Inside the Cult of 'Football Manager'

Almost nothing is as addictive, apparently, as a video game that allows you to pretend that you are in charge of a soccer team.

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Nov 11 2014, 3:00pm

Tonton Zola Moukoko, the greatest Champ Manager player of all time. Photo ​via Swedish sixth-tier side IFK Lidingo

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

It seemed somewhat surreal to be sitting in a private cinema in Mayfair to watch the premiere of a 90-minute documentary about the life and times of Football Manager, the long-running simulator created by Sports Interactive. The free drinks, canapés and mingling that filled the lobby cut a sharp contrast to the game's usual accompaniments of crisps, caffeine and accidental starvation. For Football Manager—formerly Championship Manager—is a game usually played in lengthy, marathon stretches, by pale, lemur-eyed silhouettes locked safely away from the distractions of the rest of humanity.

During the post-screening Q&A session, a question about addiction was quickly shot down by Sports Interactive's studio director, Miles Jacobson. He understandably doesn't like people linking his game to the chemical imbalances in the brain and dangerously compulsive behavior that leads addicts to fixate on a specific substance or activity. Rather than compare his studio's flagship title to drugs or the fixed-odds betting terminals currently decimating the wallets of British gamblers, Jacobson prefers to describe it as being more like an all-consuming second job; a double life that comes to overtake a person's routine and day-to-day thinking. And once you've been pulled into the deep end, the lines between the virtual and the real can begin to blur quickly.

"I was addicted to it like it was cocaine!" Plan B ​told an interviewer back in 2011."I didn't come out of my house. My friends would ring up and I'd ignore their calls. They'd knock at my door and I'd say I was really ill just so I could play my game and have no interruptions." Anyone who's ever sunk any serious time into Football Manager will be able to empathize. Who needs club nights, music festivals or an active social life when you've got your very own "Big Night In" ready and waiting on your laptop? In the case of the most extreme players, interventions have taken place. ​Divorces, too. Yet almost everyone who's played the game to any serious extent will struggle to tell you it wasn't all worth it to some degree.

Football Manager is the closest gaming has come to creating the digital bender. Best played in binges, it devours time like a runaway lock-in, or a weekender that's lost track of itself. Days, weeks, shift patterns, annual leave, degrees; nothing is safe from the allure of a virtual career in soccer management. Potential formations begin appearing from your pen on the back of meeting handouts. Hurriedly scribbled player shortlists start to overwhelm the margins of official documents, coursework and paperwork.

The trailer for An Alternate Reality, the new documentary about 'Football Manager'

Turfed out the other side of an over-indulgent session, players are often left to rub their bleary eyes and assess the trail of social destruction left by their temporary lapse from everyday life. A heroic three-day run from the depths of English soccer to the heights of the Premier League can often bring about its own post-glory hangover. End of season team talks are soon replaced by terse conversations at work over slipping focus and the crushing realization of the neglected relationships left behind. A few in-game seasons spent toiling at the helm of Vauxhall Motors on their long march into the upper echelons of the game is enough to make even the most hardened night owl begin entering their name as "Tyler Durden" on the manager set-up screen.

The difference with Project Mayhem, however, is that you can talk about Football Manager without fear of being castrated by unknown associates in deep cover. In fact, the ability to sniff out a fellow player among the strangers at a party or a new office is one of the side-effects of a long and proud affiliation with the world of Deep-Lying Playmakers and Enganches.

Other games may be able to inspire similar levels of devotion and obsession from their fans, but they do so very much as computer games, wrapped up in all the cultural tropes and associations that still come with being part of medium shared by World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and their kin. Sure, gaming's never been bigger—its budgets and sales figures now dwarf Hollywood—but there's something especially mainstream about soccer games, and Football Manager seems to hold an even more unique position than the likes of FIFA and Pro Evo. It's become so ubiquitous that many of its quirks have become memes even outside of the game. The tendency for some players to ​wear a full suit to their team's cup final has become part of the game's popular mythology, while the sight of a young, unknown name and face on a pre-match line-up usually sparks up a round of jokes about ​newgens; the randomly generated youth players with ​E-fit faces that are created by the game to replace real-life players once they "retire."

Almost every game, hardcore or otherwise, is about escapism, but Football Manager—or "Champ Man" as it's still known by many of the series' most seasoned veterans—is more than just a game. Each and every saved game is a little offshoot of alt-history unique to the player that created it. As transfers are struck and goals scored, these persistent counter-factual worlds gain more and more of a life of their own. Unlike the settings of most other games, there are no pre-set objectives in the self-propelled worlds of FM. Neither are the players necessarily the protagonists by default. The simulation doesn't need human input to progress, and those who do enter its domain are left to their own devices, to decide upon their own aims and dream up their own victory conditions. It may as well be a program for generating a soccer parallel universe.

Or perhaps An Alternative Reality: the title of Sports Interactive's new documentary about their game and its rise from being a back bedroom hobby project coded by two brothers in the late 1980s into a series that has sold over 15 million copies, put out five of the 20 best-selling PC games of all-time, and topped the UK PC sales chart for over 200 weeks. Yet the film also highlights some of the most impressive feats and tales conjured up by the game and its players.

