A thread on ILE about videogames as spectator sport prompted this ramble through the International Superstar Soccer (or as it should now be, the International Superstar Soccer Pro Evolution Deluxe experience. No matter. Same shit, more syllables, better graphics. It is the way of things in videogameland).

First, some background. The ISS series is one side of a war that, like so much in that krazy mixed up marketplace of popular culcha, maps onto bigger issues. Commodity, branding, authenticity, celebrity, epistemology, and most of all – which is the better game. The battle lines are drawn in this secret war, which like all manichean struggles, conveniently allows us to provide the contours of the conflict for the uninitiated through simple word lists. So…

ISSreal, involved, deep, difficult, longevity, unofficial
FIFAtransient, easy, celebrity, production-line (I know, it’s two words really), endorsements, official, superficial

ISS has a reputation for being hard; you’ll get tupped first time you play it. You play against a friend? Look out – here come a 0-0 draw. ISS has a reputation for being crap to look at – originally rudimentary and were always way behind those of FIFA. The commentary was by someone you’d never heard of and his comments were amusingly unrelated to the game. The Classic ISS 97 featured the accurate, if obvious, comment of ‘It’s off his boot!’. When a player was booked, the commentator would say ‘That’s an early bath’ which has always summed up the essential appeal of the game – it’s rubbish in parts, but those are the parts I couldn’t care about reaching. The players had almost the real names – England had Sheallor, Oren and Beckam, whereas Brazil has Rivoldo and Rinaldo and the winning end-of-competition movie featured a reasurringly naff soft-rock guitar fest. It was itself a game for the football fan, the type who enjoyed revelling in the Italian defensive performance of Euro 2000.

In contrast FIFA was official. Player names were accurate. Commentaries were from the blokes off the the telly, and Blur and Robbie Williams provided the soundtracks. Goals came a plenty, and they were usually spectacular. More overhead kicks than the replays of Pele’s cracker in Escape to Victory. It came out once a year in the classic EASports format – get the official licence, then re-issue year after year, with this year’s current hot property on the game cover. FIFA was the game for the fan of football. To be utterly partisan, it was the equivalent of the Fast Show character who opines that Bergkamp(f) can’t play for Holland as he already plays for The Arsenal. A game for kids with no stomach for the glory of hard-won success and reaching the top of a learning curve and Heat reading nouveau fans.

As you can see, ISS is the daddy of football games. I don’t know whether the following paean is a rationalisation of the irrationality evidenced by the tropes I’ve mentioned above, or whether they’re the headline summations of the argument that follows. No matter. There’s something about the ISS series that has always been more realistic. Realism – the Holy Grail of videogaming, from total immersion in the digital experience to faithful rendition of an exterior reality. Until we get wetware that can see me playing in the game using body movements (and hopefully, not get out of breath), the yardstick is of the football spectating experience – an increasingly mediated experience.

With ISS, everyone of them has been something I’ve watched others play or been watched playing by others. The game plays like a football match. Repeated football magazine tests show that when proper footballers play in a bake-off between FIFA and ISS, ISS always wins. The key is the gameplay, which is something the Konami Tokyo development team are very proud of. You get 1-0 wins and tight defensive matches where you just can’t break through and convert possession to goals, just like real football and unlike FIFA where you regularly win 6-5 with every other passage of play leading to a goal.

Whilst the current ISS version takes this to a new level with the best graphics yet, the feeling of realism isn’t a function of better motion capture. Occasionally, I watch / play the current version then revisit the one I first played in 1998 and can’t believe I thought it was so realistic at the time. That’s a common theme through most games – the increasing sophistication of graphics engines and AI etc – but still, I distinctly remember thinking at the time how real in an ‘Oh. My. God. Wow!’ kind of way.

