Eighteen million copies of Football Manager have been sold over the last decade. Of the 1 million-plus people who bought Football Manager 2018, 46% were still playing it in September this year, 10 months after the game first launched. Of all those who bought it–including people who picked it up on the cheap in a Steam tsale–the average play time was 285 hours.
Whichever metric you want to use, Football Manager’s numbers qualify it as a success–especially given it’s frequently called a glorified spreadsheet by those who fail to understand either the game or the sport it masterfully simulates. But Football Manager’s impact transcends sales figures: This is, let’s face it, a niche title, and a tough one to sell to those not already obsessive over soccer. Yet it arguably has a similar level of cultural relevance to FIFA, which sells many times more copies every year and no doubt has a budget many times larger. Sports Interactive’s long-running series–previously known as Championship Manager before a new partnership with Sega was finalized in 2004–is referenced as much on games forums as it is on the terraces around the world, and even has comedy routines based around stories of players dressing up in suits after taking Wycombe Wanderers to the FA Cup Final.
People have even gotten jobs off the back of their FM prowess: Matt Neil landed a role with Plymouth Argyle’s analyst team after researching the club for years on behalf of Sports Interactive and playing its game religiously. Vugar Huseynzade, meanwhile, was appointed head coach of Azerbaijan Premier League club FC Baku off the back of his successes inside SI’s management sim. Lincoln City’s Cowley brothers, who hit the headlines last year when their National League side beat Premier League Burnley to get to the FA Cup quarter-final, called playing Championship Manager as children their “homework” that helped them train for the real thing. One suspects their collective tongue was planted firmly in cheek, but there are clearly real-world professional coaches out there who got a taste for management from the PC game.
“I find the whole thing absolutely bonkers,” series director and Sports Interactive head Miles Jacobson told me in a recent visit to the company’s London studio. “When someone sends me a tweet saying, ‘Your game helped me through a really, really bad time in my life,’ whether that be someone being in hospital, whether it be depression–which is obviously something that lots of people suffer from now–whether it be someone with anxiety. The fact that it’s helped so many people through that is bonkers.”
It’s not just people that Football Manager helps: the series’ extensive database of real-world players–and 1000-strong army of researchers–goes mostly unmatched in the world of football. For many professional clubs, it pays to simply license SI’s data rather than attempt to build a directory of their own.
“[In some situations a club will] see a video from a player and think, ‘Wow, they’re very good,'” Jacobson says. “But, they live in Bolivia. They’ll call up and ask us, ‘What does your Bolivian researcher think?’ so they can decide to go and watch them or not. Some of them are doing due diligence on players, such as wanting injury histories. Some of them have the complete database and get it regularly updated and use it as part of their scouting system.
“There’s one massive, massive club who are looking to do their own data project, and they licensed our database to be the starting point for their data project. They wanted to know what attributes we look for and have based it pretty much identically on what we’ve done. There are other clubs who have their own data projects who’ve come to us and said, ‘We only look at these four indices. Can you weight it like this and then work that out for us on all the players, and then let us know which five players we can sign to replace this center-back, who has very similar stats, but [rather than being 29 like him] we need to know who’s going to be like them in three years’ time.’ And we do that as well. It works in very different ways with different clubs.”
Football is heading further and further down a data analysis path, and in this respect many professional clubs are playing catch-up to what SI has been doing for years. In an Inception-like move, Football Manager now lets you hire data analysts within the game to research other clubs’ players and analyze your own team’s movement and possession, among other variables.
It’s here that the impact of Football Manager among younger fans can be felt: With such detail in its simulation, the series is educating a generation of soccer supporters to a level even professional coaches couldn’t imagine 30 years ago. Fans now have knowledge of tactics, transfer regulations, and detailed administrative processes in football that they would previously have never known existed. Jacobson says the educated football fan likely owes their knowledge to a number of sources, but there’s no doubt Football Manager is the most detailed game of its kind around. Even if you don’t play FM, you may well have heard a friend boast how their inverted winger 4-2-4 system had helped them win the Champions League with Grimsby Town. Whether the football industry sees this increase in knowledge as a positive is another matter, however.
“There’s certainly some managers who have a problem with the fact that supporters have more knowledge about football now than they did back then–whether that’s from our game, whether it’s from FIFA, or WhoScored, or any of the stat websites out there,” says Jacobson. “There was a point where you had a lot of old-school managers meeting new-school fans and the new-school fans were saying, ‘Why aren’t you looking at this player who plays in the Belarusian second division?’ They’d say, ‘How do you know that player?’ ‘Oh, he becomes brilliant in Football Manager.’ There are some people who see that as a negative.”
Aware of the effect his series can have on people and the football industry, Jacobson says there are two things Sports Interactive deliberately gets wrong in Football Manager. The first, injury frequency, is simply to make the game less frustrating for players. The second, the likelihood that a manager is sacked, is decreased with the knowledge that real-life football coaches face an increasingly hostile culture of being fired as soon as things start to go wrong on the pitch. If Football Manager had a higher rate of sacking than what we see in real life, it potentially wouldn’t be long until the real world followed suit.
I find the whole thing absolutely bonkers
More recently the series has begun to actively use its influence to elicit change in the real world. Football Manager 2017 contained a number of differing scenarios regarding Brexit, and whether the UK would vote to leave or remain in the European Union in the then-upcoming referendum. The different scenarios, which also included a “soft” or “hard” Brexit, affected variables such as the likelihood of gaining work permits for foreign players, as well as simulating the increased controls on immigration the UK is likely to see post-Brexit. “We completely non-politically showed all the different scenarios that could happen around the UK leaving and how it would affect football, and it opened up a lot of people’s eyes,” Jacobson says.
The following year, some Football Manager 2018 saves contained computer-generated players who could, in some instances, come out as gay–a move no active professional football player has yet made. In 2014, German international Thomas Hitzlsperger became the first player to have played in the Premier League to come out, while United States midfielder Robbie Rogers announced he was gay a year earlier. Both men only felt they could come out after they had retired, though Rogers later returned to soccer with LA Galaxy.
“It was trying to show the football world that it’s completely normal,” Jacobson says of Sports Interactive’s decision to include the feature. “We took influence and encouragement from other sports, by people that have come out. You’ve had people come out in rugby. There’s a small merchandise boost and then everyone forgot about it.”
And if anyone disagrees with Sports Interactive changing the game in an attempt to change the footballing world for good? “Honestly, if anyone has a problem with players coming out in a game, I don’t want them playing the game,” Jacobson declares.
“We’ve worked with [anti-discrimination organisation] Kick It Out for 22 years, kicking racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and antisemitism out of football. We’ve worked with them because there’s no place for that rubbish in society. We are a multicultural dev team, we are a multi-gender dev team, and we are a multi-sexuality dev team. Everyone is exactly the same. We’re all humans. I don’t see why the football world has to be different to that.”