The Football Manager series, and its’ predecessor Championship Manager, has been one of the most successful PC game franchises of all-time in the UK – and it’s clear to see why. Football is a massive cultural phenomenon in the UK, more than just a game or a sport, but a pseudo-religion. Put together the potential fan-base with football’s inherent subjectivity and almost every fan’s desire to coach their beloved side themselves, and a game based around managing a football club is a nailed-on certainty for success. It’s a game I have a lot of fun playing, even though it’s far from a traditional game.
If you look at the Football Manager series on a more macro level, you will see that it is so far removed from the typical genres of ‘games’ that are on the market that it would boggle the mind of an outsider that it is successful at all. It could be classified as a sports game – but in no part of the game does the player take part in a sport. It could be an RPG, you are playing a specific role, can play it in any way you want, and progress through the game by moving from club to club – but you aren’t statistically improving as you go on. It could be a turn-based strategy, as you are going through the game day-by-day and planning for further games, transfers or even financial arrangements – but there are no other players in the game apart from you. The game is a fusion of so many different game elements, that improbably come together to make an experience that is unique, but engrossing.
The game captures an incredibly particular niche of video games. If someone without a good grasp of the mad, mad, mad world of football was to pick up the game and start playing – they would be left floundering in a sea of technicalities and intricacies. There is a steep learning curve to the game, one that isn’t daunting to the seasoned football fan, but would be like the north face of the Eiger to newcomers. Even amongst those who have experienced the game before, there is a difficulty level as well that provides a constant challenge. Unlike other football games, such as the managerial offerings of FIFA or Pro Evo, Football Manager always manages to grant a sense of realism to a team’s seasons. Playing as one of the global financial giants like Man City and buying in even more world-class player doesn’t make you invincible. Over the course of a season, you will still lose games. This mirrors football in an almost unnerving way, and the effect is only magnified when taking charge of a lesser equipped side. Compared to the modern era of video games, Football Manager is flying in the face of traffic by making their game almost as inaccessible to new audiences as possible, but that isn’t a negative.
But with the amazing attention to detail and the careful and exhaustive research that goes in to the game, it becomes one of the ultimate toys for a football fan. Although at times, parts of the game may feel like looking at a range of well-stylised spreadsheets, the control you have of your football club is absolute from backroom staff appointments, to micro-managing players’ training schedules and every possible thing in between. The minutiae make you feel as though you are actually affecting something much larger than just yourself, that you are controlling a business. The data is all pulled from real-life observations and research, and as such it is a premium source of footballing knowledge. It’s an impeccable feat that the developers of the game pull off in making a corporate simulator feel fun, even after coming home from a day of work or studying, but Football Manager is a game that defies the traditional ‘rules’ of games.
Football Manager manages very successfully to tap in to the emotional attachment that people have with football. When I’m managing my favourite team, Ross County, I feel a personal investment in the game – not just because of the number of hours I’ve spent managing the team to success (or sometimes a bit worse) – but because I ‘know’ the players, opposition and teams involved. Players in the game do statistically perform very similarly to how they do in real life, but not exactly. I want to pick players that are playing well in real-life, even though it isn’t going to make my team in-game play any better. Although the ‘players’ in the game are just sprites with certain attributes, I feel a guilt when I take a player out of the team that has been with the real club for several years. No other game can make players take such irrational decisions, and it makes for a far more immersive experience.
Something too has to be said for the way the regular game is paced. A season can take many, many hours to complete – anywhere between 20 and 30 depending on how closely you tend to the different facets of your club – but there are so many games of football in between the start and end of the season that the time never feels like it’s going by too slowly. Each match is dangled in front of you like a treat, willing you to play ‘just one more game’, and before you know it hours have flown by. Football Manager’s emotional charm and pacing make it an addiction that is hard to kick.
Football Manager is not a game that is going to be top of everyone’s list to buy every year. Its target audience is limited, and it suffers from the same problems that other sports titles and annual franchise releases do: releasing a new game every year with sometimes only minor improvements. Considering that is the only real complaint I have with the game, though, you can tell that it’s a game that is near the top of my list – even though I might not rush to get my fix on release day every year.
Football and video games have had many crossovers, but if there’s just one that should be held up as the standard bearer of how it should be done, it would be Football Manager.