Interview: Adam Bhatti talks PES, Euro 2016, new faces and more

By Raj Mahil at 9:53 on March 23, 2016

EXCLUSIVE

“It’s time to give something back.”

Pro Evolution Soccer fans have endured a difficult decade.

Adam Bhatti not only knows it, but he empathises with it, feels it and is desperate to make up for it.

From the highs of PES 5 on PlayStation 2 – arguably the finest football game of all time – Konami suffered a drastic dip in form throughout the PlayStation 3’s lifecycle.

Did they make outright ‘bad’ games? No. But, like former Premier League champions now settling for Champions League qualification, PES was a shadow of its former self.

At that point, Pro Evo’s current Global Product Manager was a fan, so identifies with ‘his’ game more than many of his industry contemporaries.

“I was 11, playing ISS on the Super Nintendo, and I just fell in love with the game,” recalls Adam.

His journey from that point to the PES team included a spell at Ubisoft, promoting titles such as Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, whilst running PES fan-site WENB as a labour of love.

Eventually, he got the call from Konami, and has since lived through a “fast three years”, to the point where he now has an influence on the game.

In that time, the series has made a title charge, following a drastic change in the veteran development team’s mentality. Branching out to Europe, in more ways than one, has evidently been key to refreshing the series.

Adam Bhatti meets Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 cover star Neymar.

Adam Bhatti alongside Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 cover star Neymar.

“The geniuses that made those games are still here.”

Adam admits the devs were not aware the franchise was faltering on these shores: “The UK studio opening is the most significant moment.

“The team are more open to different opinions from outside of Japan.

“In the past, PES was quite insular, people were working in one area, creating a product which they thought was doing well, and they didn’t really know how it was being perceived.

“For PES as a brand, you can only imagine how big it is in Asia. Just how EA is super big in Europe, it’s tiny in Asia, and vice-versa when it comes to Winning Eleven and PES.”

Like fans of any football club with past success, the hardcore Pro Evo community kept the faith. They hoped former glories would be restored at some point, because of the quality shown in the early 2000s.

PES 5 was one of the greatest football video games of all time.

PES 5 was one of the greatest football games of all time.

However, it was far from a guarantee that PES – a franchise with a far inferior budget to its only direct competitor, FIFA – would succeed. Indeed, many sceptics thought the series was dying a slow death.

Adam was not amongst them: “Even when we were struggling, I always believed.

“As a fan, when you have a publisher that has once made an incredible game, you know what they can achieve – something extremely special.

“We’ve kept that link with our fans, because they remember PES 5 and PES 6, these iconic football games and they [say] ‘You guys made some incredible stuff, please do that again!’

“These geniuses that made those games are still here. It was just making sure that they were being consistently reminded why people in Europe loved PES.

“As you can see from the quality [of PES 2016], the jump has been dramatic.”

He’s not wrong…

“The roster issue took the wind completely from our sails.”

PES 2016 launched with huge enthusiasm – there was more hype surrounding the series from June to September 2015 than there had been in the decade prior. It was justified.

The fluidity of the game is outstanding, the animations are lifelike, the passing is precise and the players are a joy to control. On hardware which is still relatively new, it’s highly impressive that PES has almost mastered the recreation of the sport.

Years of hard work from the developers was almost undone in an instant though, as PES 2016 arrived on store shelves without up-to-date rosters.

It was unacceptable, and for many players, even unforgivable.

In his assessment of the past year, Adam says: “If you look at what the game achieved, the awards, the review scores… I think it was incredible.

“We had a focus of reaching the wider audience, appealing to more than just the hardcore crowd. I think we achieved that to an extent.

“When you have so much momentum, especially [without] the big marketing spend of our competitors, the most important thing is word of mouth.

“When PES 2016 hit, it felt like we were leading up to a fantastic moment, and we were hit really hard.

“The roster issue took the wind completely from our sails. It took us a lot of time to recover.

“In the past, PES has been this title with a lot of mystique – a Japanese company, not too forthcoming. With 2016 we were straight off the bat. At E3, Neymar was out there, [we revealed] the pre-order content and release dates. A lot of people appreciated that up front.

