If fell in love with the sport of soccer pretty late in my brief and decidedly unspectacular amateur sports career. Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., I played nothing but baseball and hockey. Of the two, baseball was the one I enjoyed the most and had the most success. Being mobbed by my teammates after a grand slam in a game in which I racked-up two homeruns and seven RBI was my ultimate sports moment. However, upon moving to Kentucky with my family in 1989, I became disenchanted with baseball and discovered "the beautiful game"—football as it's known all over the world, and "soccer" as it has come to be known in North America.
For reasons too numerous to discuss here, baseball had let me down following my familys relocation to The Bluegrass State, so I was forced to find another sport that could occupy my time and energy. I found that more people played soccer in Kentucky and Indiana than in New York. My grandfather played soccer all his young life while growing up in Italy before World War II, and he was always asking me why I didn't play it. Once I considered that, it was an easy choice. I chose to play soccer, and it easily filled the void baseball had left.
I was 14 when I laced up my first pair of soccer boots; 15 when I played in my first organized game in a team uniform. At the beginning, I knew little about the game other than the point was to kick the ball into the other teams goal as many times as possible. It wasn't long before I began to appreciate the game for the way it delicately balances simplicity and non-stop action while at the same time demanding a high level of skill and physical endurance. To this day, soccer is the only sport I care about playing, and is the only sport I'm passionate about while watching.
Videogames based on soccer hit a high-point in America with EA Sports FIFA International Soccer, which was first released for the Sega Genesis and later on defined next-generation sports games on the 3DO Multiplayer. Sega drew some critical acclaim with its Worldwide Soccer series on Saturn, but it's Konami that has managed to nail videogame soccer perfection (gameplay-wise at least) with the International Superstar Soccer (ISS) series—which debuted on Nintendo 64 and has continued on Sony PlayStation and beyond.
The last ISS game released in America came last year with ISS Pro Evolution for PlayStation. The game continued the ISS tradition of a line-up of 53 international teams sporting player names mimicking the real-life superstars (Alessandro Del Perio instead of Alessandro Del Piero) with likenesses to match (thereby neatly avoiding a costly pro license). Once again, the gameplay was the smoothest, most true-to-life that I had ever played on a console, and the objective of winning all of the trophies in the many different leagues and tournaments kept the series signature alive. My only continuing complaint with the game and the series to that point was that there was no official league or player license for the hardcore soccer fan to enjoy. (Odd when you consider how the European versions of the series do in fact feature such licenses). The gameplay was as perfect as it could possibly be, but lack of any real players or teams hurt Pro Evolutions play life, and ultimately kept it from being a legitimate contender against EA Sports style-over-substance FIFA Soccer 2000.
Then comes ESPN MLS GameNight—which is basically ISS Pro Evolution with ESPN and MLS (Major League Soccer) licenses slapped onto it. So now not only do you get every MLS team and player represented, but you also get commentary courtesy of ESPN commentators Bob Ley (English) and Luis Tapia (Spanish). Its been a long time coming for the ISS series, but finally there's an official soccer license attached that does justice to its fantastic gameplay.
Let me state first off that GameNight isnt flawless. Though I love the bilingual approach, the commentary is only so-so ("There's a high one!"). Also, the MLS license seems to have been rather hastily implemented. There's no detailed player or team info, the stadiums look nothing like their real-life counterparts, and some of the players are in the wrong positions (Chicago forward Josh Wolff is listed as a defender). None of the problems that bothered me in Pro Evolution have been fixed, either. The menus and memory-card management are cumbersome beyond comprehension, and the crowd noise during gameplay sounds nothing like you would hear at a real soccer game. It really hurts the atmosphere of a game when all you hear is loud static followed by soft static. It's a sloppy effort in depicting a crucial and exciting element of the sport.
However, despite these shortcomings, I still think GameNight is the best soccer game available for PlayStation, and now that its available for $20, soccer fans have no excuse not to own this game. The reason I believe this goes back to what has carried the ISS franchise for all these years: the gameplay.
Not only does GameNight accurately replicate the feeling of watching professional soccer on TV, but it also faithfully recreates the feeling of playing soccer. The brilliant one-touch passing movement that you see all the time during the World Cup and in league play around the world is executed with such fine precision and detail in GameNight that it makes me wonder how the hell the developers pulled it off. It's so smooth that its almost dream-like. If you think I'm writing ridiculous stuff here, try splitting the defense with a through-pass or curling a free kick over the wall into the top corner of the goal—you'll understand where I'm coming from. If you're still not convinced, cross a long ball into the box and drive it past the goalkeeper with a fierce header. Situations like these aren't hard at all to realize in GameNight. Everything that you can do in the real game is within your reach, and it's all handled so simply and truthfully that soccer fans like me can only nod their heads in agreement while playing.
The gameplay alone should be enough to quench any fans thirst for authentic soccer action, but GameNight includes some nice features and game modes as well. Memorable goals can be saved to a memory card and replayed at your convenience with the Gallery feature. Up to four players (using a Multi Tap) can play in exhibition and all-star matches, penalty-kick shootouts and a variety of cup and league tournaments. There's a great create-a-player mode that gives you all kinds of freedom option-wise—so if you want to complete the international rosters you can, or you can plug yourself into a team of your choice.
ESPN MLS GameNight is an awesome soccer game and one of the best sports games I've ever played. It's fun, and it always feels right while you're playing. It could certainly have been a more comprehensive soccer title if it wanted to be. I would have liked all the real international players represented in addition to the MLS rosters. If Konami would just get the balls to complement the great gameplay of the ISS games with a similar depth of real teams and players, there would be no comparing it to any other soccer title on the market. Those with a PlayStation shouldn't have any problems finding soccer satisfaction with GameNight however, and those with a PlayStation 2 can look forward to the sequel, ESPN MLS ExtraTime. Personally, MLS GameNight helps me live out those soccer fantasies that were never fully realized due to me arriving on the scene so late. To me, that's what sports games are all about.