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19 February 2015

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.

By Phil Hartup

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.

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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.

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