How Football Manager Made Me Love Soccer

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There was a season of Tecmo Super Bowl in 1992 or so in which my brother and I decided we wanted stupid stats. He chose to play the Oilers and only run the long bomb pass play and to only throw to Haywood Jeffires. I picked the Steelers and decided to only do rushing plays with Merrill Hoge, who I called “Merrill Hawg”. A guy named Hawg is funny to any 14 year old American boy and, by god, boring, sleepy-eyed, mediocre at best Merrill Hawg was going to have the best single season numbers a running back had ever posted, or I was going to die trying.

Jeffires ended up with some astounding number of catching yards in the vicinity of 9000 or so. I can’t remember how many yards Hawg ended up with, but it was certainly less. The hilarity of watching the unstoppable Warren Moon to Jeffires connection, over and over and over again, until neither of us could breathe for laughing so hard, is what sticks with me 23 years later. The numbers were checked after each game, going ever steadily up toward mythological territory, an unceasing climb past the plausible and into the absurd.

Sports are a collision of numbers and time to me. Each gives context to the other, creating infinite stories of stats and records. Weird, improbable tales. Terrell Davis clearly being on track to greatest of all time consideration before his legs disintegrated. Karl Malone pushing for Kareem’s all-time points scorer and a title of his own with the hated Lakers, twenty years after he arrived in the league. Dean Smith playing his seniors over his talent most years out of respect and ending up with “only” two titles to go with his 879 wins.

Sports games beget these stories, too. There are those, of course, who want to play in the moment, 30 minute snatches of time with their friends to see who’s dominant. Fighting games without the fighting, competitive platformers without the platforms. That’s a totally valid way to approach them. But the season and dynasty modes create stories with no end which you author in real time.

I can’t remember the first time I realized that I could simulate a game instead of playing it. When I did, it changed everything about the way I interact with videogames, from how I played to what I bought. The time and the numbers could be run in an evening. I didn’t have to wait to see who would win the NBA title if I traded Charles Barkley to the Hornets, going at a crawl, 20 to 30 minutes a game. I could just press a few buttons and it was there, on my screen. Stats. Names. Context.

When Madden 98 came out, with its multi-season franchise mode, that was it. My life became simmed seasons stretching late into the night, watching players evolve and retire, only to be replaced by new ones, leaving nothing but their statistics behind. Other games had done similar things before; football games on PC had sim modes as far back as 1990. But for me, a college dropout working at a bookstore with barely enough cash to get a Playstation, much less a desktop, it was scintillating.

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I’m not precisely sure when I got into sports. I think I caught a football game with my dad in the mid-80s. I have faint memories of the 1985 Super Bowl, with the Bears putting the Patriots to the sword. I also remember one of my first acts of quiet rebellion, enthusiastically and quite suddenly rooting for the Bengals against the 49ers in the 1988 version of the game, all because Pop was a big San Francisco fan. This small act of rebellion, like most, flamed out, in this case to a game winning drive orchestrated by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.

But most of all I remember basketball. You didn’t grow up in central North Carolina without latching onto one ACC basketball team or another. It was practically the law. For me, it was UNC. Jordan was king, obviously, but he was gone before I went all in. So it was JR Reid and Jeff Lebo and Rick Fox and King Rice. And it was a vicious, identity defining thing when you made your choice, particularly for us boys. I ended up in more fistfights over the UNC-Duke rivalry than for any other reason. It wouldn’t take more than a mention of the accursed Bobby Hurley during that double championship run to get the UNC fans blood up. Basketball was serious business in Lexington, NC.

In middle school, my growth spurt hit fast and early, when I was about 13, and I only grew another couple of inches after. I was suddenly an okay basketball player. Not great; I was slow on my feet and ungainly in my new body. But I was tall for my age, developed an okay turnaround, and could rebound well. I’d slay in practice. Then an actual game would start, with people watching, or a tryout for the school team would be called and it was all pose, me trying to hit a jumper but desperate to look cool while doing it, picturing myself as a white Michael Jordan, legs slightly akimbo and my tongue out. It threw my shot off and I would, in a fit of nervousness, stink the entire joint up. I never, ever did well in an actual game or tryout.

I loved it, though, and a dual life began to emerge. I’d play basketball for hours without stopping, even if it was just me shooting around in my driveway. Then I’d wrap up, get something to drink, and hit videogames just as hard.

Sports games were always in heavy rotation. I was just about the only one who played them with any regularity in my circle of acquaintances. My brother did some Tecmo Super Bowl and I had a friend who shared my deep, abiding love for Super Baseball Simulator 1.000, but that was about it. I was on my own with the genre and that was okay. Sports games were my go to rentals, nurturing my twin love affair with sports and video games. I loved them every bit as much as I loved Zelda and Sonic. Sometimes I loved them much, much more.

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I got my first desktop in 1999 as a wedding gift. I quickly discovered pure sports sim games. All of the stuff that I really wanted when I was fumbling with EA’s clumsy simulation interfaces was in these games, distilled down to its essence. Pure calculations, turned into stories. And the games were cheap and plentiful.

