In June 2014, England's League Managers Association and the University of Liverpool began offering a course designed for former professional players who wanted to become managers, but whose playing careers hadn't afforded them time to seek a traditional management degree. They called it The Diploma in Football Management. Think of it as a kind of finishing school; a bridge between the field and the dugout.
The 20 or so participants in the class learn a great deal about leadership and how to, say, motivate a player like Mario Balotelli. They receive tips on dealing with the pesky English media. They learn about player transfers, how to build a backroom staff, and programs for injury management. And here's where it gets interesting: last April, the course began using Football Manager, the wildly popular and beloved video game, as a classroom tool.
The game provides students with a number of "bespoke scenarios" that Tom Markham, the Head of Strategic Business Development at Sports Interactive, says a real life manager might encounter when managing in the real world: "Say, a contract negotiation. We'll build a small version of the game in whatever way the professor wants to use it."
This summer, that small version used in the course consisted of the Norwegian First Division, where guys like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Lee McCulloch—who are both currently enrolled in the program—took over teams with serious financial constraints, promoted kids from the youth divisions, sifted through the database to unearth raw talent, and dealt with untimely injuries. In short, they did something any youth who's ever come across Football Manager wished he or she could do: They played the game in school.
"It was a very good session," says Alex Smith, the LMA's Commercial Director. "It was fantastic for our members to do [the simulated work of a real manager] in the classroom setting." The group was observed by their professors and staff from Sports Interactive and were instructed on how to put what they learned in the game world to use in the real world.
Using a management simulation game to train real life managers for the real life work that's depicted in the game is the kind of snake-eating-tail scenario I'm not sure exists anywhere else, which is what makes Football Manager so fascinating. The game doesn't just simulate the world of soccer, it helps form that world. Football Manager's use in the Diploma is just one example. Beyond the University of Liverpool, the game helps clubs around the world scout players. On television, the game helps sports broadcasters compare players. And, less momentously, the game shaped my own writing career.
Let's start with the media. As 2015's deadline day approached and the rumors and gossip about what player might move where became fevered, Sky Sports used Football Manager's player database as a tool for comparing the various players at the heart of the transfer speculation: Oscar versus Pedro, say, or James Milner versus Lucas Leiva. It didn't go well. Not at first, anyway.
"To be brutally honest, there was very mixed reaction in the Twittersphere," says Markham. "People were saying, 'Why is Sky using a video game for this?'"
Sky sports news displaying footballer's stats according to Football Manager. Deadline day has jumped the shark
— Conor Seery (@posiconx) September 1, 2015
If it didn't come from a game, the database probably would have been used a long time ago. There's nothing like it in the soccer world in terms of scope or detail. The database contains about 600,000 entries, most of which are players. Each player has 250 attributes, which have been compiled by a team of about 1,300 scouts around the world. The database has been around since the 1980s, meaning there are well-established criteria for how to judge and rate a player's skills relative to the hundreds of thousands of other players in the game. And it gave Sky the ability to compare players quantitatively, something the company hadn't done before.
In response to the Twitter backlash, Markham says, "we obviously came back and said, 'Well, you know, if real clubs are using this data in varying forms, why shouldn't the media be using it?' So that was that. And [Sky] wrote a piece to sort of rubber stamp that."
By "real clubs" Markham isn't referring to Everton, or at least not just Everton. The Merseyside club made headlines in 2008 when it signed a landmark deal with Sport Interactive to use the database as a scouting tool. At the time, the soccer world thought the club's hierarchy had lost its collective mind. But since then, as the size of the database has grown, so too has the number of clubs using it to help find the perfect player.
Last year, Sports Interactive signed a deal with Prozone, a performance analysis and scouting company used by many of the world's top teams. One of Prozone's products, Recruiter, marries Football Manager's searchable database with Prozone's library of player footage and scouting reports.
"Rather than look at 20 players in one position, a club can say, okay, listen, we're looking for a left back," explains Markham. "We want him to be between 19 and 24, because we want to develop this player and possibly sell him on. We want him to be, let's just say, over six feet tall, speak French, be an EU passport holder. You can literally put all those checks into this system and then you can find players, and then you have Prozone's actual video analysis of that player."
