INSIDE STORY: How Football Manager turned fantasy into reality

Alam Khan - Reporter 07:16 08/11/2016
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  • When France striker Antoine Griezmann was starring at Euro 2016, his preparations were helped by plotting a Premier League and Champions League double as manager of Arsenal. Sound strange? Well, reality and fantasy are often blurred by a game that has captured the hearts, minds and hours of many.

    Such is the popularity of the Football Manager franchise that Griezmann showed off his Gunners exploits while at the finals. It matters not, though, that you are one of Europe’s best frontmen, a pop icon such as Robbie Williams, or a taxi driver in Jebel Ali, this is a personal haven for football followers, where anyone can take charge of their heroes.

    Cited in 35 divorce cases, it is an addiction like any other, but fun and fanciful.

    It was spawned in the Shropshire bedroom of teenage brothers Paul and Oliver Collyer, a passion that soon became a pioneer in sports video games with their development company, Sports Interactive (SI).

    As avid fan and ESPNFC journalist Iain Macintosh recalls, their first simulation game, then called Championship Manager, simply whetted the appetite when it was launched in 1992.

    “It didn’t even have real player names, just numbers, and only 80 teams,” he says. “You were in your own little world and it was wonderful.”

    But it needed the arrival of Miles Jacobson, a former A&R manager, to drive the game commercially. Trading two tickets to a Blur concert, his thoughts as a tester on Championship Manager 2 paved the way for a partnership with the Collyers that has led to an OBE for Jacobson and MBEs for the Everton-following brothers for services to the gaming industry.

    With Jacobson’s business acumen, the series grew until 2004 when there was a split with publishers Eidos Interactive. Subsequently backed by SEGA, it was rebranded as Football Manager with the SI team keeping the source code and database.

    Eidos kept the Championship Manager title and produced a rival product, and Jacobson admits “it was incredibly scary” to reboot.

    “If you talk to anyone who has spent 10 years building up a brand and been successful and they can’t use that brand anymore then of course they are going to be worried about it,” SI’s Studio Director told Sport360 as Football Manager 17 was launched last week.

    “But we were very firm believers that the game was the most important thing, the community was the next most important thing and the team third most important. Thankfully, we kept all three together.

    “The first FM 2005 game was superb and the community came with us. We certainly proved a lot of people wrong, who believed the brand was the most important thing. But the brand is never more important than the product. At the time we sold the business to Sega there were 35 of us in the studio, 30 of them are still in the studio and we have 130 people in total now.

    “I don’t think we even realise now how big it’s become. We still make the game for us and it just so happens there are lots of people out there who want to play it as well. Effectively we have become part of the football industry now rather than just a computer game, with clubs using our data.”

    Premier League Everton are one, but bosses, players, scouts, analysts, journalists and fans have garnered knowledge on worldwide talent and little-known foreign teams through statistics from around 1,300 FM researchers to make it part game, part database.

    Jacobson, a Watford supporter, describes himself as a ‘data geek’ and adds: “If you talk to people who started Opta, ProZone, Amisco; they will all say we were a big influence on them wanting to do it.

    “We’ve got a 99.5 per cent strike rate with our data. There are always reasons for players who don’t make it, but at least we are not spending tens of millions like certain football clubs.”

    But FM is more than just data. There’s heart, hope and hurt.

    “It’s escapism, a chance to do something they want to be doing for real,” says Jacobson. “Certainly in Europe, there are phone-in radio shows where people complain about players, managers, transfers; the game gives you the chance to see if you can do a better job.”

    Macintosh concurs. Author of books such as ‘Football Manager Stole My Life’, he has sacrificed study for success in the game, and revelled in the moment he led boyhood heroes Southend United, complete with ex-Chile striker Ivan Zamorano, to UEFA Cup glory.

    “You are not just throwing down a team and playing a computer-generated opponent, but immersing yourself in your own personally-tailored football universe,” he says. “Once that game starts its completely different to anyone else’s. I think the key has always been that this game is cruel, capricious and nasty and if you are not doing well, it will literally sack you and stop you playing. You need to win because you need to continue, just to be in the game, let alone master and excel in it.

    “The first book we did, ‘Football Manager Stole My Life’, I actually spoke to a psychologist about FM and asked him, ‘is it an actual addiction? And he said, ‘yes it is’.

    “It’s like any other addiction, like when you receive a positive re-enforcer like a drag on a cigarette. Or in my case, winning a match on Football Manager. You get pleasure, take pleasure from that and want that pleasure again.”

    Input from 1,500 footballers, more than 2,500 real clubs to manage, improved training and tactics, a 3D match engine, enhanced media and transfer options have all added to its appeal.

    FM17 also has a Brexit module with the UK leaving the European Union, and the impact that will have on obtaining a work permit for new signings.

    Jacobson and the SI team are always planning ahead, keen to develop. Having looked at trying to replicate the FM model in US sports such as ice hockey and baseball, Jacobson says they found Americans, “liked action rather than thinking too much”.

    But there is still room for the FM franchise – which also includes mobile, touch and online options – to grow, particularly in the Middle East.

    While Omar Abdulrahman is available to buy at £1.8 million (Dh8.3m), most other UAE stars and the Arabian Gulf League have to be added via the custom tool.

    Jacobson adds: “In South East Asia, in Korea, we do quite well, China we do OK, but the Middle East is a market that hasn’t played the game very much.

    “But it’s difficult for us because we don’t have a local distributor and we don’t do a lot of marketing over there so it’s as much our fault that people are not playing it. While we have been going for 24 years, hopefully we have got room to grow in other regions.”