Now, with the view setting – or camera position – on ‘far’ or at least ‘long’ and sitting about 6 feet away from the screen, it’s incredibly realistic, especially in an age of standing at the back of a pub to see a match on TV. The clarity of the resolution for the viewer is almost equal as you can see the movement and the direction of players, but can’t read their shirt numbers. Again, the gameplay gets the rhythms of the game spot on, and the increasing difficulty of the new one (Konami dropped the sure-fire winning strategy of the through-ball for you sonny) means that you need to plan your moves, and set up a formation and apportion player responsibilities to make the difference. You also are rewarded for practicing in advance, which is very helpful for corners and crosses and keeper one-on-ones. The through ball still works, but instead of always finding your speedy striker, you need to have adjusted your speedy striker’s starting run to not get caught offside but also not to allow the defenders to beat him to your perfectly weighted pass. Something familiar to Liverpool fans, I’m sure. It takes work to get it right. Not so much in terms of time – it takes about 1 minute to set a team up – but in terms of thinking about the game.

Having practiced and then set your team up, away you go. And here’s where the pleasure comes in. It’s great to be watched playing it, and playing it well – crafting a goal through superior tactical knowledge etc and then executing it well – just like the training ground. Just like the real thing, where you practise basic skills to be be deployed as the situation demands. You also analyse opponents and deploy a counter to their play and tactics. These come together in the match itself, thus the satisfaction from success is ‘a bit like’ the snesation and emotion spoken of by footballers and managers after a win, where the pre-planning came good and directly contributed to the victory.

Obviously, there’s a large degree of projection going on here; I can live out failed dreams of football stardom, or reinforce egotistical notions of tactical nous through this game. The key is the visual content of the game and the ability to plan and to play. The Championship Manager variants are ultimately very big spreadsheets; superb ones at that, but are ultimately nothing more or less than amazingly complex models.

The totality of that inter-connectedness of the formulae that determine success or failure makes the identification of the strict casuality of the outcomes (and crucially, your role within that causality) difficult. Even so, the illusion of control is more than ignorance of causality. You know that you are merely one random variable in a vast array of variables. However, even though ISS is equally mathematical, the centrality of the player and the perception that one’s actions are the key variable does bring about the illusion of control. Ultimately, it’s the prioritising of the visual as mechanism for generating the illusion of control; I see me practice, and I see me repeat those actions later, and the end result is similar in both cases = I am in control.

Anyway; such piss-poor Matrixesque reflections aside; all of this adds up (in my mind) to why I like watching and like being watched with this game. Simply put – it’s just like the real thing, but petite, as the advert used to say. In ISS, I’ve found the realism and immersing within the video experience that games have promised since they were created. Obviously, in some krazy pomo mis-en-abyme, the experience being recreated is the experience of watching football on TV, rather than the game itself. Which is itself becoming like a computer football game with the ‘pure’ image from the stadium now augmented with fancy graphics, sound effects and recreations through VR. Jings!

For me though, the idea of controlling the medium itself is a long standing wish. I remember games in the mid-to-late 80s where you directed your own ‘films’; I realised that the idea of controlling the medium was something I was keen to do, and finally, in ISS I can do that (albeit despite a large degree of denial – enter stage left the Mannoni formula for fantasy…)

But that’s me; I think anyone who’s played the game and likes the sport would tend to agree (and would obviously like them to so as to make me less isolated in my mentalism). However, even non players have appreciated it; they appreciate the look of the game and the fact that they too think it looks like ‘the real thing’. Or that’s what they told me at the time, and who am I to doubt them?

There’s several caveats to add of course; I think the strength of the spectator-game relationship is much enhanced by affection – watching one person play the game against the computer isn’t anyone near as much fun to watch as watching two friends play each other – you get the interestedness that can elevant the direst, dullest game of football to something that you care about. I also think one-player games aren’t nearly so good unless the spectators are themselves playing (taking turns maybe) or familiar with the game. Having cooed over Metal Gear Solid and the heart-stopping aspects of it, it seemed to me to have a lot of realism for the player, but much less for the viewer, who, well, didn’t seem to really to really give as much of a toss as I did. But then why should they? It was my movie, for me, where the experiences elevating it to the next level, as it were, were only experienced by me. Unlike ISS, where my beautiful moves were done for all of us. Me to feel the joy of success, the viewer to feel the love. A beautiful goal in ISS only gets scored in ISS if someone else is actually there to see it.