This month marked the end of an era for soccer video games. EA Sports announced that it is parting ways with FIFA, meaning it will no longer be making a new game under the FIFA license from 2023 onwards. Instead, it will stick with its own franchise, EA Sports FC.
Well, the name change won’t mean all that much in the short term (EA Sports still has deals with pretty much every major league and team, with only the World Cup being a question mark), but it does end roughly 30 years of FIFA at the top of many gamers’ Christmas lists.
But of course it’s not just EA Sports that made the beautiful game in pixelated form. There were many football video games that we all loved.
The reason: Not all of us are blessed with the ability to bend it like Beckham or shoot like Ronaldo. And before the invention of computer games, all one could do was dream of what it would be like to achieve victory at Wembley or lead an uneven horde of players to a dynasty of glory.
But all that changed as football made its way onto the screens and consoles of millions, with new stories, careers, heroes and classic games coming every day in 8-bit, 16-bit and then in the glorious basic-like- actually played were-there-experiences we see today.
Proceed with caution: many of these games in this list have captured life for long periods of time and can still bring grown people to tears of nostalgia… On the other hand, now that the Premier League is coming to an end, we must do something.
The best football video games
1. Championship manager 97/98
The original Championship Manager – which would of course become Football Manager – wasn’t just a game. For his fans it was a religion. 97/98 was the zenith of the old versions (it was the last part of the second generation of CM games): no fancy graphics, no thought about training and the more mundane tasks of football management, and just the right amount of realism. It was precisely its text-based simplicity that meant the action played in the player’s mind – and what action as Leyton Orient (led by Bjørn Heidenstrøm, of course) moved up the leagues to walk away with multiple Champions League titles. Words alone cannot do justice to Champ Man’s fame; a titan of soccer management games.
2. FIFA World Cup ’98
FIFA is currently the dominant behemoth of football games, ruling the roost with its management partner-in-crime Football Manager – that is, until 2023. But that wasn’t always the case, with several Duff releases leading up to Road To World Cup ’98 came and the franchise saw tremendous improvement. Even 24 years later, this is still a masterclass in FIFA game making.
3. Sensitive world of football 95/96
Quite simply the king of playable soccer games. Forget the realism, this was all about the sheer thrills and spills of the arcade. And yet it wasn’t smash-and-grab action – you could play a delicate tiki-taka passing game, you could score nice goals – and every hit with a header was one to tell all your friends about. The original was a classic, of course, but SWOS made it to the top with the handy three-letter skills guide (every time you see SFV on a car license plate, you immediately think of a great striker), management mode, and a whole world of great players discover. 95/96 was the first bug-free iteration, so it gets our vote. We will forever be a scoring superstar hero.
4. Pro evolution football 6
For years, Pro Evo has kept up with FIFA step by step and step by step, but the general perception is that FIFA has dominated in recent years. So let’s go back to the glory years: Pro Evo 6, which was halfway between the blistering speed of Sensi and the detailed realism of FIFA. Gorgeous stuff and exactly what PS2 players have been ordering.
Following Eidos’ split after Championship Manager 4, Sports Interactive founded Football Manager and hasn’t looked back. A realistic match engine and an amazing level of detail and control have been added over the years. You don’t have to daydream about what it’s like to manage your team, you can just play FM instead. Nothing short of an immersive football management sim.
6. New star football
One of the most addictive mobile games of all time, New Star Soccer was (at least at the beginning of its life) a brilliant soccer sim packed with mini-games. The key here was making sure that your player keeps making their life better with gear upgrades, that their partner is happy, and that the manager and team are happy too. Oh yes, and you also had to play a bit of football, with free-kicks, penalties and the like. While bloated with IAP, in its glory days it was, uh, glorious.
7. kick off 2
Sensible Soccer’s predecessor, Kick Off, and its successor, Kick Off 2, were fantastic fun, using Sensi’s top-down approach and invention of aftertouch. Borrowing Kick Off’s match engine, the Player Manager deserves an honorable mention here too – it adds the management side of things and – unusually for most football games – gives you the option to play as a single player. For the first time, football fans everywhere could have Kenny Dalglish on their Ataris or Amigas – and what could be better than that?
8th. International Soccer
International Soccer from 1983 on the Commodore 64 was probably the first major soccer computer game and the spiritual godfather for everything that followed. It had a side view – for more detail – and showed two teams of sevens as well as throw-ins, corners and goal kicks. Vinnie Jones and Gary Lineker were almost certainly fans of it – there were no fouls and no offside. Still a brilliant game.
9. International Superstar Soccer Deluxe
International Superstar Soccer preceded Pro Evo, a SNES classic in the era between side-on games and the full-blooded immersive experiences of modern gaming. However, this was a game that was still very much in the arcade mode, rather than trying to entertain too many thoughts of ultra-realism. Just looking at this screenshot makes us nostalgic for Saturday afternoons when arcade football and air hockey are played. Jumpers for goal posts, right?
10. tracksuit manager
Released back in 1988 on the Commodore 64, this was the first tantalizing glimpse into the possibilities of a management game. Text-based, simple and addictive; This was the precursor to everything Champ Man and FM were to perfect – the Newton for their Einstein, if you will. Although for football fans it is probably more important than the achievements of these two people.