Why do I play Football Manager?

(First published in XP Magazine – 17/08/13)

There’s fifteen minutes before the game. The excitement of the crowd permeates through the fading colour of the away dugout walls. Sat all around me are seventeen pairs of eyes, looking at me with expectation. I turn, pointing to the door: “you don’t need to hear anything from me, you know what to do.” I cross to a young goalkeeper, about to make his first appearance. I’ve watched him grow as a footballer from his first game in the youth team almost three seasons ago. “You’ve got what it takes, there’s no pressure” I tell him. He seems to have relaxed. My star striker, signed from non-league, looks to have switched off so I point him out “keep it up; I expect a performance from you tonight!” The bell goes and the players leave the dressing room and take to the pitch. My words, customised using the game’s team talk option, ringing in their ears.

San Marino FC’s first league game in the Serie A is a resounding success, winning convincingly 3-0. I’ve never been more proud of pixelated football players.

This is your life in Football Manager (FM) series. You’re thrust into one of the most stressful, yet highly paid, jobs in world sport. The series that started as Championship Manager in 1992 has been running for 21 years and developer Sports Interactive has seen the game all the way from the bedroom (quite literally, founders Paul and Oliver Collyer designed the game in their Shropshire home) to the heights of having millions of fans worldwide. The series is renowned for its tactical accuracy and in depth knowledge of the football world, so much so that real football clubs use the game’s scouting system to find potential players.

I am asked by people, often who have seen me playing it, “Why do you even play this game, isn’t it just a glorified spreadsheet?”

You can see how people would look at Football Manager’s interface and make that assumption. The tactics screen, in many iterations of the game, has been comprised of sliders, drop-down lists and check boxes, often for every single player or position. After remembering what each facet of the game does, you do sometimes end up feeling like you’ve entered the Matrix. Each option does have a use, and even minor tweaks can affect how your players can play, which has lead to a vibrant online community springing up around the game, sharing tactics and formations that they have all used to gain glory. The game’s tactical depth is mocked by some, and every year clubs get letters from FM players offering to take the manager’s position thanks to their experience in the game. Everyone is an armchair tactician in the pub, in the stands and even on nights out you can hear people criticizing Arsene Wenger’s transfer policy. Football Manager gives those armchair strategists the chance to prove their worth. Indeed, stranger things have happened. Student Vugar Huseynzade was promoted to manager of FC Baku’s reserve team based on his success with the same club in Football Manager 2011.

Football Manager is known for its addictiveness. I had never considered playing the sim until 2010, preferring the more action-orientated FIFA series. Someone lent me the demo, and suddenly my evening had gone from 7PM to 4AM in what seemed like half an hour. Since that fateful day I have racked up a horrendous amount of hours on the series (2857 at time of writing). There are a number of reason that keep players coming back time and time again. One reddit user told me that “no other game gives me the same immersion or emotional response … to go from sublime joy of scoring a late minute winner to the absolute stomach wrenching feeling of watching your team concede in the final minutes.” The immersion is an important factor in the game. Every player has a personality, and they will let you know what they think of your tactics, team talks and general policy. You get to know each player quite intimately, so much so that you find yourself confusing their actions in the game with actions in the real world. More than a few times I have found myself disliking a player in real life only to realise I did so because they were rude to me on Football Manager. Being able to manage your favourite team gives players the chance to interact with football at a deeper level than standing in the terraces, interacting with all the stars you see from far away on a Saturday up close and personal in the game.

The series shows no sign of slowing down, with Football Manager 2014 having been announced a short time ago. It’s consistently been in the top five games played on Steam by player count, and there are gamers I know out there with game hours that put even mine to shame. The game turned me from journeyman football supporter with no real knowledge of the wider game into a tactical guru*. Football Manager stands head, shoulders, shin pads and studs above other sims in the genre, and looks to hold that place for a long time to come.

To quickly return to that San Marino side: Serie A champions 2016 and Champions League winners 2020. I Thought I’d just gloat about that while I had the chance.

*May not be true.

Thanks to reddit.com users “Swolo” and “Bill_and_Ben”  for their input.

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