Soccer's New Reality Surpasses Games' Wildest, Most Excessive Dreams

Realistically modeling a game so flooded with money that it has lost touch with reality.

by Ian Williams
Nov 22 2017, 6:00pm

FIFA 18 screenshot courtesy of Electronic Arts

A brief explanation of how the world’s gone mad in unexpected places: In soccer, players are rarely traded. Instead, their rights are sold for sums of cash, whereupon the player negotiates terms with the new team. The entire soccer economy is underpinned by this system of exchanges. If you’re a small club with a good reputation for bringing up young talent, you can make a sustainable go of things, for instance.

For the better part of a decade, there was a rough 100 million euro ceiling to these deals. Those fees were for the once-in-a-generation talents: Cristiano Ronaldo was 94m€, Gareth Bale 100m€, and Paul Pogba 105m€. But the vast majority of players didn’t come close; for years, a good player might run 20-30m€, with varying degrees of just above and below that for the majority of top flight players.

That system drastically changed last summer. Paris Saint-Germain, a hyper-rich club owned by Qatari interests, dropped a whopping 220m€ on Neymar, Barcelona’s megastar and heir-apparent to Lionel Messi. Then they committed themselves to 180m€ for 18 year-old Kyllian Mbappe. The specifics of how PSG were able to do this aren’t important here. All that matters is that they did, and obliterated the expectations of how soccer transfers work in the process.

Football Manager 2018 screenshots courtesy of SEGA

Now, with no apparent spending limits and a flood of television money into the top leagues (especially the English Premier League), every transfer fee has risen dramatically. Which is where games come in.

FIFA and Football Manager are two of the biggest global releases of the year. The formula that they’ve known and worked under for years no longer applies, and they’ve had to adjust accordingly. While FIFA is a more straightforwardly arcadey sports game and seems to have simply upped players’ asking prices (EA declined to set up an interview), Football Manager aims to be the most realistic sports sim in the world. The Football Manager team needed more than just bigger numbers, they needed a holistic view of what those numbers mean and where the very real money they represent ends up.

“My initial reaction was how are Paris Saint-Germain going to pass financial fair play [ ed note: FFP is a largely ineffective system aimed at keeping too much money being spent on transfers and wages compared to intake]. That was the very initial one,” Miles Jacobson, studio director of series developer Sports Interactive, recalls. “Then it was oh shit, I better talk to Keith [Flannery]. Keith’s the guy who does the transfer AI inside the game.”

The AI had to be adjusted because a transfer on the scale of Neymar’s move wasn’t just improbable, it was impossible. The numbers driving the Football Manager engine didn’t go high enough to allow it in past years. Jacobson, who approaches the game with an eye toward as much realism as he can muster, only saw one transfer top 150 million pounds in last year’s version in all the years he simulated. The changes were going to have to be fairly drastic.

He explained that transfers in Football Manager are largely based on two numbers: the actual value of the player’s outstanding contract and a more nebulous transfer value, which is what the selling club will actually sell a player for. There has to be some alignment between those two numbers for a transfer to happen and, prior to the summer of 2017, it just didn’t seem like the 200 million range was ever going to happen.

“It’s possible that Neymar’s value might be more than 200 million pounds inside the game, but it means he wouldn’t get a move because the bids would just get turned down. So it was a case of changing the top end bell curve in the equation to insure that the deal would go through, and to give a little bit of room for even higher transfers to go through as well,” explains Jacobson. “The Neymar deal was concerning, but it was actually less concerning than some of the other deals which went through, where players who would’ve moved for maybe 20 to 25 million were being looked at as 30 to 50 million pound players. There are a lot more players who are in that range, so changing that particular part of the bell curve was a lot tougher for our AI team.”

These were "good, but not great" players moving for what would be outlier money just a couple of years ago. Gylfi Sigurdsson is a good example. A midfielder from Iceland, he’s a totally solid player in his prime who went for superstar money (40 million pounds) to an Everton flush with cash from the EPL’s sky high television deals and the sale of their star striker, Romelu Lukaku, a great player in his own right who nonetheless flirted with the 100 million mark against expectations.

