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How Football Manager Has Changed the Sport

With the latest edition released today, Alex Woodward assess the impact Football Manager has had on the beautiful game.

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Image Credit: Camille Gévaudan

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article has NOT been paid for or endorsed in any way by Sports Interactive or Sega, everything in the article is the opinion of the author.

Today, the latest edition of Football Manager, Football Manager 2020 was released on PC and Mobile. The 27th edition of the game spanning back to 1992, since then the game has gone on to get a worldwide fan base of passionate managers logging millions of hours each year. Even the day before the release of the new game, with the beta having been out for weeks, Football Manager 2019 was the 14th most played game on Steam, which was surprisingly low and highest single-player game, like it had been for most of the year. The game has been mentioned in divorce papers, been used in CVs and resulted in the hiring of actual managers. When Gareth Barry signed for Aston Villa, he demanded that the team coach have plugs so that he could play the game on his laptop when travelling to matches.

This is all very surprising considering how the game started, a simple idea for a text-based football management game spanning England’s top four tiers with fake players. Sports Interactive, the game’s publisher, was started in a bedroom by Paul and Oliver Collyer whilst they were still in school, with the desire of making a football game that would place your manager at the centre of a footballing universe. After being rejected by most major gaming companies, most notably Electronic Arts, Championship Manager, as it was then called was finally published on the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST (note: Championship Manager games from the 2005 edition onwards have nothing to do with the current Football Manager series). The game wasn’t special, featuring no graphics, no players from outside of England (not even fake names) and just three bars for
possession, a scoreboard and a commentary box that would be used occasionally. Since then, the game has blossomed to have 51 leagues, a match engine created by using actual player animation and the option to micromanage every single aspect of the club.

From the start, the main aim was that Football Manager was going to be as realistic as possible. To get to this goal, Sports Interactive created the database. At the last count, there were over 1300 researchers in over 50 countries including avid enthusiasts willing to watch any random team to professional consultants. By comparison, in a 2017 article Tom Markham of Sports Interactive claimed that Manchester City only had 40 scouts globally. The researchers log every individual attribute of a player, their stats and even smaller details such as who they support, what this leads to is millions of data points on hundreds of thousands of players all over the world, detailing the overwhelming majority of them with high accuracy. It’s no wonder then that professional teams have jumped on the database that drives the game. Whilst at Tottenham, Andre Villas Boas admitted that Football Manager had helped guide decisions about transfers. Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solsksjaer has said it’s what made him decide that he wanted to pursue a career in football management, a man called Matt Neil was able to land a job with Plymouth Argyle as an analyst after religiously documenting the club for Football Manager and most impressively a man called Vugar Huseynzade got the top job at FC Baku through how well he had done on the game. My personal favourite story though is Alex McLeish, then manager of Rangers, being told by his son about a 13 year old at Barcelona who was great in Football Manager, he suggested that Rangers look into him, Alex McLeish obviously didn’t pay too much attention but that 13 year old was Messi. In 2014 Huddersfield Town became the first high profile club to sign up to Prozone’s Recruiter tool, which was heavily based off of the Football Manager database, inspiring the signings that would eventually guide the club to promotion. The database allows clubs to search for players with the exact parameters that they want, once the list has been narrowed down enough, clubs can send scouts to observe the player in full. By using the database, clubs can cast a much wider net than conventional scouting alone could do, and by buying a license for Sport Interactive’s database, they save a lot of money compared to having to try and build something of a similar size themselves. Most sports in recent years have been moving to analytics driven forms of team building and
management, whether it’s Moneyball in MLB, the creation of the Chicago Blackhawks dynasty in NHL or all of the data that is now vital to successfully run an F1 team, the Sports Interactive database has been a large driving factor in football analytics. Teams like Huddersfield, Brighton and Liverpool have all benefitted by shifting to an analytics style of team management, and whilst the latter cannot be attributed to Football Manager, many smaller clubs are seeing better returns for their investments and scouting and signing smarter thanks to the game’s database.

The impact of the game doesn’t just stop with professional clubs though, the game has had a notable impact on the way fans see the game as well. Younger fans, a lot with
the help of Football Manager, are a lot more clued up on tactics, transfer and team rules and players from leagues and youth teams all over the world than fans of football from 30 years ago would have been. Terms like Enganche, Mezzala and Regista are all terms in the popular football nomenclature and as a result of the push for analytics, websites like WhoScored and expected goals are very popular for the average football fan, whilst all of this can be in no way attributed to Football Manager, at least not exclusively, it is all part of a wider footballing culture that wants to know as much information as possible. Finally, Football Manager can be partially credited with the rise of AFC Wimbledon,
with the game’s developers giving the team a large cash injection in the early days that the club have attributed to their success.

So, another season starts, as managers around the world prepare to once again take theirteams from the lower leagues of football and turn that team into an all-conquering powerhouse that Real Madrid or Barcelona could never be able to hold themselves up to. Whether it’ll be Leeds, York or a team plucked from the Norwegian fourth tier, millions of trophies are going to be won. Whilst they do that, teams will be using it to scout their next stars and players will be using it to start arguments in the dressing room as to who really is the fastest player in the team. What comes next for the iconic game series is unknown, but there are two things that are for certain. One, it is not just glorified speadsheets and two, if you’ve not figured it out by the mere existence of an over 1,100-word article dedicated to it, I’ll be spending many hours of my final year at University playing it.

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