Did we kill Subbuteo? And should we care?

A few months ago the makers of Subbuteo announced a new Deluxe pitch. It caused a bit of excitement because for the first time since Hong Kong-based Longshore had taken over the license in 2020 it actually looked quite good.

The comments on the post were positive. ‘Game changer’ was one term used simply because a deluxe rubber-backed pitch could be rolled up, carried around and then placed on a flat surface without the need for ironing. It could actually be a hugely popular product.

However, in true Subbuteo fashion it comes with a big ‘but’. The pitch, say the cryptic social posts, will be available ‘later in the year’ and the many questions about whether it’ll be available in the UK have gone unanswered. If, like the new teams before it, does not arrive in the UK it would be disappointing for those who want to get their hands on the latest officially licensed product.

But should we actually care?

There is a caveat to that statement – of course it does. We all love Subbuteo. We love the brand. We love the heavyweights – some of us even love the lightweights. Subbuteo is what brought the community together and the second hand market will never go away. The love for the brand will never go away.

But if I was new to table football, or I didn’t care about collecting true ‘Subbuteo’ branded items then do I even need Subbuteo in my life?

If I want to buy a Subbuteo team I can pop onto Facebook and ask one of the many painters to create a team for me. I can even buy some Santiago, or some players from LPM, or uPaint, or any of the other types of players and base that allow you to create your own team. Not one of these are officially licensed as Subbuteo but most of them are cheaper and better quality than the new brand.

If I want a Subbuteo ball my first choice would be an Adidas Tango, or if I’m feeling all modern, this season’s Premier League or Champions League balls. I can’t get any of those with modern Subbuteo. Instead I can go to one of the people who decal balls on eBay and elsewhere. In fact, even some of the Tango balls look better than the real thing. For example, check out Dave Thorniley’s excellent work. Or those at Extreme Works.

Orange Tango Espana by David Thorniley

At £10 a ball it even comes in around the same as a pack of uninspiring official balls.

The deluxe pitch looks great, but will it be better than a Pegasus Astro? Or an Extreme Works pitch – widely regarded as the best surface to play table football? Will it be cheaper? Maybe only by a little bit.

At this point I have probably chosen my own teams, a decal ball and a new astropitch. I’ve not even touched official Subbuteo products.

But what about the stands? I love the Subbuteo grandstands but there is no denying the Zeugo stands look superb. Meanwhile, 3D printers have taken stadium building to the next level. You’ve Been Grounded has designed an entire Subbuteo stadium that can be 3D printed and provides intricate details not seen in historic Subbuteo. Paul Goad is doing amazing work with a modular stadium design that looks and feels like a real football stadium. Alan at Subbuteo Passion has built a jaw-dropping replica of Villa Park with modified Subbuteo stands and offcuts of plastic.

Subbuteo isn’t even selling stadium pieces anymore. So once again you have to go down the unofficial route.

Goals? The new Subbuteo goals are the worst thing about the new box set. Astrobase goals, Biemme, Extreme Works and even makers such as Peppe Cafaro are building beautiful creations that any serious player uses.

Fans? You can order 1:76 scale figures for pennies on Amazon or eBay, with specialist figures providing stunning detail for your stadium builds.

A specialist Subbuteo player

Ron at SubbuteoStadium.com has nailed the floodlights with the stunning F50s, while he even beat Subbuteo itself to a VAR set and his is significantly more detailed.

So if Subbuteo simply stopped making new things would it actually matter? The clever fans of the brand have already replicated everything good Subbuteo has done over the past 70 years and in most cases they have completely surpassed it. For example, want a World Cup of Subbuteo? Check out FISTF and the upcoming Rome World Cup. Not a hobby bird in sight at that event because it is completely independent.

New Subbuteo is ok. The VAR set was a bit of fun. The England set was not bad as a beginning for the new license holders but is it ever going to be better than what already exists? Even the new Lionesses set, a huge improvement and a brilliant idea from Subbuteo, has been improved with Paul Goad’s stunning women players.

If Subbuteo is going to try to release the same sets and accessories it has always produced it may find that the world has moved on and the market is already full of specialists and creatives that are offering a much better product at every turn. Apart from the eternal pull of that Subbuteo brand name. Those evoking red letters and the proud head of the hobby falcon badge will always entice collectors and players to part with their money – but the community has reached a tipping point where it doesn’t actually need Subbuteo anymore.

Years of neglect of the brand by Hasbro has put it into this position and it will be a difficult job to get out of it. The new products will have to be top quality – better than two decades of innovation that took place while Subbuteo slumbered. That is unlikely and the only way it can possibly compete is by tapping into that love for the brand and that nostalgia and using it to inspire a new generation.

Perhaps the only thing Subbuteo can do now is to go retro. To recreate the heavyweight figures – unlicensed by teams, unnamed and hand painted. Bring back reference numbers and team colours posters. Go for quality over quantity and release a vintage edition of the game before the community realises it really doesn’t need Subbuteo at all.

Subbuteo won’t do that. It will continue to chase the younger market with a toy product that isn’t better than what’s already out there. That will be a major concern in the corridors of Longshore as it watches the 3D printers, the painters and the creators of the community take table football to a new era. An era that may not include Subbuteo at all.

Stephen Hurrell
Stephen Hurrellhttps://subbuteo.online
Stephen is the founder and editor of The Hobby Online and The Hobby by Subbuteo.Online print magazine. He is a giant nerd and specialises in Subbuteo, retro football kits and consumer stories. A journalist and editor of 15 years, he has written about football for some of the UK's biggest publications.

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