By Matt Suckley
I don't fully remember why my housemate and I started creating virtual versions of ourselves and our friends in FIFA 15.
As we were English Literature students at the time, I guess it was a combination of having a lot of time on our hands and very little money to go out or buy new games.
But quickly, we learned two major lessons: that painstakingly recreating your entire social circle in a videogame is a long and arduous process, and that we'd massively overestimated the reach of said social circle when setting out to create an entire, 23-person squad.
The eventual result was a motley crew of slightly off-looking individuals - including friends, acquaintances and ageing university professors - all no doubt confused but nonetheless ready to take on the Premier League. Based as we were in the East Midlands nowhere town of Loughborough, we airlifted our in-game personae into local side Leicester City, in turn muscling out the shower of no-hopers previously comprising its 2015-2016 squad.
After all, we reasoned, it's not like Leicester City would have any meaningful impact on the league without our input.
We played out a couple of seasons, in an increasingly squalid and freezing kitchen, notching up respectable mid-table positions and winning the FA Cup. Two of our other housemates - one of whom doesn't even like football - became regular spectators and the campaign somehow became a bizarre bonding experience.
But at this stage, there was still something missing. The team felt somewhat like our own, with rubbish recreations of people we knew locking down every position, but deep down we were impostors. We played in Leicester City's kit, at Leicester City's stadium, under Leicester City's name. We had no identity.
Soon, each of the fraudulent squad's promising careers were ended prematurely by the graduation of their real-life counterparts. And as my friends and I left Loughborough to scatter all over the world - Shanghai, Manchester, Delhi - it seemed we'd be hanging up our intricately-modelled boots for good.
That retirement proved little more than a hiatus, however, when a visit to my original co-conspirator a year later took a nostalgic turn. Now the knackered old PS3 had been replaced with an Xbox One, FIFA 15 swapped for Pro Evolution Soccer 2016, but once again we set about modelling Loughborough's finest as realistically as we could muster.
But this time around, something was different. While the process of creating our own team from scratch in FIFA had felt like we were breaking the rules - like something the developers had never expected us to do - in PES the process was as streamlined as it was sophisticated.
Of course, in the evolution and history of both series, there's a very clear reason why Pro Evolution Soccer offers a more complex Edit Mode than FIFA: the former relies on its community to create and share accurate kits and team names, while the latter has always been fully-licensed.
However, while the people out there perfectly recreating every club emblem are undisputed heroes, the real joy of Pro Evolution Soccer's Edit Mode is in how it opens up opportunities to approach the game in a completely different way and really make it your own.
This is where our team truly claimed its own identity. Our kit became purple and white, the colours of Loughborough University. Our former landlord was recreated and officially instated as club manager. Most important, though, was the name. Bye bye, Leicester City; hello, Loughborough FC. We were no longer a wonky-looking Leicester line-up, but an entity unto ourselves.
This trickled down to the individual players, too. It's a difficult thing to prove or quantify, but it certainly seems that in FIFA, there's a more uniform look to each created player. In PES, meanwhile - whether thanks to a wider range of facial options or something else - we were definitely more able to produce players that each look thoroughly distinct from one another.
Of course, this can occasionally border on the caricature - a former housemate and Loughborough FC top-scorer wouldn't look out of place in an anime, for example - but it means that the players we created can do a far better job of representing actual human beings with all their idiosyncrasies. We even managed to create some pretty convincing women, far better than the short, ponytailed men we'd had to make do with on FIFA.
More broadly, these distinctions highlight how FIFA as a franchise is increasingly moving away from the kind of football game I'm interested in. With the continuing dominance of Ultimate Team and the introduction of narrative-based mode The Journey in FIFA 17, it feels as though EA Sports is increasingly funnelling all its players towards the same experience. In a recent shareholder call, EA put down the game's success – it was the number one selling console game of 2016 – to The Journey.
Everyone playing Ultimate Team competes for the players who are objectively and unequivocally the best in their position. Everyone playing The Journey - be they at Spurs or Arsenal, Everton or Liverpool - will see the same cutscenes, be given the same dialogue options and share the same friendship-turned-rivalry with Gareth Walker.
But what does it mean to be Alex Hunter, the protagonist of The Journey? He's a cipher with no allegiance, he stands for nothing. But when I play as Loughborough FC, there's meaning there. In the often isolating post-university period, each match is a coming together of absent friends.
We've all moved on to new cities, new jobs and new lives. But as long as Loughborough FC continues to play together - my Master League is currently in its 2019/2020 season, and no players have been transferred in or out - then something of that time will live on.
And I'd take these unique, personal, player-led stories over the one-size-fits-all, EA-Sports-does-Telltale story of Alex Hunter any day of the week.