By Neil Merrett
The world of videogames is not short of icons and heroes.
The growing popularity and sophistication of computer technology has given us all manner of characters to take control of. There are rapping dogs, lithe and sophisticated tomb raiders, all colour and shape of quasi-supernatural martial artists and even a non-league professional footballer pushing for a late career fairy tale in the UK’s FA Cup.
The latter is a real world figure – yet they are arguably all videogame heroes.
There was a time when videogame characters were meant to be otherworldly, partly through technical limitations of previous hardware that meant Pac-Man was both a practically and visually interesting stand-in for a humanoid figure.
Even in a human sense, Mario remains joyfully Cartoon-ish in his rendering, seemingly different from an actual human being. When trying to enjoy some mindless or more in-depth escapism, why then would someone opt to be something seemingly real when you can be anything or anyone?
Yet as ever more lifelike simulations are developed, the outlandish icons of Sonic the Hedgehog or Spartan god slayer Kratos are having to share their domain with everyday figures from obscure football clubs in South Wales, or at least their digital avatars.
Real world sport isn’t as far away as it might seem from videogames. Both pastimes require a significant amount of hero worship and personal investment in outcomes, that while gratifying, do not always create any tangible change on society.
Yet people define and devote huge sections of their life to both, often in blind hope, to embrace a kind of fantastical narrative around their own lives. Regailing others for years to come with anecdotes of titanic encounters, glorious shortcomings and the moment despair slipped into comic delirium.
Squareblind has previously considered how simulations such as football games create parallel worlds whereby an individual can rewrite the history of their favourite team. Fifa, Pro-Evo, Track and Field or Jonah Lomu Rugby have all allowed bedroom athletes to right perceived wrongs or build their own saga of becoming a managerial Cinderella man or women over in-game or real life decades.
Few may have heard of Newport County – South Wales’ own ‘Amber Army’ or the defender David Pipe, a professional footballer who has had a storied career playing for a number of clubs around the Middle and lower echelons of England’s Labyrinthine football league.
In the real world, ‘Pipey’ is a respected player that will be an icon to Newport’s fans after playing a part in their dramatic run in the FA Cup during the 2017/18 that saw him help nearly topple two of the country’s largest and most historic clubs. A narrative worthy of any game.
— Newport County AFC (@NewportCounty) 2 April 2015
Of course, this hero of Newport, this prince of Monmouth, will never be an icon in the grand tradition of football greats such as Zinedine Zidane or Lionel Messi. Quite frankly who needs all that adoration and the complications that are attached?
To two obscure individuals stuck in front of Fifa 14 on PS4 for several months during the winter of 2013, Pipey entered into their own perception of sporting legend by remaining the stalwart heart of a team that climbed several leagues as conquering champions.
He went on to remain a key part of that team as other players found themselves replaced by a growing level of continental and Premier League stars. A local-ish boy come good – scoring goals and making decisive match winning tackles in disciplined displays for a chaotic two man management team.
In real-life, Mr Pipe would move on from Newport during that 2013/14 season to lower league side Forest Green Rovers, before moving to Eastleigh in 2016/17, at least according to Wikipedia.
He would eventually returned to Newport County to continue his career, where he currently still plays.
But this real history was never known to me, with David Pipe and Newport County existing only in those few happy months of Fifa 14.
Cosplay and film adaptation aside, we are rarely given the chance to see video game icons in real life.
It was a surprise then on February 7 to be yards from the legendary Pipey himself, playing football in the flesh battling seemingly superior opposition as I had always known him.
During the club’s last FA Cup hurrah as part of a replay at Wembley Stadium – required after narrowly conceding a late equaliser against Premier League perennials Tottenham Hotspur during a wet Saturday in Newport – a genuine icon stood in the opposing team. Both Mr Pipe and the rest of the world didn’t know it.
He would probably not have known he was occasionally cheered by a non-Newport fan, or his digital exploits.
If only he could have known what his digital avatar meant, how would he respond. Would he even care?
In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter of course. We all have our personal stories and worlds unfolding in front of us – whether real or digital.
Great characters in games are often based on how an individual feels playing through their story and putting themselves into that character.
Pipey and I will always have Fifa 14. What a legend.