Play: Losing and "Winning Eleven"

On what video games can teach us, about sports and ourselves, and when it's time to stop playing.
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The next issue of The Classical Magazine isn't far off, which makes this a good time to remind you that you can still get Play, the last issue of the magazine, as you would ordinarily get issues of The Classical Magazine. This, by W.M. Akers, does not appear in that issue. But it could have. So bear that in mind.

It was not a functional relationship. I gave and gave, time and energy and effort, and got nothing back but hurt. But we do not always have a say in such things, and the video game that stole my heart was Winning Eleven, a mid-2000s soccer franchise that was, for all its mastery over me, as awkward as my fifteen year-old self.

Its cover was ugly, its graphics were bland, and its generic team and player names ranged from forgivable (Merseyside Red, for Liverpool) to absurd—meet Ruud Von Nistelroum, star striker for, um, Trad Bricks. Even the name was clumsy, as the European Pro Evolution Soccer 3 was rebranded as World Soccer: Winning Eleven 7 International.

And yet, as with many early-life relationships, I saw something in the object of my affection that was, maybe, not there. It was janky and goofy and unconvincing, but beneath the surface was one of the smartest soccer games of all time. I have found healthier relationships since then, in life and on various gaming platforms, but I still believe that bit to be true.

***

I scoffed at FIFA. It was little better than an arcade game: a button-masher whose spiffy graphics and meticulous licensing couldn't make up for cheap goals and controls that felt like a handful of jelly. Winning Eleven, on the other hand, was a soccer simulator, and wore its unsexiness proudly. Fun is for kids, it said. This is for serious fans—and I so desperately wanted, at that age and where this sport was concerned, to be serious. I would debase myself, suffer whatever humiliation it would take, to learn the intricacies of the sport that had captured my imagination. Winning Eleven was built to humiliate, and so our toxic relationship was born.

Pass a ball to a marked man, and he would be dispossessed. Pull a defender out of position, and the computer would score. Try to turn while running full speed, and you'd lose control. Unlike FIFA, whose main selling points were stepovers and nutmegs and other flashy nonsense, Winning Eleven's ball had a life of its own. To make it behave, you had to learn how to treat it. It was, possibly, harder than actually playing soccer with your actual body.

When I first started playing Winning Eleven, scoring a goal was like trying to thread a needle while wearing mittens. For four days, I sat crosslegged on my bedroom floor, staring at the 12" TV I'd bought with that year's birthday money. With Brazil and Argentina, I took on the worst teams I could find—the globe’s soccer dispossessed, Austria and Saudi Arabia and Bruce Arena's United States—and still lost by three, four, five goals. Once I got the hang of defense, the goals stopped completely, turning our games into scoreless midfield battles that left me with crushing headaches.

The breakthrough came on a Saturday morning, when I woke up early to watch Arsenal. This was 2003, when the Gunners went undefeated, and I watched the match with an abstracted intensity, as if it were game tape in real time. I was trying to understand how Thierry Henry could do the wonderful things he did. Inspired by Arsene Wenger, I built passing triangles. I put balls into space. I learned when to run, when to sprint, and when to unleash a shot. I gave into the simulation, and my diligence was rewarded.

I don't remember how I finally scored, but I am fairly sure I threw my arms up in the air, bellowed an obscenity, and slammed my controller to the ground. I probably saved the replay on my PS2 memory card. This means there is a digital copy somewhere in my parents' attic, freezing through another Nashville winter. It was my first ever sporting triumph. It's probably appropriate that I was alone when it happened.

***

May 6, 1972.

In the hundredth anniversary of the F.A. Cup final, Leeds United meet Arsenal in a match that Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, describes as "a procession of free kicks and squabbles, ankle taps and pointing fingers, and snarls." Leeds sneak a winner, and the teenage Hornby is left so depressed that he can barely stand—a condition known to all sports fans, which the English call "gutted."

After a lifetime disdaining sports, it was Fever Pitch that got me interested in soccer. The description of the '72 final—90 minutes of "Storey and Bremner attempting to gouge lumps out of each other's thighs"—sealed it. Suddenly, I had a team. Not tepid Arsenal, but dirty Leeds United.

When I signed myself over to them in 2003, Leeds seemed to be the same club of the early 1970s: good, but not offensively so, forever runners-up, a club to feel pain for. Little did I know.