CM 03/04 hero Freddy Adu vs. Champ Manager nobody Pelé

The idea was to create "a game that carried on without you," according to Ov Collyer, who, alongside his brother Paul, coded the early prototypes of the game together for fun in a Shropshire bedroom in 1988. Inevitably, some players form bonds with clubs that carry over into the real world. Others even grow attached to certain soccer players due to their in-game accomplishments, and the virtual trophies they won together.

Soccer players have gained cult followings for their efficacy in the game. Some have become living myths due to the difference between their real-life and virtual abilities, such as former "wonderkids" Cherno Samba and Tonton Zola Moukoko. Others have matched or exceeded the game's predictions. Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale are just two of the world beaters that Football Manager players knew of as highly-rated youngsters before most other fans.

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When the time came for Tim Pyke to organize his honeymoon, so too did the opportunity to watch Nesebar in the flesh; the team he had fallen in love with in a simulated version of the Bulgarian Second Division West. After checking prices and flights, he booked a romantic retreat to the Black Sea resort where the club is based and once over there even managed to catch a game.

"People laugh at the incredulity of it all. Then I get questions about whether my wife is aware of it. They are quite shocked that I got away with it for so many years, but at the end of the day, my wife still thinks the honeymoon was great regardless of the reasons for us ending up in Bulgaria.

"With Football Manager, there is an intensity that I have never experienced with any other game. I have had Twitter conversations with lower league players about their performance for me in the game. Quite often these players are fans of the game themselves and so take an interest in how they perform virtually for other people."

Jonny Sharples took his fictional success with Gateshead further than most, ringing up the non-league club that he'd taken into the Champions League, to order a replica shirt printed with the name of his star striker, Wesley Ngo Beheng. There was one small problem with his request, however:

"I ended up speaking to the club secretary about someone who they'd never even heard of. It must have been strange for them. They knew it wasn't my name. They had that in an email. I was asking for a guy that didn't play for them.

"I don't think it's that good a story until you find out that eventually, yeah, he did just rock up at Gateshead on trial one time. I'd like to think that [after my shirt request] they googled who this 'Ngo-Beheng' person was and that's why he eventually went there. But that's probably me taking a bit too much credit for something that happened on Football Manager."

Gateshead wouldn't be the first team to base their transfer policy around the game. Under David Moyes, Everton famously licensed its database to inform their scouting network, while more recently Sports Interactive signed a deal to work with Prozone, one of the leading providers of match data and analysis to real world professional clubs. From this summer onwards, real soccer managers will be using Football Manager to assess potential signings and transfer targets.

Some people remain stubbornly immune to its charms however, and there exists a strange antagonism against the game from some quarters. Former pro turned tabloid pariah turned radio pundit, Stan Collymore, has often singled out Football Manager players as scapegoats for his complaints against modern fans. Blowhard pundits regularly deride those fans who have gained an increased awareness of the global game through playing a soccer management simulation, even when their own knowledge pales in comparison to the tips picked up through just a few thousand hours of playing. As for those who dismiss it due to its sometimes geeky presentation, in the words of The Guardian's gaming editor, Keith Stewart, who was interviewed in the documentary: "It drives you mad that people write it off as just a database. That's like looking at the novel Anna Karenina and saying it's just a collection of words on a page."

Championship Manager legend and 23-time Everton player Ibrahima Bakayoko​

Iain MacIntosh is a soccer journalist, author of Football Manager Stole My Life and long-term Football Manager obsessive. He believes that the game has changed how people view and enjoy soccer, for the better.

"It's been an avenue through which people have become more interested in tactics. The idea that you can't simply switch between, say, a back four and a back three and instantly expect it to work: little things like this begin to get engrained in soccer fans. No simulation will ever enable you to walk into a dressing room full of big, physically conditioned, hairy arsed bastards, and immediately be their boss, but they have an understanding of certain elements of pressure.

"It's a terrible thing for anyone to admit but there will often be situations in a professional manager's career where I'll think: 'I know what you're going through. I've been there.' Admittedly, it was in 2017 and I was manager of Tottenham Hotspur at the time, but I have been there, my friend. You get an awful lot of managers who will say: 'Oh, Football Manager has raised unrealistic expectations,' but I think you'd also find a lot who would say it's enlightened people into how difficult the game now is.

"In other games you don't have the same power, and yet the same powerlessness that you have in Football Manager. You can do pretty much anything, and yet when your team starts playing [a match], there's really very little that you can do directly, and in there lies the hook. There's no real way you can master it. It's different every single time. If you're playing FIFA, and you're just really good at FIFA, then obviously your team is going to outperform other teams. With Football Manager you can't do that."