I played sims of sports I didn’t even like; I’ve never had an ounce of love for baseball, but I played Baseball Mogul with a vengeance. And the endless pro wrestling sims, all from a little Angelfire site which I can’t remember the name of but can still see in my mind’s eye. I tried and discarded more sims than most people were aware existed. The very early 00s were a golden age for the form, with all manner of AAA, indie and garage developed sims for every sport imaginable.

For all that, there was one glaring hole which I refused to fill: soccer. Outside of a stint as an eight year old in a local league, I hadn’t touched a soccer ball. I knew nothing of the game besides “no hands” and “dribbling is with your feet”. And there was the (stupid) disdain, involving some combination of diving and weird haircuts, which I retained despite any insistence on progressivism and open-mindedness on my part in other areas. I, not the most patriotic of folks, silently dismissed soccer as un-American.

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This was doubly stupid because the most robust, popular, and well-funded sports sim in the world was right there for me in Football (formerly Championship) Manager. The game was a phenomenon all over the world, with a pedigree of quality like no other sim on the market. Part of its largeness was simply the fact that soccer is so big; thousands of actual pro soccer players exist in the real world, compared to the comparatively paltry number of players in any American sports league. But part of it (as I would discover later) is that the series is just good in a way most aren’t, committed to modeling the massive, crazy, ego-driven world of soccer with the depth, resources and insight most other sims can’t muster. And I say that as, as stated, a longtime fan of the genre. Football Manager is on another level and has been for a long time.

I just refused to buy in. I mean, it was soccer.

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It was 2010 and Landon Donovan had just scored in injury time against Algeria in the World Cup. I was riveted, even though I didn’t have much of an idea what was going on. I’d always paid a bit of attention to the World Cup, but something about that year, starting with that goal and culminating in the villainous Dutch losing in the final, was different. I didn’t understand it, but I found myself, for the first time, wanting to learn more.

The way to do that was as obvious as it was simple: play a whole lot of Football Manager. And so I did. It was dizzying. At that time, it seemed like a bunch of people on the pitch running around without much rhyme or reason. What I found after cracking open Football Manager is that there’s a wealth of tactical depth to the game. I figured out the different approaches to corner kicks and free kicks, approaches which didn’t involve “kick the ball really hard”. Different formations. The difference between a sweeper and a regular goalkeeper. What a striker was and the different ways they could play. Most shocking to me, players weren’t traded between teams but rather sold off for tens of millions of dollars, which would then be spent on other players.

If you sense a whiff of cultural condescension there, you’re unfortunately correct. I was dumb. Growing up where I did and when I did, being invested in some sports as great and others (like soccer) as lesser was simply what our sporting lives were like. My high school had a soccer team, a reasonably good one, but there was something aloof about it, with most of the players being upper middle class and mostly white in an extremely well-integrated school. Soccer was just this other sphere from the rest of sports, simultaneously too arcane and too simple a game to enjoy.

The more I played Football Manager and the more I learned, the more I wanted to watch. I started tapping into grainy feeds from overseas on sites laden with viruses. EPL, La Liga, a little MLS (which always felt like slow motion compared to the European leagues), more and more time was spent watching the game, with Football Manager humming in the background.

The stories which the game spun were greater than anything other sims had offered. You could match tactic to player capability and turn people into world beaters. I still remember Gonzalo Melero, a minor player from Real Madrid’s academy, turning into the EPL’s leading scorer. And each year, thousands of new young players, 15 and 16 years old, would be randomly generated, another potential Messi or Ronaldo out there if you just played the scouting game hard enough, like a game of Pokemon based on virtual humans in small towns around the world.

I began to get it. I enjoyed it, too, but I still wasn’t invested. To really get into a sport, you need someone to cheer for. Being a neutral observer has its merits, not least because you can appreciate the game aesthetically on its own terms, but there has to be a team to love or a team to hate to really hook into a sport, to balance the impassivity of enjoying a neutral game with the fierce, burning thing inside your chest when your favorite team is playing for stakes.

So it was Arsenal. They played such beautiful soccer. And they were young, with Arsene Wenger presiding over his charges like a combination quiet Jedi Master and wry, impish grandfather, all bony limbs and broken zippers.

And it was heartbreak. Not for me, Manchester United or Chelsea, with their repeated titles. No, there’s something compelling in Arsenal’s story, a big but not too big club who were once champions and then suddenly weren’t as a parade of oligarchs bought up the sport. They were the EPL’s San Antonio Spurs or the Green Bay Packers, both teams I’ve always had a soft spot for while not being an actual fan: periodically great but always beholden to their budgets. A romantic notion of doing things the “right way” in a decidedly unromantic world.

Then there was Robin Van Persie. When he was healthy and in an Arsenal kit, he was the best player in the league in those years. It was like watching an angry wraith dart around the field, suddenly exploding with a powerful, quick strike from a through ball or lobbed pass. I was mesmerized by the man. I still can’t hate him, even after his forced move to United; if there’s no Robin Van Persie in an Arsenal uniform, then I’m probably not an Arsenal fan in the first place.

