There’s a lot to make fun of when it comes to Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series and its inability to secure properly licensed teams/leagues, but one shining exception to this mockery is the game’s roster of fictional players, known as the “Master League Defaults”.
While the specifics of who they are and how you use them have changed slightly over the years, the basic gist is this: Pro Evo has a game mode called the Master League, where you can take charge of a club and guide them from rags to riches.
You can pick an existing, actual club for this journey and use its actual players along the way, or you can opt for Konami’s own fictional roster (as in, entirely fictional, not just based loosely around a real team) made up of generic, make-believe players. A third and superior option, though, is to double down on the fantasy and play as PES United, Konami’s matching off-brand club.
Playing this way can be torture. Your team of ragtags and misfits are usually terrible at the beginning of a Master League campaign, most of them with poor-to-middling ratings in the most important categories, and a lot of people’s first impulse when starting out like this is to use such a shitty roster as inspiration to make some genuine signings.
These guys are about as bare-bones as it gets. You get a surname, a face, a country of origin, a position they play and that’s it. No first names, no prior clubs, no interests. The names haven’t been constant between releases, though some managed extended stints over the years, like Russian goalkeeping stalwart IVAROV.
And yet...the longer you play with these losers, the better they get. Pro Evo has always had a wonderful progression system where even the worst players can see their stats improve with repeated good play, so sticking with them can have its benefits.
But a lot of Pro Evo players don’t just stick with their default players. They grow to love them.
Like any singleplayer sports mode, Pro Evo’s Master League is more than just a succession of football challenges. It’s about crafting your own narrative. Writing a story through years of ups and downs, signings, retirements, kit changes and cup finals.
These hapless souls, without even a first name or backstory, are the blank canvas upon which this story is written. They’re the instruments of your progress, and without actual players to compare them to, who can resist slowly fleshing out each of these guys with our own ideas on who they are, where they came from and what they’re like as a player (like the ever-excellent No Score Draws have done recently):
Or British comedian Bilal Zafar’s time as manager of PES United:
I used to play Master League so much that some of these guys are as dear to my heart as any mascot character a company like Nintendo has ever produced.
Like, it’s been at least 15 years, but I still remember like it was yesterday the moment Brazilian striker Castolo slid a shot past the keeper’s far post in the dying seconds of an away game at Manchester Red to seal the title on the last day of the league. Or how Swedish center half Stremer, 38 years old and really only still on my roster for nostalgia’s sake, held the line during a cup final when my starting CB got injured then his replacement was sent off, keeping MD White (or were they White Madrid?) at bay in the second leg of a cup semi-final.
These guys! My champions, my heroes. I knew nothing of them, and they gave me everything.
I’ve always quietly felt that it’s a bit of a shame PES has long chased licenses and accuracy when it comes to teams and players, when this fictional side was for over a decade the best part of the whole thing. I mean, I know why, it would be commercial suicide, but still!
No other sports game, at least no major one, has anything like this, so focused are they with only recreating what’s already available in the real world. But PES United and its roster of nobodies shows that for all sports game’s obsession with licenses, its the story behind the games that we’re as interested in as the games themselves.