Modern FIFA Warfare Whatever (I)

That title totally sucks.

This entry is about this.

Compared to this.

And it will make sense. Or some.

I like football (yeah, football, soccer is not a name to me). Actually, I love football. I remember games of Italia 90 FIFA World Cup, when I was just 6 years old; and I think since then I became a fan of this sport (even when in Venezuela by that time the access to it was kinda limited). I am a huge follower of Calcio (Italian Football League) and I follow Internazionale Milano (Inter), a team from that league, since those early days in the 90’s.

So, too much for an introduction. From here I’ll assume that you are familiarized with at least the basic concepts involved in this sport. Is not that you have to understand the deep tricks or to have a very big base of games watched, but I won’t stop to clarify anything that I believe is clear to any usual football fan.

See, football, is a poorly designed game. And even though, is the most popular sport around the world, a sure-profit machine maker that even has a huge impact in some country’s economies and politics (Italy is one of the best examples, for best or for worst).

Why or how that happens? I don’t know the answer for sure, and is not the main purpose of this entry (actually, that answer can be the purpose of a whole career in game design and research). What I know for sure is that football is a poorly designed game. And that is what I’m going to talk about.

Just to cover one of the flaws (and for me, the central one), football doesn’t offer a fair distribution of scoring chances. If you see other team based sport, the chances of scoring (whatever has to be scored) are evenly distributed among the teams. Just to name a few popular sports: each team in Baseball has at least 27 opportunities to score a career; in Volleyball, besides the services rule, there is the 3 touches rule, which mandatory splits the ball possesion; in Basketball there is even a timer to control how much a team has the ball, and each team can’t go to their yard once the line in the middle is crossed (that rule has impact in ball possesion). I can go further, there are a lot of examples, but you get the idea.

Football doesn’t have such a thing. There is no rule that specifically says anything about ball possesion (BP), the intuitive way to measure scoring chances.  There are rules that specify changes of BP as a consecuence, but no rule says something like “A team has to make no more than N number of passes before shooting” or “A team has exactly N minutes before shooting” (or both).

That is not a bad thing by its own. It allows a very wide range of strategies that, when constraining BP, are impossible to define. That is one of the reason I think football is so popular: it offers a sense of freedom that other sports just simply can’t. But what make this fact a bad thing is that, in the first place, BP is not a good (or at least complete) way to measure scoring chances. Own goals are totally a thing in football, and actually, a lot of teams rely on free and corner kicks to score (Greece at the 2004 Eurocup could be the best/worst example ever), and free or corner kicks aren’t necessarily a consecuence of BP.

You need to watch out for a lot of rules to balance scoring chances, when in the aforementioned sports, ruling BP practically does the main part of the job. That might say that football is not balanced from its root. So, we started bad.

But let say that ruling BP in football is a main way to balance score chances. It looks like a fair assumption. That bring us to Firts Order Optimal Strategies (or FOO Strategies). FOO Strategies are “easy” (those quotes are important in this context) ways to achieve a goal in a game, so easy that sometimes can be used as the only way to achieve anything. Think in, as the Extra Credits guys say in the video above, the Noob Tube in Modern Warfare series.  FOO Strategies are important, not only because they represent a balancing technique between new players and old ones (as said in the video), but also because players using a FOO Strategies are saying that they understand the basics of a game.

Football also has FOO Strategies, and that’s when no rule about BP is a flaw. To talk about it we have two huge examples today.

This guy.

And this guy.

Two opposite sides of the same coin. The FOO Strategies coin in Football.

When you have no rule over BP you can either have no BP at all or keep it to yourself as long as you can. There is nothing to stop you to do whatever you want. As a FOO Strategy, it is easy to understand why having the majority of BP in a game can be an actual functional strategy, but how having no BP at all works?, that’s just plain stupid at first sight. Not to this other guy from here:

Helenio Herrera

Back in the 60’s, Mr. Herrera managed Inter, nicknamed Grande Inter by that time due the achievements Herrera made with his team. Long story short, influenced by the work of Austrian manager Karl Rappan, Herrera used a 5-3-2 formation, creating what today is known as the Catenaccio. The Libero position was introduced, but most important thant that, a main counterattact based strategy was also defined. As an hyper-defensive way to play, the Catenaccio actually gives to the other team the ball, and uses long passes over the opponent defense in thunder attacts in order to score. In this way, Herrera simplifies the labour of his attackers by making practically impossible for the other team to score.

And it worked.

It worked so good that another revolution had to be created in order to stop Herrera’s. Rinus Michel created his Totaalvoatbal (Total Football) with the only purpose of breaking apart Herrera’s strategy. When focused on this hyper-defensive attituted, Catenaccio players need to identify which players in the opposing team have to be nulified, and this need is particularly important for the libero. What Michel did while being Ajax’s manager was to train his players to cover any position in the field at any given moment if necessary; a defender can be an attacker if needed, or vice versa. In this way, Catenaccio has no effect because no particular player could be double-marked (one of the libero’s main functions), or even in some points of the game, Ajax’s attackers outnumbered Inter’s defenders without jeopardizing his own defense (which is a true achievement considering the 5 in that 5-3-2 Inter’s formation).

Today, neither Catenaccio nor Totaalvoatbal as strategies exist anymore. The libero position was surpassed by Michel’s ideas, and due the physical nature that football gained since the 80’s (player over-specialization is a clear consecuence of that), Totaalvoatbal is practically impossible to perform these days. But what remains today is the influence of those systems. An influence that actually defines football as we know it.