In Football Manager, it wasn’t just that Arsenal could play beautifully and produce such wonderful stories; it’s that they clearly had the potential to do even more. Football Manager is where Arsenal fans go to escape, a quasi-reality where our team’s potential is realized. It’s right there, we say. On Football Manager, right there, plain as day. A tweak of a tactic, one good buy, and it’s all back.

I’ve logged 603 hours on Football Manager 2012, my most played version.

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“How did you pick Arsenal as your team?”

I get this question, repeatedly and consistently, with no variation in wording, mainly from European soccer fans I interact with. There’s sometimes (thankfully not often) a faint sneering quality to it, an implicit accusation that I’m a plastic fan. Which, maybe I am, given that my reply is, “Videogames.”

That’s not precisely true. I picked Arsenal because of the things I listed above. But, yes, videogames, too.

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The chain goes like this: if Landon Donovan doesn’t score that goal, I don’t watch the World Cup closely. If I don’t do that, I don’t get curious about how soccer really works. If I don’t do that, and I don’t develop my early love of sports sims, I don’t buy Football Manager.

And if I don’t play hundreds and hundreds of hours of Football Manager, I don’t pick Arsenal.

Oh, how I picked Arsenal. Understand that I’ve never been quite as giddy about a team and a sport as I am about Arsenal and soccer. I came late, very late, to the party. It feels absurd. I’m a now 37 year old man approaching the game as a rank outsider only four years ago, but here I am.

I’ve never been to see my beloved Carolina Panthers play live. I’ve seen the Tar Heels play live only once in my entire life. My sports paraphernalia has always been limited; historically, I’ve never gone in much for ballcaps or team shirts, even at the height of my basketball frenzied days.

Arsenal and soccer are different. I can only figure that the moments of release and subsequent euphoria are sparser and more unpredictable, which renders the payoff from your emotional investment more intense. Nothing compares to that Donovan goal in 2010 except another big soccer goal.

Or 2-0 down in the FA Cup final, tying it, going to extra time, and a sublime Aaron Ramsey goal. The tension and release in that game, yes, but all of the tension of ten years for Arsenal fan, gone in an instant. It was admittedly only four years of frustration for me, but you pick up a lot from other fans through osmosis.

I’ve never cried about sports. Not when the Hornets left for New Orleans. Not when the Panthers’ improbable Super Bowl run ended when the damned Patriots kicked that field goal. Not after any of the four titles the Tar Heels have won in my lifetime. But the FA Cup this past year? I stood for the last 25 minutes of the game, hands on my knees, just as engrossed in anything as I’ve ever been, and, when it was over, my eyes were wet with tears. I wasn’t crying, though. I still haven’t cried about sports.

Much.

I have several Arsenal shirts, including a couple of jerseys, after decades of eschewing them. A secret non-soccer people don’t realize is that they’re the most comfortable shirts you can buy. My Podolski jersey is my favorite shirt. My daughter has one, too, though hers is the yellow and blue away kit.

We’ll be at the Arsenal friendly in New York this July. I go to a lot more live events now than I did, heading out to see my local minor league soccer team on a quasi-regular basis, but nothing like the size and scope of the Arsenal game. I’m flying from Raleigh to New York for a long weekend to see Arsenal play in the United States for the first time in a quarter century.

We’ll walk into the supporters’ section in our shirts, my wife’s with the Arsenal crest, my daughter and I in our Podolski shirts, and we’ll scream our heads off for our team.

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There’s this idea that videogames occupy a space parallel to our “real” lives. They can’t really intersect in meaningful ways, as there’s something inherently disposable about them. You beat the game, master it, and move on. Part of the argument that games can’t be art (different, note, from whether individual games are art), I think, rests on this mistaken notion. A book or painting or song has the potential to inspire you to new endeavors. Games affect you only in the moment and only in a contained, superficial way.

Which is, of course, nonsense. I am and will probably remain completely uninterested in the games as art debate. I wouldn’t call Football Manager “art” in any meaningful sense even if I were; it’s just doing something very different than games with a narrative structure, as all sports sims do. But games having meaningful, tangible, lasting impact on real life? Of course. That’s simply and objectively true.

Rightly or wrongly, a large amount of my personal presentation nowadays is wrapped up in my Arsenal fandom. I wear the shirt. I get wet eyes (not crying!) at the big games. I’m blowing a summer and a half’s vacation budget on heading to see Arsenal live. All because of the fact that I really love sports simulations.

And more! We’ll be meeting a couple who are dear friends in New York. We met that couple through World of Warcraft and they’re every bit as “real” friends to me as anyone local. When we get there, we’ll meet a fellow I know primarily because of a shared love of both tabletop roleplaying games (not videogames, but not entirely unrelated) and Arsenal.

The narratives we create spin off in unpredictable ways. Gonzalo Melero scores 27 goals for Arsenal in 2017, winning a title for the Gunners in the process. A gangly North Carolina kid discovers an obsession with making time go quickly in sports videogames, eventually leading to an even bigger obsession with a soccer team 3000 miles away.

It’s funny where things lead.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.

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