I remember the very first instalment of the Championship Manager franchise, back when it debuted on the Commodore Amiga some twenty years ago. My best friend at the time and I lost more hours of our teenage lives engrossed in this game than listening to music, talking about girls, or even playing or watching actual real-life football. Like the other seminal football computer game of the era, Sensible Soccer – a game that still shits on the current supposed Gallacticos of the genre, FIFA and ISS Pro – its beauty lay in its simplicity. Pick a team, play a game, adjust your tactics, buy a new forward, win the league. Since then versions of the game have been released at an increasing rate until they are now a yearly fixture, much like the Charity Shield. Developers have argued, companies were bought out, names have changed, rivals were launched. But the game remains the same – and somehow completely different.
The latest version of Football Manager is to the original what live streaming on a Saturday afternoon is to waiting for the pages of Teletext to change. It is the ultra-modern, updated incarnation of our engagement with the world of football, one which makes its predecessors seem quaintly outmoded. Once upon a time you had to lean forward and hold down the space bar on your keyboard to rush through the text description of a match, now you watch as the 3D simulator renders the game from a variety of camera angles, depicts flares released in the stands, and perfectly captures just how annoying some goal celebrations can be. Back in the day, the end of the season would necessitate two floppy disc changes and a twenty minute wait, now you feel aggrieved if your laptop takes longer than 10 seconds to process a digital week’s worth of results. Before, only eight managers could take part therefore denying you the hate-filled opportunity to deliberately guide Manchester United into non-league obscurity; now players across the world can network online.
The grand scale of the game attempts to incorporate as much of the real world of football management as the name Football Manager would suggest. Tactics, playing styles and the transfer market are all there – much as they always have been. But now you can also monitor the reactions of the board and the fans; pick nations and regions to scout, encourage aging superstars to take up coaching roles; watch as a well-judged quiet word with a journalist impacts on the morale of the opposition, and then backfires and disrupts your own dressing room.
The vast, sprawling nature of the gaming experience is difficult to pigeon hole. It is undoubtedly a sports game first and foremost. But it could also be described as a simulator, a role playing game, a turn-based strategy game, and might even scrape into the category of massively multiplayer online game in the right circumstances. Yet the game is different from the World of Warcraft fantasy RPG style experience. And I think this is entirely down to its familiarity. I mean this in two ways.
Firstly, no matter how different the game may look to those of us who have been playing for two decades, the essentials are still the same. Yes, of course, the interface is much improved. Yes, graphics have replaced the inevitably repetitive text. And, yes, I did like the fact that I managed Liverpool so successfully that they named the new stadium after me. Taking a chance on a wonderkid or scoring a last minute winner, the unfolding drama of a season, the failures as well as the successes – these are the ingredients that keep fans coming back for more, and have been there since the game’s inception. Much like the real world of football, “improvements” (some cosmetic, some meaningful) are made from year to year. Whether you are stripping away the razzamatazz of Sky TV or the myriad of in-game options, the essential core of football or Football Manager remains much the same.
The second familiarity Football Manager brings you is familiarity with reality. The players, clubs and competitions of the game are simulacra of the real football world. In a bizarre hybridisation of The Matrix and Match of the Day the game becomes a continuation of reality by other means. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the lists of attributes and abilities assigned to each footballer in the game. This is the product of a legion of scouts who compile reports on real life players across the globe, from the established stars of the Premier League and La Liga, to the lowly youth team players of the Conference. Of course it can never be a perfect reproduction of the real world, not least of all because in Football Manager politics and sport do not mix. Tottenham never suffered a slide in form because their boss was on a tax avoidance charge. Chelsea never lost their captain to suspension after a foul mouthed racist tirade. Sunderland never appointed a fascist as a manger. It is a hermetically sealed world of football purity.
What the game could never achieve was to recreate the lived intensity most football fans experience on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Yet players bring this to the game themselves. They want desperately to win trophies with their club, to smash their real-life rivals on the screen in front of them. Why would you buy Wayne Rooney on the game when he played for them in real life? How can I purchase Fernando Torres when I still haven’t forgiven him for moving to Chelsea in the real world? The game perfectly encapsulates the irrationality of being a football fan, and takes it to a whole new level. There is no need for lucky socks, or a mad dash home from work to catch your team on television. Rather than the superstitious pre-game rituals you enter an illusion of living out your dreams, righting the wrong decisions of your team’s boss who you shout at each week from the stand or the sofa. The genius of Football Manager is that it understands we football fans are merely emotionally invested onlookers, made impotent by a game we can never control. By engaging in the virtual footballing universe it offers us the consolation of making decisions we wish we could in real life.
Its triumph and its tragedy is that it takes your alienation – this lack of power, this absence of control – repackages it and sells it back to you as a fleeting impression of empowerment. But, after all, isn’t this the very essence of a computer game?