These days, games are often broadly split into two camps: casual and hardcore. The former category includes the Wii and downloads like Candy Crush Saga while the latter has become something of a catch-all for pretty much everything else. There's also indie games, created by independent studios, which can fall into either or neither camp. Football Manager straddles all three like the heart of a rather specific Venn diagram. It's a supremely successful series made without the big budgets and overly-polished visuals that come with the largest studios. Sports Interactive admits that FM has long been a "graphically challenged" game compared to most of the other titles its sales compare to. In terms of gameplay, it offers the depth and level of immersion of a punishing and pedantic historical strategy game with the sort of highly accessible theme and "just one more click" addictiveness of a mass market soccer app. It attracts players who wouldn't otherwise identify as hardcore gamers—FM may be the only game they play—and causes them to behave like the most determined hobbyist anoraks.

Some people on Football Manager trying to get their own "son"

And the result has been an increased understanding of foreign and non-league soccer in the heads of those who have voyaged through every nook, cranny and level of the game. Those who have journeyed through its various league systems and competitions have often emerged at the end bristling with the sort of warm, evergreen memories others might boast about gaining amid a lost, intoxicated weekend spent in a tented field somewhere listening to Chase & Status in wellies.

" Football Manager saves, like dreams, are incredibly tedious unless they're your own," reckons ​Gareth Campesinos!, lead singer of Los Campesinos! and another Football Manager player whose habit is beyond all hope. "So by and large I tend to avoid other people's stories and try to forget that fact when I'm waxing lyrical about my 30-season-long game with Huddersfield in Football Manager 2012. Honestly, it was incredible."

Most people have got a friend or five who used to gather together for days on end to recreate their own version of Sky's Soccer Saturday when sharing a flat: each poring over their laptop until a goal was scored at Ewood Park, a penalty was given at Turf Moor, or some sort of drama had taken place at Bloomfield Road, leading to a crowd around whichever screen housed the action.

During the writing of this piece, one player made it known that he once arrived on the Isle Of Wight for a festival alone after being separated from his friends. Already a tad stupefied, he landed without the cash for a taxi to get from the port to the campsites at the centre of the island. Fortunately, thanks to his knowledge of Northern Irish club soccer, garnered from years of playing Football Manager journeymen careers that stretched far into the 2040s, he was able to befriend a group from Portadown—a town he only knew of due to his virtual managerial adventures—who shared both their transport and a bagful of MDMA with him after swapping a few good FM stories.

The tale that player Adam Clery retells from the game is of a rather different nature. With his parents away for the weekend, he decided to "suit up" to watch his team head to Wembley for the FA Cup Final rather than throw a house party, yet there were still a few too many noise problems for the neighbors to handle. Around an hour or so into the match—the intensity of which had caused Adam to wail though every single moment and pixel—the windows were flooded with blue strobe lights. The police were at the door. They'd been told there was a robbery taking place.

"I'd be lying if I didn't admit to that moment being something of an eye-opener for me. Once I'd calmed down a bit—and finished the game, obviously—I did have a quiet word with myself and decided that maybe it had gone a little bit too far. Since then, I've channelled it better. I seethe and celebrate with a degree of composure now, so my neighbors are none the wiser."

Yet along with the Prozone deal, there's another story about Football Manager that underlies just how much the boundaries between the game and the game it was designed to simulate have become. In 2002, AFC Wimbledon was formed by disenfranchised fans after their local team, Wimbledon FC, were moved by the club's new owners to Milton Keynes, to eventually become MK Dons. Sports Interactive were one of the first to get involved with sponsoring and funding the new organisation created by the fans; a link that exists to this day, with the Football Manager logo still adorning their shirts, as well as the shirts of Watford FC.

During the Q&A session that followed the documentary's premiere, AFC Wimbledon's Commercial Director Ivor Heller announced from the audience that the club had beaten "the franchise" away in Milton Keynes, to much rejoicing. In a segment of the film about the team's connection to Sports Interactive, he explained that "we always wanted to be a part of the soccer community, and I don't think there's a better way to be part of the community than to be associated with Football Manager".

Professional players and managers such as Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Alex McLeish, Demitrio Albertini, Will Hughes, Adam Le Fondre and Andros Townsend all featured in the documentary to talk about their love for the game. Andre Villas Boas has in the past claimed that it set him up for a career in soccer. Paul Pogba was spotted playing while on the plane journeys between France's World Cup matches in Brazil and Bafetimbi Gomis even admitted to scouting out Swansea City's players on the game before agreeing to sign in the summer.

As Paul Collyer put it while on camera: "We never consciously tapped into this idea that everyone wants to be a soccer manager. We did it for ourselves and our mates to be, and it just turned out that we were all quite normal."

Considering the years' worth of hours people invest in the game, it can probably never be classed as normal, but the cult of Football Manager is overall reassuringly warm and mundane, much like how a pub lock-in usually is. It's a massively single-player offline game that could yet become some dystopian science fiction nightmare that revolves around rogue software. If it did come to that, humanity might not stand much of a chance. As MacIntosh puts it: "The Football Manager engine learns by experience. It reacts to what you do, so if you crack a formation then the AI will adapt, starting first with the most tactically intelligent managers. The fucking thing learns. It's Skynet. Skynet in a tracksuit."

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