On Friday 7th November, Football Manager turned 24 years-old. The social life scourge, the degree killer is back again. Since its debut in 1992, the game has changed its name, publishers and virtually all of its features. Championship Manager has become Football Manager and Eidos Interactive has become Sega. The commentary bar and 2D match screen have both been consigned to history, replaced with a high-tech 3D engine. You are left with what journalist Iain Macintosh describes as a game that “is definitely light years ahead of any other football management game that has ever existed.”
Macintosh, though, is far more than just a journalist. By his own admission, he loves the game – so much so that, alongside Kenny Millar and Neil White, he wrote the highly acclaimed book, Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession. A collation of stories from Football Manager players around the world and featuring interviews with the creators of the game, the book explains quite how and why this management simulation game has become such a cult figure in the world of gaming.
“It is just a game?” is the question asked by singer Robbie Williams, who also describes it as the “best game I’ve ever played.” Williams is part of a huge band of the game’s loyal followers. Macintosh tells me that, at first, securing a deal with publishers was difficult. Many, he says, told him “there was no market for such a book.” How wrong they were.
“It was funny, I’d always wondered why there wasn’t a Football Manager book,” the co-author tells me. Fortunately, Backpage Press agreed with him and took a punt on the book.
Their faith has been repaid. Indeed, Macintosh has been “pleasantly surprised that the book proved so popular.” Former Molde and Cardiff City manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has even suggested that playing FM helped him to understand his real-life tactics.
This separation, though, of reality and the virtual world is something that Macintosh is keen to stress.
“I think ‘addictive’ is a dangerous word,” he starts out. “The vast majority of players manage to create a balance between the real world and the make-believe. We had a chapter where I interviewed a psychoanalyst about the effects of the game and while all addictions rest on the same principle of action and reaction, the appeal is primarily that we like to ‘play’.”
This inability to isolate fact from fiction makes for stories both hilarious and concerning in equal measure. Macintosh himself claims to have once donned a suit and played Abide By Me on Spotify prior to a virtual FA Cup final. Others have played the Champions League music prior to a big computerised European tie. The tales are both comical and bizarre. Macintosh’s favourite anecdote from the book is a hysterical example of the sheer power of the game on one’s emotions.
“I’m still tickled by the guy who wanted to make his FM game more realistic during a tricky away tie in Turkey, so he opened his window and set fire to his wastepaper bin. I respect that level of dedication.”
Unfortunately, however, for every hilarious example of the game’s power, “there are a few people who’ve gone completely overboard and lost their families because they’ve been so obsessed.” Indeed, Football Manager was implicated in 35 divorce cases in 2012! As Iain says, “it’s a good game, but it’s not as good as having the love and respect of your children.”
The question is; how has the game reached this level of popularity? What is it that absorbs gamers to such an extent? Macintosh’s response to this is intriguing. He suggests that its charm and longevity are down to those who make the game. “It’s a labour of love and people respect that. It’s not a game put together by faceless suits. They’re very close to their community. The primary asset they have is an office full of people who just love playing it.”
This is most definitely true. Along with the 60 full-time game developers who work for Sport Interactive, more than 1500 researchers act as scouts to portray every one of the 600,000 players on the game database as accurately as possible. Because of the sheer number of players on the game, occasionally those at Sport Interactive get it wrong. The likes of Freddy Adu, Cherno Samba and Sharbel Touma are testament to this. All three are cult legends that never made the grade in reality.
Macintosh tells me that his favourite ever FM player is Michael Duff on Championship Manager 1998. While not hitting the heights of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – perhaps Football Manager’s greatest piece of early age scouting – Duff’s career (he now captains Burnley in the Premier League) is a prime example of Football Manager’s unrivalled attention to detail.
However, the most curious name to come from the world of the game may well be Vugar Huseynzade, the Azerbaijan-born Swede, who in 2012 got the manager’s job at FC Baku off the strength of his Football Manager ridden CV. He beat former European Player of the Year Jean-Pierre Papin to the job.
Managing in the real world has not been as straightforward as Huseynzade had hoped. Macintosh points out that the one area where FM will never match reality is in the challenge of “standing in front of a room full of enormous blokes telling them what to do and hoping they won’t hit you.” This is one area where the amateur boss has had to adapt. After giving his team a rollicking following a heavy defeat, his players revolted and caused the manager to totally adjust his style. As Macintosh highlights, “the game now reflects that sort of thing. If you don’t have a reputation, the players won’t accept you shouting at them.”
As a fellow lover of the game, speaking to Iain is both fascinating and entertaining. I play FM for the same reason that everyone else does. For so many who dream of being a footballer or manager, this is often the closest and most realistic way of doing it. It provides the same emotional rollercoaster that you get, sitting in row Z on a Saturday afternoon.
Yet, for all of the game’s benefits and qualities, with FM15 flying off the shelves, Macintosh does finish our interview with a warning to students.
“I used to stay up until 4am playing Championship Manager 97/98 and I missed an entire module because I couldn’t wake up at 9am. Eventually, due to that and many other reasons, I failed my degree.
“Still, it wasn’t all bad news. I won the UEFA Cup with Southend United.”
Photographs: Sport Interactive