The voice on the other end of the phone is warm, friendly and immediately recognizable as belonging to Iain Macintosh, soccer journalist for ESPN and editor of The Set Pieces. It’s also enthusiastic. He’s called to speak about his favorite thing in the world: Football Manager.
“For me, it’s part of an ongoing project in search of perfection,” he replied when I asked him about the scale of the game. “And sometimes you can get a Football Manager which isn’t quite perfectly balanced, but in any other sphere it would be a good piece of software. I guess it’s a search for unattainable perfection.”
A search for perfection. Understand what this means, because it gets to the heart of what Football Manager’s become. For the uninitiated, Football Manager is a soccer simulator. It’s the soccer simulator. Hell, it’s the greatest sports simulation ever made. It has hundreds of thousands of real life players and thousands of teams, right down to the local leagues. The tactical depth is staggering; you can micromanage your players and how they’re trained to a microscopic degree.
The game’s aim is the perfection Macintosh mentions. Football Manager is so big because it has to be. Because soccer’s big. And, because of that, because of how mammoth the undertaking is, it’s better to think of Football Manager as an iterative process rather than a yearly standalone series. It’s akin to Dwarf Fortress, with its quasi-yearly patches, only instead of finding a way to create the perfect intersection of dwarf behavior and realistic geology, Football Manager is trying to find the perfect version of how soccer moves and breathes.
Sometimes, the yearly entries fall flat, every bit as much as a patch might be underwhelming. This was the case with 2013’s edition, which introduced a new match engine. Because this was a major change to the systems underpinning everything from training to match results, it shipped in a not great state. Without eliding the fact that paid waystations on the way to a constantly evolving goal can be hard to take when they don’t work properly, from a creative standpoint there will be stumbles on the march to an ever evolving “end.” It’s not that Football Manager was bad in 2013, though Football Manager 13 was; it’s that they released an underbaked patch. Football Manager was and is the same as ever: sprawling, touchy, weird, expansive.
That’s a tough concept to always bear in mind, but I admit that I’ve got a long fuse when it comes to Football Manager frustration. I am obsessed with soccer, but it’s a midlife obsession, and in no way would it have taken hold without Football Manager. I’m not alone in being obsessed with that blurred line between real soccer and the stuff on my PC screen. Macintosh wrote a book about his addiction to the game. There’s even a documentary about the people who play the game.
As studio director Miles Jacobson sees it, the game should try to find that line between reality and unreality, standing astride it.
“For me, it’s to blur the lines between reality and virtual reality. That’s what we’re trying to do—create an escape for people from their normal lives into believing that they really are the head coach of their favorite team whilst they are playing FM,” he says. “There’s no single way to do that. Everything has to be believable.”
Macintosh concurs. “It created this alternative reality. This was the first game which kind of plunged you into this universe. It didn’t matter if you won or lost. The computer would sack you and the universe would be created without you.”
The game, in other words, isn’t just something you play. The game also plays you. It plays you by spinning a new world out of code and procedural players, begging for your input in an irresistible manner. It can also play without you, continuing on if you get fired, relegating you to observer in this tiny alternate universe. It surprises you, because anything can happen. Truthfully, the way the game generates new players and fictional takeovers of clubs by billionaires does mean that anything can happen; mediocre Bundesliga team Stuttgart just won the 2017 Champion’s League in my current Football Manager 16 game and that’s crazy.
But also not impossible. Nothing is impossible in sports; that’s why we watch, to see the improbable become real. So it is with Football Manager. It gets its hooks in you because you want to see if that kid your scouts found in a Rio de Janeiro favela can fulfill his potential as the next big thing. You wait for the new batch of computer generated youngsters, 15 year olds of either future mediocrity or future brilliance, each one a new story.
The story is why it’s played. To paraphrase Macintosh, the more you play, the more the game is yours. It morphs. Your game is unlike anyone else’s game. This isn’t hyperbole; every single one of the millions of long-term Football Manager games being played, year in and year out, is completely different from the others. They’re digital snowflakes. That’s rare. That’s powerful. We want and need to make our very own stories; it’s the human condition and that’s what Football Manager lets you do.
Where Football Manager becomes strange and unique in the videogame space is that it now influences the real world which it aims to simulate. In order to get maximum accuracy, Sports Interactive employs 69 head researchers and around 1300 scouts in 51 countries. These scouts go to games and compile statistics on what is now 650,000 in-game players.
No single soccer team’s scouting network can compare. No single newspaper’s sports journalism team can compare. So a curious thing happened: teams and journalists started turning to the game in order to get information on players. For the journalists, this was straightforward enough.
“I think there is resentment against people who might try to use it instead of real football if, you know what I mean,” Macintosh tells me. “You’re looking at it sometimes thinking you haven’t seen this team actually play. But I think you’d be surprised at how many people play the game. There’s no reason why you can’t play Football Manager and be a good football journalist. You just have to build a wall. I find it very useful, though. I can fire up a game if I’m visiting a team I’m unfamiliar with and end up familiar with the names before watching.”
For professional soccer teams, it was different. A feedback loop was created, whereby a game modeled on what teams were doing was suddenly being used by the teams to figure out what they should do.
“It started by accident,” Jacobson explains. “We first heard of it being used when Andre Villas Boas was working as Mourinho’s chief scout and then more and more people admitted it over the years. The data has changed a lot since those days—there’s more of it, and it’s even more accurate now—so it’s a great reference tool for clubs to use. I wouldn’t recommend anyone sign a player just because they are good on [Football Manager], but they should use it before deciding whether to send someone to another country to see a player.”
In other words, rely on the pro scout you send down for the final decision, sure, but nobody has more data than has. Nobody has a broader network than us. Make use of us. And soccer teams the world over do.
No game has this reach into a real world industry or sport, limited though it currently is. Not World of Warcraft’s millions of subscribers. Not Halo. Not Minecraft. Those are, and will be for the foreseeable future, the realm of games. They rarely, if ever, intersect with the realm of the “real” for most people.
Remember Jacobson’s stated goal in the quote above: to blur the line between what’s real and what’s not. His ultimate triumph—the game’s ultimate triumph—is that Football Manager has spilled its borders. Football Manager is clearly, emphatically, not simply a game; it is soccer, or at least a slice of it.
What of the latest entry, Football Manager 16? The match engine works well. It feels extremely responsive compared to versions of the recent past, though I upgraded to Windows 10 and can’t rule out that this is part of it. The UI’s been revamped, which is a big deal in a game about information; the stats and figures are a little easier to navigate and more immediately accessible. A new create-a-club option is in; it’s reasonably robust and interesting. And, of course, there are roster updates based on current scouting information.
It is, in other words, a Football Manager game. That entails ambition, strangeness, and a wall of figures. A few bugs. Disagreements about precisely how good your favorite player should be. Tactics that are disappointing, tactics that are too good. Late nights lost.
As Iain Macintosh might say, it will steal your life.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.