“What we learnt is not to mess up on the roster update ever again. If we do have issues, [we must] be able to quickly fix them and not make our consumers wait.”

“Better than just saying sorry.”

The upcoming Euro 2016 DLC is, Adam suggests, a worthy apology.

Though a standalone disc version of Euro 2016 is being released on PlayStation platforms, the same content will be available to any PES 2016 owner for free, across all consoles.

Adam – who regretfully was on the receiving end of the internet’s ugliest side, following the squad update failure – said: “We wanted to acknowledge [the mistake] with the fans.

“We sat down with the team in Japan and wanted to do something so significant that it would be better than just saying sorry. I hope we’ve done enough.”

However, some fans have been left angered. Only 15 of the tournament’s 24 teams are licensed, whilst another issue is the perceived lack of content.

Adam revealed to Squawka last week that Edit mode will be active, so theoretically, the licensing would not prove to be an issue for PlayStation gamers.

The official Adidas match ball of Euro 2016 will feature in PES 2016 from 24th March.

The official Adidas match ball of Euro 2016 will feature in PES 2016 from 24th March.

“We know the license is valuable, a lot of people want it.”

The depth, or potential lack thereof, remains a concern. Adam responds: “Euro games in the past were always full priced, had all the licenses and teams, but gameplay-wise there weren’t many changes. We had to be more creative and do a lot more.

“We know the license is valuable, a lot of people want it, and if they were going to pay for it they would want it fully licensed. We wanted to still do fantastic content, as much content as possible, but keep it free.

“There are certain licenses and certain stadiums that we can’t get because [they’re] owned by clubs, and those clubs will be in partnerships with [FIFA].

“For the nine [unlicensed teams], we’ve worked with UEFA to make their kits look as close as possible, without having legal issues.

“You’ve got the official ball and all the ad boards, the Stade de France, and there’s a single-player tournament.”

“The biggest ever face update pack.”

In his discussion with Squawka, Adam spoke most excitedly about one key element of the Euro 2016 update – a raft of new player faces.

Such a change is certainly refreshing, especially due to its impact on the base game too. An added layer of realism through up-to-date player models is hopefully a precedent for future iterations.

Adam exclusively reveals: “Every single player in the tournament will be in the squads. We’re doing the biggest ever face update pack.

“We’re adding nearly 200 faces, and the 200 faces are based on all of the teams in the Euros.

“For Russia we’re adding 11 players, for Wales it’s eight, for England it’s 10… There’s tonnes of teams where the starting line-up will be extremely strong, and we’ll have fantastic photo-realistic faces.”

Adam is keen to render faces for young players like Marcus Rashford as soon as possible.

Adam stresses the willingness to render faces for young players like Marcus Rashford as soon as possible.

“We’re doing a lot with myClub, like the best performing players, special agents based on the captains and key players of each team. That will be very fluid throughout the tournament.

“We acknowledge the frustration from some of the fans regarding [not having] as much content as possible, not maxing out. Within the restrictions we have, I think we went the extra mile in certain areas, but in other areas we just couldn’t go that far.”

That final comment will come as a blow to a fan-base which has a lingering feeling of a missed opportunity, from one of the most exciting mid-game updates the genre has ever seen. The judgement will become clearer later this week – on 24th March.

“When people ask me about FIFA, I take it as a compliment.”

In a welcome change of tack, Konami have decided to market this DLC well – Adam says they’ve “put the effort in”.

The physical release of course has a cover star, in Wales and Real Madrid hero Gareth Bale, who Adam is to meet soon: “I hope to see if he’s good at PES!”

The focus on marketing and attracting big-name ambassadors is something that Pro Evo’s rival nails. EA Sports’ FIFA has become a behemoth, striking gold at the perfect time, as online play and gaming in general hit the ‘mainstream’.

Though the quality of gameplay has now swung back into Konami’s favour, the off-field experience, polish and public perception has not.

Mulling over where and how PES will compete, Adam says: “When it comes to the set FIFA fan and what they’re looking for, it really does come down to licensing.

