Konami took a rather different approach with its eFootball cover stars, and PES cover stars before that. Their evolution over nearly two decades is as much the story of a video game franchise gradually finding its identity and audience as it is a career summary of some of soccer’s biggest names. Unlike FIFA, which used a different popular athlete for their yearly sports game, Konami turned its attention to the Champions League and, eventually, a handful of clubs it had license deals with. Konami’s rocky approach in the ‘90s eventually vanished in favor of shining the spotlight on exceptional talent in the UEFA, though that more diverse range of cover stars gradually gave way to several shades of Messi around 2017.
Goal Storm – Whoever you want this guy to be
Goal Storm was Konami’s first outing in the sports world, the grainy, blocky sprout that eventually turned into eFootball. Who is the cover star? You might ask, and the answer is basically whoever you want him to be. The details and jersey on the U.S. release and the original Japanese release are pretty generic, unlike the next game in the series.
International Superstar Soccer Pro (1997) – Whoever you want these guys to be
Critics praised ISSP Pro – still called Goal Storm in the U.S. – for its improved graphics, but those visuals didn’t extend to high-fidelity character models in the game or on the cover. Everyone still kinda looks the same, and there’s just enough missing detail that you can’t make out any identifying marks on the jerseys.
International Soccer Pro 98 cover star – Carlos Valderrama
Konami got Miami Fusion star Carlos Valderrama for the ISP 98 cover, at least in the States. Reebok also loaned their license to use in the game, the first big partnership in the series. Valderrama’s career was already a prestigious one at that point, spanning 15 years and multiple clubs and teams. After leaving the field, Valderrama stuck with soccer and provided match commentary.
ISS Pro Evolution
Pro Evolution was the first game in the series to feature clubs and national teams – only in one mode – while ditching the year in the title as well, but Konami went back to the generic covers for this one.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2002
This was the first proper game in the Pro Evo series, which kept that title until eFootball took over, and the first on the PS2.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2
Maybe Konami just had trouble getting license deals worked out. The second Pro Evo game won critics and audiences over in the U.S. and Japan, but instead of an actual club or team on the cover, the anonymous athlete sports a Konami badge. Cheeky.
Pro Evolution Soccer 3 cover star – Pierluigi Collina
Here’s something a bit different. Pro Evo Soccer 3’s cover star was the world-famous referee, Pierluigi Collina, but it’s not too hard to see why. PES 3 launched in 2003, which was the year the year the International Federation of Football History and Statistics named Collina the World’s Best Referee for the sixth consecutive year.
Pro Evolution Soccer 4 cover stars – Pierluigi Collina, Thierry Henry, Francesco Totti
2004 was a big year for the series. PES 4 had three cover stars, but it wasn’t just Konami’s way of making up for all those years of generic box art. PES 4 was the first Pro Evo game with online multiplayer functionality thanks to the Xbox, and it was Konami’s first time with licensed leagues in the game. Collina reappeared for the box art, with Arsenal’s Theirry Henry, and Rome’s Francesco Totti.
