A Numbers Game: why the maths behind old sports games make them priceless pieces of history

FMIf you’ve ever sifted through the pre-owned section of your local games store, or scrolled through the seemingly endless video game listings on ebay, you know just how little value we as people place on old sports games.  Every year like clockwork, developers and publishers push out a new version of their sports simulator, while the old versions are traded in to get yellow stickers slapped on the front of them and are sold for a dime a dozen.  It’s a sad sight, but one that’s inevitable when you consider how quickly rosters become outdated, and how much money there is for companies that revise them.  It’s the way of the world.

But as historical records I am fascinated by these obsolete pieces of plastic.  Aside from giving us the ability to recall and replay our favourite sporting moments with our favourite athletes, it also gives us an insight into multiple unrealised realities. They are the version of reality driven by enormously complex algorithms, based on estimations of any particular athletes’ perceived strengths and weaknesses in any given year. These old games are at the very least a piece of history and tangible realisation of sentiments around players and teams in that year. But if you think about the potential behind these enormous mathematical machines they are so much more. And it’s all in the numbers.

These old sports games are ways to track how players rose and fell, and for that reason alone they are priceless.  Every year these stats and attributes sheets are painstakingly filled out by teams of people, capturing every nuance behind a player’s behaviour on – and increasingly off – the pitch. But behind all of this was a predictor of future success – a  ‘potential’ stat acting as an upper bound and in a lot of ways an error margin for player development.  We all know Lionel Messi turned out to be one of the greatest players ever to don a pair of shin pads, but that was never going to be a given.  Injuries, poor form, poor training, low morale – all of these things contribute to how good ol’ Messi could’ve turned out.   It is from these numbers that, in conjunction with player action, the world takes shape.  Every time the little loading disc spins, and the splines are reticulated, the game is performing probably hundreds if not thousands of equations to find one of probably infinite possible outcomes for each and every fixture.  This may be in some ways no different to most games that we play and enjoy, but there’s something about seeing into the machine and watching those cogs turn and the numbers play out, that makes it more mesmerising if brave.

And of all the sports simulators on the market Sports Interactive’s Football Manager wears its numbers most proudly on its sleeve. Rather than hiding its mathematical prowess behind a series of slightly more abstracted 1’s and 0’s, it practically made an artform out of keeping its numbers at front and centre. It is as mesmerising as it is a masterpiece, and anyone that has ever played Football Manager and has even a passing interest in the sport will tell you of their time on with it like they were Sir Alex Ferguson sitting on the sidelines of Old Trafford leading their team to victory. Of course what they really mean is they stared at numbers on a spreadsheet for hours on end. It is the most beautiful game of the beautiful game.

And that’s because staring at spreadsheets is a fine art.  Taking punts on a young talent is one of the more satisfying feelings, and I’m convinced that balancing your team subject to budget constraints is the way algebra should be taught in school.  Watching what plays out season after season, as youth become senior players and new blood comes into the squad is what gives the game legs and keeps people coming back year after year.

While perhaps not as mathematically complex as the Football Manager games, more ‘active’ sports games also provide this same sense of satisfaction, particularly as the games get more advanced.  Creating the ultimate team in Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 means more now than it did in Pro Evolution Soccer because the inherent function driving the outcomes of each player’s statistics is more complex.  In some ways it is seemingly more random, but that is a far better reflection of the world of sport than predictability.  In FIFA 2004 I built Feyenoord into the ultimate team of Dutch superstars and was unbeatable.  But as history has shown, that same team of superstars didn’t manage to win the World Cup is testament to just how many outcomes there can be when mathematics are involved.  When people say ‘on paper they are the best team’ they’re talking numbers, and as almost every sport on the planet has shown, the number’s don’t always add up.  Favourites are only favourites on paper.

And that’s why there’s something immensely satisfying going back and playing old Football Manager games or other long-running sports series.  Going back to Football Manager 2006 and buying up Messi for a bargain basement price of 5 million pounds knowing he became the superstar is a fascinating experiment, and one that only these old sports titles afford us.  Going back and playing through Ronaldinho’s glory years in Pro Evolution Soccer 5 or the FIFA series equivalent is a nostalgic trip, but it’s also ways to change history.  Ronaldinho didn’t have the long and prosperous career many had hoped, but in your world, that Ronaldinho of 2005 can fully realise his potential and bask yourself in the glory associated with it.  It’s that amazing feeling of leading your team to victory that hasn’t changed throughout the history of sports games, and one that keeps people coming back year after year to trade in their old copies for a cool ten bucks of the newest version.

But when you remove the player names, the teams and the glory,  it’s actually the numbers and the maths that keeps people coming back.  It may say Manchester City or Southampton at the top of the screen, but it’s really the numbers behind the scenes that makes the game so compelling.  It’s because football in a lot of ways Football Manager is an enormous forecasting tool, and one where you can prove your mettle against real life Football Managers, in a virtual way.  But it is also a fixed point from which various realities are created.  As the numbers crunch and goals are scored, it is effectively creating one version of a reality that could’ve played out, leaving other realities behind.  If you’re into time travel, or multiple realities or dimensions – or just nuts about numbers and probability – sports games should automatically tickle your fancy.  And when the real outcomes are known, which is the case with older sports games, it is effectively like watching a Doctor Who episode.  Only more athletic.

Games are fundamentally built on mathematics, and our behaviour in those games is driven by numbers.  We all chose the Chicago Bulls in NBA Jam because the numbers were higher,  and we all min max in role playing games because statistically it serves our path through the game better, and we all made Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed in NHL ’94.  But it is when these numbers are transparent that things get interesting.  To think that people are watching players and ranking them on countless attributes is an amazing thought, one that is a tangible record of how players were regarded.  But the idea that we can travel back in time and change sporting history is one that I quite simply cannot ever get over.  And so while these games change and evolve, leaving the antiquated mechanics of their forbears in our wake, I can’t help but feel that their intrinsic value of these games as time machines is higher than their pre-owned labels indicate.  As games they may not be up to snuff, but as an electronic abacus and forecasting tool, they’re absolutely priceless.