December 5, 2015


How Football Manager changed the game (Simon Parkin, 5 December 2015, The Guardian)

Townsend is an avid player of Football Manager, a football-themed video game that launched in 1992 under the name Championship Manager, in which he also features as a player. The simulation game has been cited in divorce papers as a contributing factor in the breakdown of two marriages to date. Every year more than eight million players log in (more than half playing on pirated copies of the game) and attempt to take their chosen club, be it one of the heavyweights of the English premiership, known as the Premier Division, in Football Manager's parlance, or a local team from some far-flung parish, to victory.

The game can appear, to the uninitiated, to be little more than a series of soccer-themed spreadsheets. And yet, within the neat rows of familiar and not-so-familiar names, a fully rounded representation of the beautiful game is hidden. Transfers, public relations, training regimes, injuries, diet: no aspect of the modern game of football is left un-simulated by Football Manager's purring algorithms. Even the matches themselves play out on screen, as players pace the living-room floor, peeking through a cage of fingers at the unfurling action. Those who succumb to the spell can find it unbreakable. In 2015, Football Manager players spent an astonishing average of 252 hours playing the game during the course of the year, a statistic that includes people who bought the game in a sale and never booted it up.

Townsend immediately recognised the headline's font. He duly tweeted a screenshot of the conversation with his girlfriend to the game's official Twitter account, along with the question: "Do you wanna tell her or shall I?" The tweet was reportedly viewed more than a million times. While the headline may have been fake, the data upon which Football Manager builds is fanatically accurate. Sports Interactive, the London-based studio behind the game, employs no fewer than 1,300 researchers around the world, ranging from bloggers who every week watch promising youngsters on the training field up to professional consultants who survey the first teams playing under the Friday night lights. Football Manager's database bulges with information on 320,000 active players, drawn from 116 divisions in 51 countries and lists up to 250 data points on each individual, such as their fitness, stamina, acceleration and speed, all of which is used to bring verisimilitude to the game.

Outside of the computer game too, Sports Interactive's vast scouting network has become a high-value asset, one that even professional recruiters such as André Villas-Boas, former manager of Tottenham, admit to using to help guide their transfer decision-making. For smaller clubs, recruiting talent from relatively obscure clubs around the world and selling them on for significant profit is an essential way to run the business. Football Manager's database offers fortune-changing tipoffs. Since Villas-Boas went public with his secret, many others have joined him. In 2013 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer credited the game with helping him to prepare for life as a manager, while, in 2008, Everton signed an official deal to use Football Manager's database to search for players and staff. When Alex McLeish was manager of Rangers, he was tipped off by his son, a keen Football Manager fan, about a young player he'd spotted playing for Barcelona B in the game. The boy urged his father to sign the player. McLeish ignored the advice, telling his son that he'd never heard of the player. In doing so, he overlooked a young Lionel Messi.

The game's database is so highly regarded that most days Sports Interactive fields a call from a sore player complaining that their stats in the game aren't accurate. "You hear about footballers racing one another in training to see whether the game is right about who is quickest," explains Miles Jacobson, Football Manager's director. "Players can get very upset."

Posted by at December 5, 2015 9:08 AM