Along with my younger brother, I was adopted at 10 years old. My life was transplanted from the busy urban area of Portsmouth, that houses the Fratton Park football stadium and St Mary's Hospital, to the altogether leafier, greener climes of a village in northern Hampshire with a population of a few hundred.
Everything changed. The paving slabs gave way to grass and mud, in place of corner shops and tower blocks were a church and a village hall, and waits between buses were measured in hours not minutes. Hanging out on street corners wasn't an option anymore—there were only two streets, and the closest loitering spot available was more of a gentle curve than a corner proper.
One of the most important factors when it came to dealing with these changes was my introduction to the Championship Manager series. I'm sure that sounds as bizarre to you reading it as it seems to me typing it today, but it's true. A video game built around the administrative side of the beautiful game became a huge point of positivity in the years immediately following my adoption.
There was the small matter of having to adapt to new parents, of course, new rules of living inevitably realigning my perspective of what my life even was. That was challenging, but doable—my brother and I had spent enough years in foster care by that point that switches in our acting guardians had become standard procedure.
Less easy was adapting to a new school and making new friends. Yes, we'd been shuttled between plenty of different foster families, but we'd always remained in Portsmouth and within reach of the same schools we'd always known. Our parental changes in those days were softened by the consistency in our friendship groups.
Post-adoption I needed to figure out how to start from scratch with new peers, though, a task made more difficult given the difference in our respective cultural upbringings. And it's here that Championship Manager played a defining role.
In Portsmouth, I was a master of stealing sweets and drinks from supermarkets. I would try to sneak into the football stadium every other weekend, and once came extremely close to being run over by a car while legging it from a maximum-security inmate in the making.
These weren't activities my new peers were familiar with—not because they were cherubs, but because they weren't regularly exposed to supermarkets, a football stadium or busy roads. They simply didn't see those things on a daily basis. Instead, they knew how to cross a field without getting smacked by a horse, and were starting to learn from their older brothers which wild mushrooms would kill you and which would send you on a spirit walk.
Championship Manager represented a key turning point in my ability to bond with kids who were otherwise difficult to empathize with and, at times, understand from an aspirational and cultural perspective.
What we had in common was an appreciation of football and, to a lesser extent, an interest video games. I had been exposed to them prior to my adoption, having spent time with the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive, but I'd never had a proper system of my own. Moving foster family meant leaving these systems behind.
I do remember at some point having a Sega Game Gear, but I remember more vividly not being able to ever use it properly—the six double-As it needed ran out within about 20 minutes, and batteries weren't as easy to steal as chocolate bars.
The closest I had gotten to prolonged exposure to video games was watching the biological son of one of my foster families play Kevin Keegan's Player Manager for hours on end on his SNES, a game that I would bring up when trying to impress my potential new friends in the village and at its nearby school. Given that most of them liked video games and football, I thought this was the perfect way to break into the group.
They hadn't heard of it, alas—but in reply, they made me aware of Championship Manager, another management simulator available for home computers. That new knowledge represented a key turning point in my ability to bond with these kids who were otherwise difficult to empathize with and, at times, understand from an aspirational and cultural perspective.
That was late 1995, possibly early 1996, and Championship Manager 2 had just recently been released. My new parents had a PC in the house and agreed to get a copy of the game for my brother and I to play.
Championship Manager 2 was an instant revelation to me at that time. Never before had I played a game that was so sophisticated in its ability to tell stories, so robust in its wealth of interaction options, so trusting in the intelligence of its players and so beautifully communal despite a lack of genuine multiplayer options. It was far in advance of anything I had played before when it came to stirring up your imagination and engaging your mind.
To this day I stand firmly by the idea that the Championship Manager series, and Football Manager that has since taken over, remains the best and most complex roleplaying and storytelling games ever made. Nothing comes close in providing genuine player agency in both immediate interactions and long-term interpretation. Maybe EVE Online does, but that's still a maybe .
Related, on Waypoint: My Obsession with a Fictional 'Football Manager' Megastar
Here was a game that was all about the provision of stories set in a world that everyone already loved, with your actions determining the course of an alternative vision of our reality. I used to play for as many hours as possible—not only because I loved the game as an isolated artifact, but because the more I could play the more stories I would have to tell the next day in the playground, or on the school bus.
I could boast about successes, come up with convoluted tales to hide my failures, provide tips and trade ideas about how to be a better manager, or give advice on which players to sign. Others in the school would do the same, the conversation between groups acting as a public forum in which everyone was equal and everyone was listened to, and this became the perfect scenario for me to make new friends.
It didn't really matter if you had actually convinced Eric Cantona to re-join Leeds United or done so well at Bolton Wanderers that Manchester United were ready to fire Alex Ferguson and give you his job. What mattered was that the game inspired enthusiastic chatter that created new bonds.
And bonding with new friends helped enormously when it came to getting through the tough early years after being adopted. Ten is an age when you're well aware of the situation happening around you, and no longer immune from the emotional upheaval it causes.
As an added bonus, playing Championship Manager didn't bring with it the baggage of potential childish mockery for being a "geeky" video game fan. Almost everyone I knew who liked football was playing Championship Manager—it wasn't really a "game" to them. The video game hardcore in school did see it as a game, though—but that only made you okay in their book, too, especially when you really got into the minutiae of the previous night's events.
It was one of those rare games at the time that brought the mini-jocks and nerds together and, as such, was perfect for trying to fit in with as many people as possible. This sounds shallow, of course, but in my position as a newcomer and someone desperate to make friends, not being excluded was important to me.
To me, Championship Manager is the game that isn't—that wasn't—really a game at all. It's a means of creating a connection with other people and feeling close to them through the sharing of a common interest. Its openness facilitates that better than anything else I've played, and without it I can't help but think the 10-year-old me would have had a harder time.