Understood as a FOO Strategy, Catenaccio actually makes a lot of sense. It involves two keys and clear ideas that players can quickly understand, and more than that, those ideas can be applied in several situations (against many different teams). Catenaccio evolved through time to 4-4-2 (widespreed but wrongly named Catenaccio as well, which also applies to any hyper-defensive strategy ), and today it represents an opportunity to those teams which are in a clear disavantage. Money power could create (over-) starred teams, but even though, a hyper-defensive but well executed strategy can (and in fact, should) represent a real chance to win.

And this is when the quotes on easy comes to mind. Contrary to popular beliefs, Catenaccio (or any nowadays hyper-defensive strategy) is not easy at all to implemet. It requires a lot of discipline and focus, not to mention the physical strength and game vision neccesary to execute both the defensive actions and the counterattacks.

On the other hand, Totaalvoatbal is not a FOO Strategy. The central idea implies a lot of actions that need to be applied almost perfectly in each game (and also needed a crack like Johan Cruyff to be successful), but what represents a FOO Strategy is a consecuence of that type of game. When played, Totaalvoatbal involves a lot of ball movement (mostly short passes, or “touches”), and that translates into a lot of BP. So, a way to keep BP is by moving the ball a lot, until you find the way to the opponents net.

A crack.

Incredible as it could sounds, that reasoning is being putted in practice just recently. I’m not saying that touching didn’t exist before Michel’s Ajax, that is not true, and even Cruyff himself always believed in it and used as main tactic in his manager career, but the clear dominance of Catenaccio school of play (worlwide spread by Italy National Football Team) is possible a reason that ball movement wasn’t a clearly successful tactic until now. Tiki-Taka is what this “move the ball as long as you can” is named, and last FIFA World Champion, Spain National Football Team, is a clear proof that it works.

In today’s terms, Jose Mourinho’s treble winner Inter is maybe the best representation of Catenaccio heritage, and Guardiola’s Barcelona (and as said, Aragones/Del Bosque’s Spain National Football Team) is the other side of the coin, the Totaalvoatbal influence. Notice that even when catalogued as FOO Strategies, but of them took their time in football’s history to be developed. Add that as a reason for the quotes on easy.

So, why even when these strategies have a rich story and a lot to tell about the football as a game, it is a flaw not to have a rule about BP in football?.

Remember what I said about Greece early on? well, the thing is that, viewed from the purely game design perspective, Barça/Spain’s type of play represents the same problem.

Hyper-defensive schemes are criticized as the worst part of football, but what I think that is being criticized is not the actual strategy, but its poor use as a FOO Strategy. When applied poorly, hyper-defensive tactics are, in fact, the worst part of football. What Herrera envisioned and perfectly implemented was more like Mourinho’s Inter. To watch it clear, you just have to remember the first game of 2009-2010 UCL semifinal against Barça. That 3-1 winning score wasn’t a coincidence, it was a superior team playing a superior strategy (in that particular match). A strong defense with lethal strikers just thinking in thunder and incredibly executed counterattacks. You may say that the second game, when Barça was clearly superior, is a counterexample of what I’m saying, but you have to remember that those are 180 min. games. That second game is actually what Herrera planned: “sorry guys, I just defend my scored goals better than you make yours”.

What happened with Greece is a bad example of Catenaccio used as a FOO Strategy. Greece actually didn’t make a goal other than using free kicks and corners after the groups stage. That says in bold that Greece abandoned the counterattack part of Herrera’s ideas. And that is just stupid. Defending is just half of the strategy. (And even though, they won the Eurocup, which proves Catenaccio as FOO Strategy and a balancing one in football.)

Take that, logic!

Greece just gave the ball but didn’t let the other team to play by defending. Literally.

Barça/Spain just keep the ball and by that they don’t let the other team to play by touching. Literally.

So, how is that Greece was a poor team by not letting the other team to play but Barça/Spain are amazing teams by not letting the other team to play?. There are a lot of shades of gray in that comparisson, but I know that if you are reading this far you get the point.

We are analizing strategies. If Greece (or even Inter) is a poor team because it didn’t let the other team to play, then Barça/Spain are also poor teams by the same argument, which maybe doesn’t prove, but at least points at that no having a BP rule in football is just plain unfair. What those teams are doing is making a FOO Strategy their main strategy. But as I said, FOO Strategies are basic ones, the easiest compared to others.

Barça and Inter are as good or as bad no matter how you judge one or another. They are using the exact same reasoning, but in a complementary way.

And that last paragraph just allows me to say: You need to stablish, from the rules themselves, that each team has about the same amount of chances of scoring.

That is an strong assertion, but it is true.

Hold your horses. Maybe I’m not a big fan of Barça/Spain, but I do know what they represent for today’s football, and I admire and respect that. I’m just analizing from the purely game design point of view.

Which bring us to the ultimate question of this post: What the fuck have all these to do with Modern Warfare 3 and game design at all?

There are 2 answers actually: design improvement and aesthetics.

But that is a matter of the second part of this post.

(Note: I just grabbed a bunch of images I found on the internet and putted in here. They belong to their belongers, not to me… of course).

Edit: after a lot of time without writing in this blog, I realized that I can’t write a second part to this entry as originally planned. Anyway, it is a good excersice in game design analysis.


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2 Responses to “Modern FIFA Warfare Whatever (I)”

  1. Work in Progress (these things need actual names) « Lakitu's Dev Cartridge Says:

    […] Lakitu's Dev Cartridge « Modern FIFA Warfare Whatever (I) […]

  2. Puzzle Making vs Puzzle Solving « Lakitu's Dev Cartridge Says:

    […] idea behind that is to avoid First Order Optimal Strategies (FOOS). Here there something about FOO’s (and related subjects) I posted a few months ago, but summarizing a FOOS is an strategy that […]

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