“If you look for an authentic football game with all the licences, there’s only one winner. [We can’t] fight them in that field. That’s why we always focus on the gameplay – we want to be authentic on the pitch.

“The biggest issue we have is making sure that we can communicate that without getting on TV, and being on social media where all the footballers are being paid to say ‘Great game! Love it! Banter, banter, play online, great goal mate!’ It’s a different kind of world.

“But, when people ask me about FIFA, I take it as a compliment. The way EA go after licences, how they market that game, it’s a completely different planet to how PES is run.”

PES 2016's global cover star has been rendered brilliantly in-game.

PES 2016’s global cover star has been rendered brilliantly in-game.

“FIFA is trying to be another Coca-Cola or Nike.”

Adam continues: “Naturally we get put into the same sphere, but we have two completely different targets. FIFA is trying to be another Coca-Cola or Nike brand. We just want to be the No.1-rated football game.

“Of course we want to have the sales, but if PES sales were bad, we wouldn’t be going for 20 years. It’s always a battle to establish ourselves [on] new consoles and we’re really excited about the future because we’ve had more time with the current hardware.

“If FIFA fans aren’t worried about the licences, then what they really care about is the game moving well, looking fantastic and having the TV presentation elements – they’re the things we can compete with. The licensing is always going to be a problem.”

When asked in what areas PES are falling short of FIFA, Adam quickly recognises: “Presentation.

“Having that TV broadcast feel, and when you’re going into the menus there’s that pumping music. You are experiencing a different kind of front-end.

“It’s the same with Ultimate Team. We’ve got myClub now, which is a really good alternative but still in its infancy. Give us another five years and I’m sure we’ll have a very good competitor.

“They aren’t things that we can’t catch up with very quickly.”

PES 2016's timed special agents have made myClub a hit.

PES 2016’s timed special agents have made myClub a hit.

“The first thing we talk about is the feel of the player.”

Adam admits most of the requests he receives on social media are about FIFA-rivaling off-field enhancements, but his discussions with the team in Japan take a different route: “The first thing we talk about is gameplay.

“The first thing is the feel of the player, how is the ball moving, how is the first touch, how is the shooting, how are the goalkeepers. This is how we talk about every PES when it starts.

“Maybe it’s us. Maybe we need to start feeling more comfortable with our gameplay for us to start venturing out.

“We are a lot more comfortable with those things going forward. For PES 2015 and 2016, we were consistently defending a really bad run. We were trying to recover from a really bad seven or eight years. We were trying to change the perception.

“It’s going to take seven or eight years of PES being amazing for us to even be able to move away from that terminology, to forget about those bad times. That’s the target.”

Specifically on myClub, he continues: “The fans have been asking for auction houses and different levels of players… We’ve been listening very carefully.

“We are really young with myClub. It’s been amazing. Monetising is obviously something every game has now, and it’s accepted – I think if we’d released myClub five years ago, people would’ve hated us for it!

“But now it’s second nature, and the more time we have with myClub, we can build it into something special.”

The Euro 2016 DLC includes a vibrant Stade de France.

The Euro 2016 DLC includes a vibrant Stade de France.

“I would like to reward our fans massively.”

Adam finishes his exclusive conversation with Squawka by teasing a bright future for the series – especially for loyal supporters.

Looking ahead to PES 2017’s likely reveal in June, he concludes: “When we announce our next product, I would like to reward our fans massively for sticking with us.

“That doesn’t mean changing the game completely, but one thing we’ve done with PES 2015 and 2016 is [ensuring] everyone can pick up and play it.

“We’ve been so focused on it where maybe, to a point, there are certain elements of PES people don’t feel are as profound as they used to be.

“Going forward, we want to say, ‘We have the crowd now, we’ve changed the mentality, people aren’t laughing now when you say that you prefer PES, everyone respects the game again.’

“We feel like we’ve got there, and now it’s time to give something back.”

Check back next week for a bonus interview with Adam Bhatti, answering questions on year-to-year saves, new stadiums and more.

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