On the pitch, PES 2018 is fantastic. Every pass is beautiful, every tackle crunching, and every shot ferocious. If you've played any recent Pro Evo, that shouldn't come as a surprise. The series has improved dramatically since the PS3/Xbox 360 era, culminating in possibly the most fluid and satisfying football game ever released. FIFA's gameplay, meanwhile, has stagnated in recent years, becoming less responsive, more sluggish, and more frustrating to play.
Despite this, FIFA easily outsells PES every year for one simple reason: licenses. We're yet to see if EA's behemoth has improved over last year with FIFA 18, but we can count on it letting players realize their childhood dreams and play as Neymar, Ronaldo, Rooney, et al. PES, meanwhile, restricts you to a handful of licensed teams, with much of the English and Spanish leagues, among others, reduced to placeholders such as Man Blue, MD White, and London FC (Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Chelsea, respectively).
Player licenses are thankfully not an issue, so you can still play as your favorite players. But when they're inexplicably playing in a plain green kit rather than their official red or white or blue strip, the fantasy of controlling your team is significantly diminished, and you feel like you're playing a knock-off XStation GameBox cartridge your dad brings back from the car boot sale.
Once upon a time, these inaccuracies were amusing. Playing as "Gregs" rather than Ryan Giggs was funny when I was 10 years old, and even this year, looking at PES 2018's teams did spark a fun game of guessing who "West Glamorgan City," "East Dorsetshire," and "ST Yellow" were in real life. But it's becoming annoying, and it undermines the very reason many people play football games: to get their fix of their favorite club when it's not a Saturday afternoon.
PES is by no means alone in this regard--while FIFA has something of a monopoly on many league licenses, other popular games such as Football Manager also make do with a limited selection. That series, along with PES, has notably struggled to obtain any sort of license for the German Bundesliga, which is completely absent (even in make-believe form) from PES 2018 and only exists in Football Manager 2017 in an unofficial form. But where FM stands almost alone in the football management sim genre, save for a few also-ran mobile titles, PES has FIFA to compete with. Konami's problem is getting worse, too: FIFA's license library is expanding, with the Iceland national team a new addition this year and women's teams being introduced not too long ago. PES is also adding clubs--this season has brought new partnerships with Fulham and Inter Milan, and sees the series' exclusive arrangements with Barcelona and UEFA continue--but teams are being removed as quickly as they're added: Manchester United and Bayern Munich have been fully licensed in PES in recent years, but in 2018 we're back to Man Red and no Bayern at all.
You can mod teams' kits, badges, and names in, of course, and there's a very dedicated community out there to help fill in the gaps with some sterling replicas. But the majority of people who play football games will never realize that, much less know how to mod those details into their game, and never mind care--FIFA already has those kits, after all. Even as a huge fan of both football and video games, and a fairly recent convert to PES, I'm tiring of Konami's homebrew solution. Spending time importing and editing these details--I haven't even mentioned manager and stadium names or competition titles and badges--is a bind, especially when I have to do it every year. Football is perfect pick-up-and-play material, and this is anything but.
So what's the solution? Assuming the lack of licenses is simply a money issue, Konami could stump up the cash to get the official Premier League brand. But after 18 years making Pro Evolution Soccer without any such arrangement, the publisher is clearly either unable or unwilling to acquire a catalog on the level of FIFA's. So the burden must fall to the developers: not only to continue making a superior football game but also to do a better job of replicating the stars we watch on TV and in stadiums around the world every week. While some clubs' kits are imitated fairly accurately, others are wildly different to their real-world counterparts: calling West Brom "West Midlands Stripes" is probably a hint they play in a striped kit, for example, and watch any Tottenham Hotspur game and you'll discover they don't play in dark blue. Finally, an expansion of leagues to include the Bundesliga, and preferably the lower English leagues, is a must. Not only is this a problem when it comes to playing as those teams--bad luck if you're a Wolfsburg fan, or if you support any team in League 1 or League 2--but it also restricts the players available for you to buy in Master League mode.
Until these problems are solved--or those licenses acquired--I fear PES will forever be written off by many as the runner-up to FIFA, no matter how accomplished the former's gameplay may get. FIFA's obsession with realism may be harming the series on the pitch--but for the moment, it's the very thing keeping it ahead.
For more on this year's Pro Evo, check out GameSpot's full PES 2018 review.