Triumph, Football Manager style.
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The clash of data and the battle of statistics: why football management games are fun

In real life, the magic of football lies in its unpredictability. But in Football Manager, players hate elements that undermine their years of careful planning.

If it is hard to explain the appeal of football to people who don’t enjoy it then explaining the appeal of football management games is even tougher. For myself I avoided such games at first, preferring to spend my time on ones based on actually playing football, like Sensible Soccer and early the FIFA iterations where you could effectively turn off the rules in the options and then just batter everybody to ensure victory. Going from those kinds of games to number crunching was quite a leap and it took a moment of gaming zen to really open my eyes to how that sort of game could be fun.

I remember it was the league cup final, back in the year 2000, played out in a room somewhere about halfway up one of those old brick towers on the campus at the University of Essex. The game was Championship Manager 3. I was a newbie managing Manchester United, my flatmate was managing his beloved Derby County. His team had stormed into the season, buoyed by the signing of most of the obscure and undervalued super-players that littered the game, with the mighty Dejan Petkovic at the heart of this transformation. Plus, of course, he was better at the game than I was. The match played out at a slow pace with extra highlights, both of us glued to the screen waiting for the text to tell us who was attacking who as the two sides tore their opposing defences to ribbons. By the end of extra time the scores were tied at four each and it went to penalties. The penalties finished in sudden death and I won ten to nine. Which was just as well as I would never have lived it down.

That game has stuck with me all these years. Despite the fact that it was essentially a clash of data, played out between battling statistics and random numbers manifested through snippets of text, stock crowd noises and a scoreboard, it was a great moment. What made it great of course wasn’t just the match itself; it was the hours that lead up to it, the evenings spent skipping the important business of higher education and alcoholism to set the stage for an epic confrontation.

It is this capacity for creating drama out of data that has ensured the appeal of football management simulators dating back over three decades (although they are not the only games to have this trait).

It could be argued that football management simulators are a cousin of the intensely complicated strategy games often found in PC gaming, like animal species separated by tectonic shifts and evolving along different paths. Strategy games typically dealing with military campaigns or statecraft, like Victoria 2 or the bewilderingly comprehensive Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, have many elements in common with their sporting kin. Complex entities are broken down into a unifying language of numbers and then deployed by the player to best effect. Whether you’re planning a land war in Asia or a tricky away day at Stoke City the name of the game is to master these numbers and use them to secure the best chance of victory.

However, while games with a military or political setting deal with known quantities and predictable variables football is a subject noted for vexing even the sharpest minds.

Football makes fools of players, managers, pundits and fans on a regular basis. Granted, in plenty of cases this isn’t that difficult. But still you have to admire the sport for its capacity to leave its best and brightest competitors utterly flummoxed. In this season alone we’ve seen Manchester United absolutely thumped by MK Dons, and we’ve seen Chelsea turned over from a two goal advantage at home by Bradford, with Manchester City beaten at home by Middlesbrough on the same day. On paper this kind of thing shouldn’t be happening often, if ever – yet we see it all the time.

The unpredictable nature of the sport extends beyond the odd bizarre result and feeds into wider trends too. For example, a club might find its players dropping like flies from completely unrelated injuries, or a brilliant player in a key position might suddenly have a collapse in form, or a scruffy kid from the youth team might become an overnight sensation. The fortunes of a season are written in millions of little interactions and conflicts and the consequences thereof.

This propensity for the sport to take bizarre turns is part of its magic. It is a core element of the popularity of football because we all know that in football there is always that hope for something unlikely to happen. Even as greater and greater amounts of money tip the odds in the league campaigns further towards the richest of the rich, we still know that there will be times when they are humbled.

As a spectator sport this makes football extremely popular, but in a video game these unpredictable moments have the opposite effect. Players don’t want to see elements that they could not have anticipated undermine all their careful planning. A game about football, such as the Football Manager series or the manager mode built into the FIFA games, has to have a greater degree of logic to it, so it can be understood and mastered.

This is reflected in one of the chief criticisms of Football Manager last year, namely that weird things would happen. Results not going as expected, leads evaporating in the final moments, injuries from nowhere. In real life this is the charm of the sport, but in a game this is seen by many as unfair and annoying. Players want a game they can master, even if that game is based upon a sport in which mastery in real life is a complete impossibility.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the difference between reality and the game is simply demonstrated by the difficulty. There are very few truly great football managers in the real sport, and yet there are thousands of players who will comfortably be able to take a non-league side to European glory inside a decade or two.

We can say, through all the data and layers of complexity, the Football Manager series are still games much like any others. The sport provides a point of reference, the dataset and the terminology, but the game is still distanced from the subject by layers of interface and mechanics. The games fulfil a need within their players to be tested, to overcome challenges, learn a new skill and ultimately to gain the satisfaction of being good at something. Of course the something you get good at isn’t literally football management, but there are worse things in life to fill your head with than an encyclopaedic knowledge of the quickest left-footed wingbacks in the Vanarama Conference North or a hundred and one ways to park a bus.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder