In truth, the title of this article is both a rhetorical question and a cry for help. Usually around this time of year when there’s footy on the TV and rain and darkness outside, I fire up my Football Manager 2014 save file and jump back in. And every year I wonder why.
The Football Manager series is a triumph of substance over style. A singularly unsexy game, its endless statistics necessitate a presentation style which could politely be described as ‘functional’, and is in stark contrast to the slick, swooshing menus of EA’s FIFA series. Yet Football Manager may be unparalleled when it comes to replicating the raw, irrational emotion that football evokes.
For the uninitiated, Football Manager is (as the name suggests) a football management simulator, where players take charge of a football club and try not to run it into the ground. In it, you’re responsible for transfers, tactics and team selection, as well as handling other more day-to-day issues like maintaining squad morale, player development and injuries (oh, the injuries). Come match days, games are played out in a real-time simulator, during which you can make substitutions and other tactical changes. There are also a lot of press conferences and team talks and so on, although these can usually best be handled by selecting the second option from the response list.
Essentially that’s it. At its heart Football Manager is just a giant spreadsheet, vast and unknowable. Numbers for player abilities, numbers for how well they did in a game, numbers for how happy the club’s board is. At its worst, so much of what happens – from outcomes of games to how your players develop as their careers progress – feels less dependent on your input and more down to the vagaries of an arcane and fickle random number generator. When you replay the same match with the same teams and tactics on the same day five times and get five different results, you begin to question how effective what you’re doing actually is. I can’t even remember why I bought the game in the first place. Stupid game.
This, though, is part of what makes Football Manager such a great simulation. At many points, you end up acting as a fan as much as a manager. Every sports fan will have moments when they question why they bother investing the amount of time, money and emotion their team or player of choice demands of them. They will look at their sport, break down its rules to its simplest form and shake their head in self-disbelief. “They’re just kicking balls around”, they’ll mutter while complaining again about how the players are overpaid for doing so. But that’s not why they watch or why they come back. They come back for the wins and trophies, the new records and the outstanding performances.
While Football Manager has no narrative, it is terrific at creating stories. Tales borne out of cruel last-minute defeats and of glorious victories. Like when my team lost the FA cup final to a fluke goal in the last minute of extra time, or when my team overturned a 5-0 first leg defeat to win 6-5 on aggregate – a perfect example of the quirky maths at the game’s heart if ever there was one. I say “my team” there deliberately because I can’t help but become attached to the squad I’ve built. I think this is in part down to the combination of large amounts of information being provided and the absence of any sophisticated visuals; my brain can’t help but fill in the gaps and project personalities and relationships that don’t actually exist.
Although the game starts with real-life players and team rosters accurate at the time of release, as seasons wear on the game generates its own pool of young players to back-fill as the real players enter retirement. Scouting and recruiting the more talented CG players is, for me at least, a big part of the fun, and watching as your squad improves and performs better over time is oddly rewarding.
Because selecting players is often the only thing you have absolute control over, it’s very satisfying when it works out well. When you win an important game, there is a real sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, as you don’t control players during matches, you’re forced to act and feel more like a spectator – and that lack of direct control can be immensely frustrating when things are going badly.
It’s these stories and my attachment to my team which is why I’m still playing the 2014 iteration of Football Manager. While more recent releases have improved on the presentation and added multiple new features (the random Brexit generator of 2017 onwards is especially interesting), I can’t leave my squad behind. I could use the database editor to add them all in to a new version, but aside from the fact it would take bloody ages, deep down I’d know they aren’t the same; they’d be good players but walking shadows nonetheless. It means the Champions Cup (FM doesn’t have a licence for the Champions League) my team won would never have happened. My Uruguayan wonder winger Jose Fernandez, on whom many a victory has depended, would never have existed. Ultimately, I’m in too deep. I’ve over-committed. The thought of starting over from scratch is too much to bear. I will forever remain a one-club man. Unless I’m sacked, obviously.
Yes, it may not be great to look at, and just describing it here is enough to make me question all over again why I play it at all, but it’s the level of emotional engagement Football Manager generates that is key to the game’s continuing success – and why there’s usually at least one FM game in or around the top end of the Steam consecutive player count. People care about their teams, and they want to find that next star midfielder, win the league or avoid relegation. It taps into that same well of illogical enthusiasm as actual sport; I’ve rage quit from Football Manager 2014 far more than any FPS or multiplayer game, and I have literally leapt to my feet in joy, too. If that isn’t the sign of a successful sports simulator, then I don’t know what is.
Follow A Most Agreeable Pastime on Twitter: @MostAgreeable