This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Football Manager 2016 arrived last November to the usual fanfare from its audience of devotees: once again, a fresh portal has been opened within an alternate future that only we (and the game mechanics) can decide. Developers Sports Interactive release each new title on the cusp of winter, safe in the knowledge that seasonal over-indulgence will render gamers physically and financially locked-down for the dark nights to follow. It's a clever strategy to be sure, but then they have been in the tactics game for a long time.
In fact it has been 20 years since the arrival of the franchise's first big success, Championship Manager 2. Since then one thing has always been undeniably clear: the game is antisocial in the extreme. By constantly activating reward-centres hardwired into a dark corner of your brain that cries 'victory at all costs!' and 'crush the opposition!', SI have created something that ranks among human civilisation's most addictive pursuits. It's a roulette wheel that never stops, but instead of watching a crappy silver pellet zip around some coloured grooves you get to witness an entire football season unfold at high speed. It's so utterly pleasurable that the mere act of buying the latest copy feels a bit taboo – brandishing it proudly over the counter is like announcing to the world, "I'm going to be locked in my bedroom alone, *wink*, for a very long time." Thankfully, nowadays you can buy it online – although that only adds to an appeal that makes furtiveness a virtue.
To tell it straight, Football Manager is a 'cult' success in a very modern sense, boasting an audience so large that it can only be described as such in the most liberal definition. It's not too difficult to see why. Firstly, it was something of a 'cult' triumph during its earlier iterations; secondly, its culture of behind-closed-doors fanaticism generates an inevitable sense of the arcane. Anyone who's ever chosen to hold in a desperate piss for several hours (or indeed, forgo sleep) in order to negotiate a particularly tricky spell of fixtures will perhaps realise that they have internalised key techniques employed by actual cults for quashing followers' willpower. Of course, this is just one of many instances in which Football Manager allows art to imitate life.
Softening the membrane that keeps fiction from reality is a key ingredient in how its gamers game. In their most recent promo, FM tell us that Bafetimbi Gomis fired up Football Manager to research his teammates-to-be at Swansea; rumours forever circulate about real-life managers using the game to road test real-life transfer plans; and every follower of the franchise has a story about 'that mate' who endured a brief psychotic episode while under its flashing-commentary influence.
Playing the latest version has always been about escaping into the deep warmth of fantasy – depending on the current fortunes of your team, you may well need it – but, in rushing towards the new, it's easy to forget about the value of what went before. The latest instalment can only hint at the unforeseeable future; if you want to learn what might have been, you'll have to root around for a copy of Championship Manager 99/00.
While the new versions are all about a re-imagined present, the beauty of CM 99/00 is that now, 17 years after the fact, it's all about an alternate past. It's like the meta-fictional novel-within-a-novel in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (or film-within-a-film, if you're watching the new Amazon series). They say, "You mean the Axis powers didn't win the war?" Similarly, after a game of CM 99/00 you ask, "You mean Leeds didn't go down and stay there? You mean Sir Alex was sacked in 2006 after a series of disastrous transfer decisions? You mean the top flight wasn't overwhelmed by private finance?"
The game is so full of sympathy for things that never happened that playing CM 99/00 up to the present day is almost unbearably cornball. It confronts you with a possible world in which transfer fees seldom rise beyond £20 million for a single player; one in which Stockport County and Oxford United are battling for position with Liverpool in the top half of the Premier League, while Chelsea have dropped out of the top flight altogether. There's a misty-eyed sentiment to it – and that's before you even look at the players.
The name Tonton Zola Moukoko has become legendary among old-school CM fans, with this humble also-ran becoming one of the greatest make-believe players of his generation. But where's the love for Gavin Holligan? A one-time hot prospect, he made a solitary substitute appearance in the Premier League before his descent into semi-professional obscurity, but will forever be destined to win World Footballer of the Year several seasons on the bounce in a far-flung and non-existent corner of the digital dreamscape. So too Andres Schmid, Robson Ponte, Johnnier Montano, Dominique Tissot – the list goes on (and believe me, it goes on) thanks to the enormity of scouting that propels the game's statistical framework. Almost every footballer of a certain age is captured in aspic, available on request, and we still stand to benefit from that fact all these years later.
Those vast scouting databases now possess an archaeological dimension that is oddly priceless. For one thing, they show us the fickle and damaging nature of fame (a lot of these would-be superstars have 'personal problems' sections on their real-life Wikipedia pages to explain why they struggled to make the impact once predicted), but other insights are also there for the reading. My personal endeavours with CM 99/00 now mean that I hold Isaac Nkubi in the highest possible regard. Most Aston Villa fans would struggle to recognise a former reserve player who never even made a first team appearance, but you too might take notice when you learn that (thanks to his lethal 20 ratings in Dribbling and Stamina) he can be transformed into a league-leading goalscorer. At a time when footballers are paid excessively, praised excessively and, let's be honest, watched excessively, it strikes me as somehow quite valuable that I would find myself honoured to shake the hand of someone who has achieved almost nothing in the game. This isn't just a fleeting phase of hero-worship either – in my old age, I fully expect to mix Nkubi up with actual legends and leave my younger relatives sniggering and terrified by the extent of my senile madness.
Since the digital economy has now carved out an obscene cash sideshow around televised football, it couldn't be healthier to have a pungent antidote to the spell it casts upon us. CM 99/00 provides a beautiful, non-existent alternative to the game's lousy historical reality.