That season, Leeds underwent a financial implosion that makes the New York Mets' Madoff agony look like old-fashioned best practices. Weighed down by nearly £100 million in debt after years of hopeless overspending, the club crashed out of the Premier League in May of 2004. James Milner, Mark Viduka, Alan Smith—all the names I'd learned from Winning Eleven 7—were sold off to pay the creditors, and the club entered administration, a fancy British version of bankruptcy, in order to avoid liquidation.

Administration! Liquidation! Relegation! All these -ations, all quite novel to a novice fan, combined to break my heart swiftly and completely, in a way that no American team could have. Quitting the club was out of the question. I'd wanted credibility, and here was my chance to earn it. I had a cross to bear, and that it was impossible to watch Leeds on American television made my burden, happily, that much heavier.

***

Soccer became a private pleasure. I woke at 9 every Saturday to listen to Leeds Internet radio, doing my best to pretend that the beautiful game didn't need visuals to retain its beauty. Each week, I marked down the squad and the results in a little diary, and recorded the all-too-brief highlights off Sky Sports News, copying them onto the computer for a year's end highlight tape that I never quite got around to making.

For midweek games, I would stay an hour late at school, listening to LUTV in the library while pretending to work, clutching the badge on the mustard yellow James Milner jersey I had paid a fortune to order from England. I rigged my cell to get live score updates during class, nestling my little flip phone inside my sneakers, where I could at least imagine the teacher couldn't see.

I relished my private obsession. While my classmates suffered with the Titans, I dreamed of David Healy and Eddie Lewis playing in the English hinterland, in stadiums with names like Kenilworth Road, Bramall Lane, and the New Den. This deliciously foreign game was played for my benefit, a year-long drama performed for me alone, to feel as quietly and intensely as I chose.

My masochism was rewarded, in a suitably unrewarding way. Each year, Leeds got worse, eventually sinking to the third tier. Each year, I got better at Winning Eleven.

***

Relegation meant the team known as Yorkshire did not appear in World Soccer: Winning Eleven 8 International. Rather than go without my digital whites, I spent a few hours mucking around with the game's clunky editing system, building a roster, uniform and logo from scratch, and sacrificing one of my least favorite players in exchange for a zippy left winger named W. Akers.

I custom-designed the players’ faces, a nightmare task made simpler by the fact that most English soccer players already look like a parboiled Mr. Potato Head. Building Leeds from scratch would become an annual ritual, for me and for the forever-broke real-life club.

I tried to convince my friends to play with me, but the switch from cuddly FIFA to punishing Winning Eleven wasn't an easy one. It didn't help that, as the only one who owned the game, I could score goals at will unless playing as an awful team: Switzerland, say, or West London White. If I tried, I won. But winning wasn't why I played.

Mostly, I played alone, running endless seasons in campaign mode, and when the game became boring I would spend a week or two with Football Manager, an even nerdier game whose addictive properties have been documented, most recently in the last issue of The Classical Magazine. I had traded a love of video games for one of sport, with Winning Eleven and Football Manager the last vestiges of the hobby I’d left behind. They were all I needed: two strange, complicated games that no one had ever heard of, which would absorb as much time as I wanted to give them, year after year—right until I went to college.

After four years of high school, when I never felt silly no matter how yellow my jersey or how shoeless my feet, I would have felt ridiculous bringing a TV to college for the express purpose of playing more Winning Eleven. I let the game go, sending Football Manager along with it, and my obsession with Leeds slacked off as well. I found that waking up early on a Saturday wasn't as easy with a hangover. This is growing up, maybe.

It wasn't that I had lost interest in sports masochism—this would seem the place to mention that I became a Mets fan—so much as it was that, in New York, soccer wasn't a secret. There were bars populated by other Leeds fans—actual human people from Leeds, who'd been going to Elland Road since boyhood, and among whom my self-made fandom never felt appropriate. After the 2006 World Cup, soccer went from national laughingstock to a bona fide fourth sport in the United States. The most popular game on earth no longer belonged to me alone.

***

It takes me two hours of banging my head against a PS2 emulator to bring Winning Eleven back to life. The menus, music and team names are as awkward as I remembered; the formations and tactics remain comfortingly and infuriatingly complex. It’s all as I left it.

Games, whether video, fantasy or Strat-O-Matic, are the best way to learn a new sport, and I find that I recall the cast of Winning Eleven 7 far better than I know today's EPL. David Batty, Dominic Matteo, Matthew Kilgallon, and (in Trad Bricks red) Ruud Von Nistelroum. How I missed you all.

I start a match, make one bad pass, and find myself 1-0 down. It's time to get back to work. 


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