The game's real influence as a scouting tool isn't with Chelsea or Real Madrid, teams with seemingly bottomless resources to scour the world in search of the next wunderkind, but rather with mid-level clubs who would like to recruit worldwide but can't leverage a global scouting network of their own.
"One of the great things about the Football Manager database is the sheer breadth of the information that's in there," says Pádraig Smith, the Sporting Director at one such club, MLS' Colorado Rapids. The Rapids don't work with Prozone but rather have a direct relationship with Sports Interactive, who run queries at the club's request. Or sometimes, Smith says, he'll just fire up the game and look through the database himself. "The number of leagues that are covered, the number of players that are covered, it really gives us a lot of information that can be slightly trickier to come by, and works as a nice starting point."
Smith insists the club would never sign a player off the strength of a Football Manager scouting report alone, and he declines to tell me the names of any players he's brought in or looked at with the help of Football Manager. But he maintains that the game's a great tool for finding players who, for example, meet the specific salary requirements an MLS team might require. "It provides another resource that would add to your due diligence reports," he says.
I asked him how long he's used the game as a scouting tool, and he says it's been something he's used all the way back to his days with the Irish Football Association, where he worked long before joining the Rapids.
"One of the things I found it quite useful for was going around looking at some players who maybe had links to Ireland," Smith says, "but that wasn't really my main role in the FAI." He pauses, wavers, as if remembering this is a video game we're talking about. Adults aren't supposed to play video games. Video games aren't supposed to be tools for professional use. He clears his throat and clarifies:
"That was more on a personal level," he says.
A personal level? That, I can understand.
There was a time in my life—a period of acute, mid-20s floundering—when I was fortunate to have a job that, for a period of months and for various and variously complex reasons, I couldn't actually do. I just sat there at my desk with a lot of free time. I'd spent the previous two years in graduate school studying geography because I found the academic subject fascinating, only to realize as I neared the end that I was now qualified for a career I didn't really want (sitting in an office and making maps, mostly).
Rather than face the question of whether those years were a colossal waste of time, I brought my laptop to work and immersed myself in a digital soccer universe where I stocked a lower-league European team with sure-thing, up-and-coming talent. Rather than write my Master's thesis, which I had been putting off for a while at that point, I took Salamanca, a team from the Spanish city where I'd once studied abroad, to multiple Champions League titles. Rather than polish and then try and publish some of the short stories I'd written—or, in general, figure out how to turn writing into a career, which is what I'd always wanted to do anyway—I fine-tuned a 4-3-3 system until it was so ruthlessly efficient that teams inside my laptop were lucky to score a goal against me. Losses were accidents; they didn't happen twice.
I was, for a short period, the world's only full-time, 9-to-5 Football Manager.
Because the game is based on scouting real players, I developed a knowledge of professional soccer so deeply, dorkily encyclopedic that it became a source of embarrassment. Not only did I know the names of any player of note in the top European divisions, but I could tell you where they were from, what languages they spoke, and whether they were born in the country they represented internationally. My head was filled with garbage, in other words.
And then one day at work with nothing to do but wait for things to fall into place so I could, well, work, I stumbled onto a website and my life changed. Brian Phillips, who now writes for Grantland, had just finished a year-long, 95-post history of his own Football Manager obsession. Outside of the series, he led a community of commenters and contributors who shared my knowledge of the game's minutia and wrote about it with a creative aesthetic I hadn't seen applied to sports before. Here were a bunch of writers captivated not just by the game, but by the game's global culture—by what my professors might have called the cultural geography of soccer. When I submitted a story to Brian, the first I'd ever written about sports, he didn't reject it, although he probably should have. He just added some shine and hit publish.
Games are supposed to be time-wasters, little harmless self-indulgences. But Football Manager, for me, was a kind of practical course on professional soccer, a look under the hood of a global game. It introduced me to the cast of real life characters I might not have otherwise gotten to know. It made me a tactics nerd. And it led me to sportswriting and an online community that tied everything together for me at a time when my life seemed all loose ends. I owe a little something, in other words, to a video game. I know I'm not alone. I wonder if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Lee McCulloch and the rest of their class at the University of Liverpool might tell you the same.