is viewed as an essentially dehumanising tool with its origins in 4chan, a somewhat controversial and curiously rightward-leaning Internet bulletin board with a strong Japanese cultural influence. However, its instant success as a largely-organic cultural reference shows that the non-player character notion has struck a profound chord with many. After some contemplation, three reasons in particular stand out behind the mass adoption of the NPC:
- Social critique. Pointing to the existence of purported NPCs is a neat shorthand method of denouncing societal dynamics, specifically those relating to mass conditioning which are seemingly rendering people unable to break free of dominant narratives (Trump, Brexit).
- Reality bites. More broadly, the calling out of so-called NPCs also evinces serious dissatisfaction with contemporary life, constituting as it does the labelling of vast numbers of people as criminally boring.
- Extreme tribalism. With the world having been divided into an NPC majority and an elite non-NPC minority, the latter can take immense satisfaction in the fact that they perceive themselves as (at least relatively) fully alive. This in-group logic is enormously seductive, regardless of its exact correction with the increasingly nebulous truth.
One of the more unnerving recent events in the domain of the world’s most popular sport is indubitably the descent of the Italian national football team into World Cup also-rans long before a finals ball has even been kicked in anger. Their absence from Russia 2018 following a single-goal aggregate play-off defeat to Sweden means that next year’s must-view extravaganza will not feature one of soccer’s great – and richly successful – brands; Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon – by some distance the most charismatic and loved goalkeeper of his generation – has accordingly slumped tearfully into retirement.
However, Italy’s non-appearance at football’s highest table is by no means the only key absence; moreover, it also throws into sharp relief a serious problem that global governing body FIFA is arguably failing to address: the overall standard of play is improving faster than tournaments can expand to accommodate this very trend.
What this means in practical terms is that because the qualification process for football’s showpiece event is now so relentlessly competitive – and the margins between success and failure correspondingly and preposterously slim – the preliminaries risk fatally devaluing the finals.
Going into the final ninety minutes of qualifiers, the teams of neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo were guaranteed a place in Russia; Messi’s Argentina in particular were in enormous danger of missing out altogether. Goal difference condemned Holland; a single freak reverse did for Bosnia-Herzegovina; while Algeria – who gave Germany the game of their life at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil – were placed into a ‘group of death’ alongside Nigeria and Cameroon over a year before the commencement of the tournament proper.
FIFA has reacted to this reality by promising a numerical extension to a 48-team finals from 2026 onwards. However – and after some contemplation – we at Mediolana aver that this is simply not sufficient. Within a decade, yet more nations that are presently not on the radar will have attained a level of footballing expertise that will doubtless shock many members of the old guard; moreover, the consolidation of professionalism in Asia will give countless more players the opportunity of a first-class career, and their national teams a yet better tilt at success.
Revising the 2026- finals intake upwards to 64 teams will not make any significant additional organisational demands on potential hosts and co-hosts; it will, however, help minimise the risk of the most coveted guests not even receiving an invite to the party. For the good of the game – and to preserve its own commercial interests – FIFA should take a giant step towards protecting its beloved World Cup from eating itself, and think bigger.