UFL is the third gladiator soccer gaming desperately needs

Since Fifa and eFootball (born ESP) have enjoyed such longevity and rivalry in the football game space, it’s tempting to liken them to the Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi of gaming. But that comparison would only really hold up if Ronaldo spent the last decade popping round to your house every week asking for 16 quid and Messi recently announced he’d be playing for free then subsequently forgot how to put on his boots. The gender is in a bad way.

For the last three iterations of Fifa, its own pro players have been publicly and passionately critical of the series, citing a match engine with too many random elements and boring, stale soccer. A consensus has formed that EA Sports is far more interested in taking in microtransaction payments from Ultimate Team than creating a believable and enjoyable simulation of the beautiful game, and although its story-led additions like the exploits of Alex Hunter and its Volta mode showed bigger ambitions, they didn’t address the fundamental problem: the football just isn’t very good.

Until last year, ESP‘s biggest problems were menus that looked like a work experience kid had knocked them together and some unlicensed teams. The football wasn’t perfect, but it was flowing, felt organic, and allowed creativity, all critically missing features from Fifa. Then it capitulated like a latter-day Barca side in a Champions League second leg, hemorrhaging years of fan goodwill in one poorly conceived free-to-play release which only let you play online or AI exhibition matches with a handful of teams, and proved top-drawer glitch meme fodder when it finally let you on the pitch.

Arguably, we got into such a sorry state of affairs specifically because of this longstanding duopoly in football games. There’s been such little chance of a disruptive force appearing from outside these franchises and taking sales from them that they could historically get away with miniscule changes between annualized releases and long-running player complaints left unaddressed. What were we all going to do, just not play a football game all year? Unthinkable.

But while Michael Owen’s World League Soccer 2000, I Am Player and Virtua Striker failed to topple the Galacticos, UFL might at least rough them up a bit. Pitched as an online league-focused title, it’s free-to-play and features the same FIFPro player database Fifa does, giving the game over 5,000 player likenesses and stats. A handful of teams have signed up as partners, including West Ham, Monaco, and both Celtic and Rangers, so there’ll be at least some licensed kits, too. The proposition’s this: assemble players for your own custom team, take them online, and battle for glory.

Developer Strikerz Inc has been smart about its messaging, never once calling out football gaming’s twin giants by name but artfully acknowledging player discontent with them and suggesting UFL will directly address their worst vices. ‘Free to play / fair to play’ reads the trailer text over-excited EDM beats. A press release doubles down on that sentiment: “The game is designed to be a fair-to-play experience that implies a skill-first approach and zero pay-to-win options.”

UFL knows that it doesn’t have to be a perfect football game. It doesn’t even have to play markedly better than Fifa and eFootball in its first outing. It just needs to demonstrate a more player-focused business model.

UFL London Stadium West Ham United

Is it realistic to imagine that a young upstart can truly disrupt the market? Perhaps not in its first attempt. Goal UFL‘s building something with real intent – ​​the aforementioned Cristiano Ronaldo himself is the latest player to sign up as a game ambassador, joining Roberto Firmino, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Oleksandr Zinchenko. While a game ambassador’s role isn’t pivotal to the final product’s quality, these are among the biggest names in the sport, and not easily attained. In bringing CR7 onboard, UFL has succeeded where Coca-Cola famously failed at Euro 2020. It’s a big step towards legitimizing the game’s bid for market relevance.

So far, Strikerz Inc looks like it’s hitting the right notes from a business perspective, shrewdly identifying why people might stray from Fifa and eFootball and endeavoring to make their failings its own strengths. The real black box at this stage, though, is the quality of football on the pitch.

We know this much: it’s being created in Unreal Engine, there’s a team of around 250 behind it, and a recent update video from Strikerz Inc showed a few seconds of gameplay. The winger whips in a grounded cross, which a forward runs onto, connects with, and ripples the back of the net.

Hardly enough to write a review on, but we can glean a few points from that nonetheless. First, eFootball uses Unreal Engine too. While that might sound like a dark harbinger for UFL, it’s important to stress that the soccer isn’t the problem in Konami’s latest. At least, not once the first few weeks of updates had rolled out and addressed all the bugs. We know it’s an engine that’s been used to great effect elsewhere in sports games, from MotoGP 22 to 7v7 American football game grid iron. We know it handles complex physics simulations and conveys animations in impressive detail. It’s a strong foundation for a football game.

And yet despite sharing an engine with eFootballthe small snatch of gameplay bore more of a resemblance to Fifa. Some of that comes down to presentation style and camera angle, but on very first impression it looks like UFL will adopt FIFA’s rather more fast-paced speed of play.

Perhaps the biggest divergence of all from the conventional wisdom of the football game world comes with UFL’s release date, though – simply “When it’s done.” Fifa has been churning out new titles to an annual cadence since 1997 – nineteen ninety-seven – and Konami’s franchise in its various names has been doing the same thing since 2001. By contrast, UFL has already been in development five years. That alone gives it an enormous advantage over its competition. Bugs can be squashed, features trialed and refined, experiments conducted and scrapped as needed, all without the pressure of an imminent deadline.

Like so many of its marketing beats, UFL‘s “When it’s done” ETA speaks directly to its competition’s shortcomings. We can expect to play it in some form in 2022 though, and if it has EA and Konami worried, that’s to all of our benefits. The developers behind both franchises are among the most talented, hardworking and passionate in the industry, and the failings of both series shouldn’t be placed on their shoulders. No developer wants to put out a bad game. The two gladiators of football gaming until now have weakened not due to incompetence but decision-making at a business level. The next Fifa would blow our minds if its incredible development team had five years to work on it. We could have survived another year playing old ESP before eFootball 2023 launched instead of the confusing barebones reality we got last September, and that extra year would have shown what its equally incredible development team can do in a new engine and format.

UFL provides a crucial third player in this story. It offers a far more productive response to our current dissatisfaction than tweeting something nasty to EA or Konami, and whether or not it’s a genuine contender from its initial release, we need the increased competition it brings the sub-genre to raise the bar again.

Written by Phil Iwaniuk on behalf of GLHF.

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