Cards on the table, my number one vice is video gaming. Ever since I first typed Load “”, pressed play on my cassette player and heard the high pitched whine of a video game loading on my ZX Spectrum (48k) I have been enthralled by all things joystick related. Back in those days (the early 80s for context), you had to wait many minutes for the game to load, from an audio cassette of all things, onto your incredibly simple 8-bit computer. There was nothing so frustrating as waiting the 15-20 minutes for Daley Thompson’s Decathlon or Ghostbusters to load, only for it to soon crash into a thousand pixelated pieces. Unfortunately this was quite a regular occurrence on the far from stable Spectrum. Despite these minor setbacks, I was hooked and would cherish those moments when I rushed through my homework and was allowed have some precious computer game time!
After the ZX Spectrum went past its “best before date” I wasn’t allowed another gaming platform (maybe my parents were concerned by my burgeoning addiction) so the Nintendo and Sega console explosions passed me by and I had to manage my craving by occasionally sneaking into arcades around town. After this hiatus from home-gaming there came a moment that would change my life forever, a friend became bored with his PlayStation and asked if anybody would be willing to take it off his hands for a reasonable fee. I jumped at the chance and soon was besotted. Sure it was a temperamental machine and occasionally it had to be placed upside down or the games wouldn’t load properly, but it transported me to a place with infinite possibilities where I could be a Japanese undercover assassin or a space racer pilot and not a banker on the northside of Dublin. Since then, the PlayStation in its various iterations has been pretty much a constant feature in my residence of choice, I have even managed to convince a girlfriend and a wife to each buy me one over the years (rumours that the PlayStation formed part of my pre-nuptial agreement are completely unfounded!).
While I have had dalliances with other genres of video games (GTA Vice City will forever have a special place in my heart), there is one type that I always return to when I need a true virtual fix and that is football simulation games. My first love was Match Day on the aforementioned ZX Spectrum. It was pretty basic to say the least and involved generic monochrome players walking around with the ball stuck to their feet. Directional control was erratic and that is putting it kindly, but you could generally get the ball to go towards the goal. As for the goalkeepers, trying to get them to dive in the correct direction required more coordination than a juggler on a unicycle. However the sheer fact that I could play out scenarios involving my footballing heroes (Dalglish, Souness and Rush) meant that I was caught by the bug. As time passed, and I progressed to the more modern consoles, my football game of choice became a toss-up between the more technically proficient Pro Evolution Soccer (“PES”) or the more glamorous FIFA football franchise. Initially I went with PES but there were only so many seasons I could play as Merseyside Red (PES did not have all the required licensing agreements in place) before I was tempted by the authentic teams, kits, players, stadiums, commentators and graphics of EA sports’ FIFA. Once I switched, there was never really any chance that I would go back, so fast forward a few years and by the time my three boys came of video game playing age, I was a fully signed up member of the FIFA world, the only mark of my PES heritage being that I still used the button configuration of that game rather than FIFA (I realise there is a nerd alert button flashing furiously somewhere!).
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of playing it, let me say that there are many different game modes on FIFA. It’s not just about playing endless matches of Liverpool vs Man Utd or trying to win the FA Cup for the 100th time. The most popular game mode on FIFA is Ultimate Team or FUT for short. In FUT you have much more control over your team including jersey, stadium, formation and most importantly player lineup. You start off with a random and fairly basic set of players but by winning matches and completing challenges you get improved players which enables you to win more matches / challenges to get even better players and so on (you can also make in-game purchases to upgrade your team which does call into question the fairness of it all). Players are not just restricted to those currently earning their corn on the soccer pitches of the world. In fact my team (Addison United) has current players Alisson in goal and Messi on the wing but is supplemented by legends Paolo Maldini at centre-back and Ruud Van Nistelrooy upfront (ignoring his Man Utd heritage because I need to win)!
While it is possible to play FUT solely against AI / computer opponents, the real challenge comes when you pit your wits and finger dexterity against other real players online. Now there is something quite humbling about being defeated 6-0 by BarbOs4 (damn you whoever you are) in front of your children, a wake up call if ever there was one. It’s hard to describe the emotional hole I fell into during that match! All of a sudden you can forget that you are a well adjusted middle-age man happy with your place in life and become a nervous wreck complete with heavy arms, weak knees and sweaty palms (subtle Eminem reference without the mom’s spaghetti). All my tricks which had worked so well against the AI proved useless against this footballing mastermind (probably a teenager in some darkened bedroom) who seemed to be able to predict my every, pass, move and dummy. Then whenever he / she / it got the ball there would be a whirlwind of step-overs, back-heels and rainbow flicks which would leave me mesmerized and ultimately a further goal behind unless Alisson could pull off a miraculous save. From that lowly beginning I realised that I needed to up my game. YouTube tutorials were scoured from experts with extravagant names like TekKz and BorasLegend. New skill moves and defending techniques have been learnt, who knew tactics were so important in virtual football, up until this moment I had been happily playing kick and rush like a neanderthal Jack Charlton!! My moment of final redemption came last weekend when I qualified for the appropriately named FUT Champions tournament. This is an online competition where you can play up to 30 games over a weekend (Friday through Sunday) and you are rewarded for the amount of wins you achieve. Given where I was coming from I figured that 14 wins was the top end of my potential range. Armed with my new found knowledge like Kung Fu Panda after his training sessions (and probably as rotund) I accumulated 13 wins from 24 matches, only one to go to reach my goal. Then disaster strikes, Pique Blinders wipe the floor with me, Eliott FC sneak a victory with a late goal, I have a complete mare against Marinho 1906 and CARP Allstars beat me in extra time. All too quickly I am down to just 2 available matches and the clock is heading towards midnight on Sunday! Monk Toad Utd stand in my way but crucially I have tip-off. Thinking fast and fingers working furiously, I work the ball down the wing to Carlos Vela, who spins and plays it to Van Nistelrooy, who dummies and then lays it off to a sprightly (considering he is 42) Gattuso who crashes it to the net. I regroup and prepare for the onslaught from my opponent. Then the sweetest thing happens, a message appears on the screen informing me that Monk Toad Utd has forfeited the game or as us gamers like to call it, a Rage Quit! Success, redemption and the ability to look my boys directly in the face on a Monday morning. My name is dublin_viking74 and I’ll see you online if you dare!