Pro Evolution Soccer 5 cover stars – Thierry Henry and John Terry
2005 bade farewell to Collina and featured Henry once more, alongside Chelsea star John Terry. England voted Terry the best player in the sport in the 2004-2005 season, so it’s a fitting time for his debut on a PES cover.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 6 cover stars – John Terry and Adriano
PES 6’s cover was a bit awkward. The game launched on PS2 in Japan in April 2006 and later in the year internationally – right after Inter Milan player Adriano’s career started tanking, with rumors of rampant partying and alcoholism swirling around him.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2008 cover stars – Michael Owen and Cristiano Ronaldo
Liverpool’s Michael Owen celebrated his return to the team after an injury in 2007 by becoming their top scorer and subsequently landed on the PES 2008 cover. This was Ronaldo’s first appearance on PES as well, long before allegations of tax fraud and sexual violence came to light.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2009 cover star – Lionel Messi
Konami ditched the multiple stars for this one as part of its (at the time) new deal with the UEFA Champions League and went with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. The move came a few years after Messi led his team to victory in the UEFA League and right after SI Latino named him world player of the year.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2010 cover stars – Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres
You only get Messi in the U.S. version of the cover, but the international release featured him alongside Liverpool’s Fernando Torres. In the 2008-2009 season, despite injuries, Torres helped Liverpool win against Manchester in the Champions League and was named once again in the PFA Team of the Year.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2011 cover star – Lionel Messi (yes, again)
Messi had a rough season during 2009-2010, but came back in fine form during the 2010-2011 season. He even won the Ballon d’Or for the third time, making him only the fourth player to achieve that honor in the sports’ history. That, alongside several other trophies during the season, cemented Messi’s reputation as one of the league’s best players.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2012 cover star – Cristiano Ronaldo
The Messi PES streak ended with PES 2012. Ronaldo might have lost the Ballon d’Or to Messi in 2011, but he was busy setting goal-scoring records and lifting Barcelona up through the rankings.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2013 cover star – Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo was flavor of the year again, which is hardly surprising, considering his exceptional achievements in number of goals scored with Barcelona, hat tricks, league goals. He also became the only player to score goals against all 19 La Liga teams, though he still fell short of Messi’s goal total that season by just four.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2014 cover star – Surprise, there isn’t one
Konami broke its string of big-name athletes in favor of the Japan National Team for the Japanese release and a stadium everywhere else.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2015 cover star – Mario Gotze
Gotze had a decent debut at Bayem Munich during the 2013-2014, but by far the bigger achievement that year was helping Germany win the FIFA 2014 World Cup.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2016 cover star – Neymar
Brazil National’s Neymar tied with Messi and Ronaldo in the 2015 Champions League for most goals scored. His scores combined with Messi’s and Luis Suarez’s totaled 122, the most goals scored by any attacking team in Spanish football history, so showing up on PES 2016 seems like a fitting nod to such an achievement.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2017 cover stars – Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Ivan Rakitic, and Gerard Pique
Konami partnered with FC Barcelona and a number of other clubs for the 2017 game, a move which shaped the series’ face and outreach for the next half a decade. Deals aside, with Barcelona’s string of exceptional successes in 2016 and 2017, it’s no wonder the Barcelona crew is on the cover. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar even managed to beat their previous score record with a total of 131 goals.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2018 cover star – Luis Suarez
Suarez returned for the 2018 cover, this time sans Messi, Neymar, and the crew, in recognition of the string of wins he helped lead Barcelona to. It was a positive spin on his career, after years of controversy over racial abuse accusations and biting incidents.
Pro Evolution Soccer PES 2019 cover star – Philippe Coutinho
Coutinho won his second La Liga victory in the 2018 season, following a messy incident where he reacted poorly to fan criticism during matches and even disappointed his fellow teammates as a result.
eFootball PES 2020 cover star – Lionel Messi
Messi returned for the 2020 game to kick off the slightly clunky rebrand to eFootball PES during a difficult 2019. He remained sidelined for several months in the summer and early fall after his old calf injury returned. It wasn’t all bad, though. In 2020, he won his sixth Ballon d’Or.
eFootball PES 2021 cover star – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alphonso Davies, Marcus Rashford
Konami named Messi and Ronaldo official PES ambassadors, along with series newcomers Davies and Rashford.
eFootball 2022 cover star – Lionel Messi
Messi basically became the face of eFootball, and while he shared the spotlight later, this time, it was just him again. Konami dropped the PES from here on out as well.
eFootball PES 2023 cover stars – Lionel Messi and the PES Ambassadors
Konami took an “everybody’s here” approach with 2023’s cover, including Messi, returning ambassadors, and two new players inducted into that group: Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes and Liverpool’s Alexander Arnold.
Written by Josh Broadwell on behalf of GLHF