“There were a lot of football transfers that happened last summer which I would report to clubs as bugs because they’re things which never should’ve happened in real life. But they did,” says Jacobson.

In other words, soccer reality broke in 2017, torn open by the strangeness of global capitalism and national pride (PSG is, in large part, an extension of the Qatari sports ministry). Sports Interactive’s stated aim is to make the “most realistic and immersive” sports sims available. But what does “realistic” even mean when individual soccer players are going for such huge sums? It’s one thing to attempt to model a largely rational slice of the world. Is it worthwhile or even fun to model the slice as it becomes increasingly irrational?

To some extent, that’s what game designers do. Is it “fun” to drive a realistic car for real-life days across the United States in a video game, or is it necessary to tweak the realism down for the sake of enjoyment? At every turn, there’s a decision to be made: the height of a mountain, the trajectory of bullets, or the inner workings of soccer.

For Sports Interactive, the fudging happens with injuries, primarily, in contrast with their attempts at strict fealty to the increasingly bizarre finances of real world soccer.

“With Football Manager, we’re trying to simulate the real world and there are very few areas where we would fudge it to try to make it more fun,” says Jacobson. “Injuries are one, which are set at about 80% of real life levels, because if they were set at 100%—and maybe they will be someday–but if they were we wouldn’t be able to cope with the complaints. Because there’s a perception issue that happens, as well, with Football Manager. Because the real life football season is played across a year—a season is around 305 days—having a bunch of injuries across 305 days seems like a lot less than having the same number across 15 hours of playing a season.”

"Perception" is very selective, according to the above quote. Note that the economics, which are alarming, are not being appreciably altered. The spiraling costs aren’t like injuries; they are, implicitly by their unmodified inclusion, “fun” in a way injuries are not; at the least, they don’t impinge on the playability of Football Manager.

We are not, of course, football managers when we play, but we sure do like to pretend. The idea of wearing a suit and tie to a simulated tournament final has entered the Football Manager community’s lore, and the costs of Neymar and the other overly expensive players is both fun and the type of realism Sports Interactive is clamoring for.

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Perception in this game works on other levels, too. It’s not bragging when Jacobson tells me about chatting with the CEO of a Premier League club about the various ways transfer fees are boosted for the richer-than-the-continent English clubs. It’s his job, but it’s also their job to talk to him. Because Football Manager isn’t just perceiving and translating the weird reality of modern soccer; it’s creating it, too. Clubs use the series to help scout new players and plan matches. It’s symbiotic at this point and blurs the line between the facts of the convoluted world of real life soccer and the relatively simple equations of Football Manager, until they fold into one another, a gestalt of market, game, reality, and unreality.

An interesting question arises in light of that symbiosis. It’s certainly too much to say that the popularity of Football Manager’s particular curation of reality caused all of this, but Sports Interactive aren’t neutral observers of real soccer at this point. Because of that, there’s a worrying series of questions which begin to spring up at the margins of discussion around the game. Did the series’ bombardment of steadily increasing transfer fees over the years inure the public to the scale of the numbers at play? Is our idea of how injured our favorite teams “should” be skewed by the lowered injury rates in Football Manager? In my current game, the AI-controlled US men’s team made it to the World Cup semifinals (they didn’t qualify in the real world); that’s obviously an aberration, but the claim to as authentic a virtual world as can be made can lead the mind to wander to strange what-if scenarios as though they’re more plausible than they actually are.

Again, not in the direct sense that a scenario happened in a simulation so it must happen in real life. It’s in the slow chipping away of the wall of distinction between what we model and the thing doing the modeling. Sports Interactive should absolutely keep making the game as and how it wants; players should keep playing it (I’m already at 67 hours played). But there’s a glimpse, however brief, of how the line between artifice and reality, the reader and the author, can smudge and become indistinct, particularly when the real is becoming so much wilder than the pure fictions we’re able to concoct.