Two football titans are in a pitched battle at the top of the table - but it's not Man U against Chelsea, it's the clash of the latest console titles. Jack Riley kicks off

Liverpool versus Manchester United. Inter versus AC Milan. Football is dominated by bitter rivalries, and now a new war is being waged for the hearts of supporters everywhere. It's not between teams, but between football videogames.

The two contenders are Fifa 09, fully licensed and developed by a team of 25 self-confessed football nuts of different nationalities, and Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 (PES), the work of the visionary Japanese designer Shingo "Seabass" Takatsuka. This year, it seems, the free time of the average football fan is in more danger of evaporating into thin air than ever before.

The stakes are enormous. Last year's edition of Fifa garnered a million sales in the UK alone; that's one copy sold for every 60 people in the country. Coupled with the high price tag (both games have a top price of £49.99 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions), and the vast sums this year's big releases stand to earn for their publishers, the rewards dwarf the takings of many blockbuster movies.

Football games are a cultural phenomenon that has spread to almost every household and students' hall of residence in the country, with dedicated fan clubs, websites, online ranking tables and their own, highly lucrative, competitions. Last year's release of PES saw a tournament sponsored to the tune of £50,000, with the final held at Wembley Stadium. When one entrant was caught cheating, he was exposed to the obloquy of the entire games-industry media. Given the prize on offer, you can understand why he went to the effort.

Given the size of the market, the competition between the two games is no surprise. Each game's supporters have just as many slurs and stereotypes for each other as those of any real footballing rivalry. PES fans deride their Fifa counterparts for Fifa's reliance on official licensing rather than gameplay, but in recent years the gap has narrowed to the point where the ideological differences between the two games come down to brains versus brawn.

"Pro Evolution Soccer has been the footballer's game for almost a decade," says Tom Bramwell, editor of the gaming website Eurogamer. "Fifa was flashy and official but lightweight on the pitch, where it lacked depth and could be exploited easily. PES rewarded real-life tactics and got increasingly better at it year on year."

This is the sixth year of the argument, which kicked off when the first edition of PES took on Fifa Football 2002. Fifa was already an established brand, with the developers EA having gained the licence to use official shirts and team names nine years earlier, for Fifa International Soccer in 1993. But PES quickly gained popularity despite some bizarre team names designed to circumvent the licensing ban (Manchester United were known as Aragon). Since then, the clash has gone global, with this year's Fifa available in 17 languages and sold in 37 countries. PES is called Winning Eleven in the USA and Japan, and has localised versions for release sround the world.

Fifa's advantage in its licensing agreement is immense. The deal it signed with FIFpro, the global player-registration system for football's world governing body, means that any gamer looking for the most authentic-looking experience will plump for the EA title, which contains accurate details of players from 30 leagues and 41 national sides. PES has only managed to sign deals with the Champions League and a handful of big clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool. More details are being added as licenses are acquired, but it is likely you will always need Fifa to play accurately – unless you're happy to play as North London (that's Arsenal on PES).

As a result, Fifa has edged out PES, in the UK at least, for the last two years in terms of sales. PES takes the lion's share of the plaudits from football purists, but this seems to have had a limited impact on sales; in 2007, Fifa sold 600,000 more copies than Konami's PES. This year, new features in Fifa have helped it win over the majority of games reviewers for the first time. But then, in PES's opening week, it knocked Fifa off the top spot of the UK games charts, hinting at a comeback by the Japanese competitor.

The competition has driven both teams of developers to focus on adding features. Improved online play is the Dimitar Berbatov of each game's summer signings; being able to have a virtual kickabout without leaving the house is attractive to couch potatoes everywhere. "Both games now take the online community aspect of gaming very seriously," says Gavin Ogden, editor of Computer and Video Games. "Playing in online leagues and being able to download stats that affect your single-player game is a great feature."

Still, the reviewers have sided with Fifa; this year's edition of PES is "ugly, with rigid, grid-based player movements and relatively limited tactical range", according to Bramwell, while Fifa is "so fluid and receptive to proper tactics that the developers seemingly had to rein it in by making it easier to shoulder people off the ball, lest they run away with it every time."

So battle is joined – and the real winners are surely gamers themselves, with a choice of two top-class simulations. But which will lift the winner's trophy?

The beautiful game: Can virtual beat reality?

The relationship between football and football gaming is a strained one. West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green has gone so far as to blame England's recent lack of international success on console gaming, while Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp has lamented the perceived decline of youth football, claiming "it seems football cannot compete with an Xbox". In contrast, England captain John Terry has attributed the recent international success of Theo Walcott to sessions on 'Pro Evolution Soccer' and 'Fifa'. To investigate for myself, I invited round a group of football-playing gamer friends. First, we played 'PES 2009' and 'Fifa 09' – while the former had the edge in terms of thrills and fast-paced gameplay, EA's title proved the more realistic and tactically oriented depiction of football. Then we headed to a park to take part in the beautiful game for real.

Having divided up into teams according to preferences for the two games, it soon became clear that the 'Fifa' fans had the advantage, moving the ball around with tactical zeal on their way to victory. So which incarnation was the winner? We agreed that there's a time and a place for both real life and virtual football. Perhaps England's miserable weather, along with the rise of the football game, is to blame for the decline of the kickabout; but with a little luck, perhaps games such as 'Fifa 09' and 'PES 2009' can keep our footballing spirit alive until spring brings the sun back out to play.