As I started gaining interest in association football (soccer to Americans), I started to look at how football clubs operate. Being eight (or nine) hours behind Europe meant that games took place primarily in the early morning on the weekends (usually time I’d spend sleeping) and I had to adjust my sleeping schedule to catch those games. Interactive experiences such as EA Sports’ FIFA series and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) provided a sneak peek into the footballing world. A friend of mine introduced me to Football Manager in late 2011, which was like uncovering classified documents (the kind you need top-secret clearance to access).
Football Manager allows you to explore every aspect of a club’s existence, essentially making it a hallmark of big data regarding association football. The game, which was created in 1992 as Championship Manager, allows someone to micromanage every aspect of their favorite football club. The game is so revered among footballers that many managers and top-flight players such as Tottenham Hotspur and England winger Andros Townsend play the game and follow their own progress in the game.
Some players have even worked Football Manager into their professional contracts. Former Aston Villa player Gareth Barry (who now plays at fellow Premier League side Everton) stipulated in his contract that the club coach had to have plug sockets so he could play the game on his laptop. “It’s the perfect video game for professional footballers to play on an away trip, when they’re sat in a hotel room after the manager has told them to go to bed at 8 pm and you want something to do,” Barry said.
To those unfamiliar with association football or even those who play other sports simulation games, the game appears as if you need to manage endless amounts of Microsoft Excel-style spreadsheets. These are algorithms (a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations) in motion that monitor every single aspect of a football club from club transfers, match schedules and public relations to individual players’ training regimens, diets and injuries. These algorithms manifest themselves in actual games as well. Those who own Football Manager treat it like a daily routine more than a game—the average user spent an average of 252 hours on the game, or approximately 2.87 percent of the year playing it.
Some players of Football Manager have had a talent for finding gems in the game. Jon McLeish, the son of former Scotland and Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish, discovered a 13-year-old named Lionel Messi in FC Barcelona’s La Masia academy back in 2001—the same Lionel Messi who has won four Golden Balls (the highest honor in association football) and is currently the all-time leading scorer for FC Barcelona and La Liga, the top league in Spain. Despite being a simulation, many real-life footballers and managers utilize the game to help them make decisions. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a Norwegian footballer who is most well known for his time at English club Manchester United, has credited the game in helping him transition from player to manager.
Scouts have also utilized the game to find talent around the world. “In the past a scouting department would typically watch 200-300 players per year, most of whom are introduced by agents,” said Jens Melvang, a former footballer and current product manager at Prozone, a data software program that managers use to analyze teams and shares information with Football Manager. “The dynamics have changed from push to pull: clubs search for the players instead of agents pushing them,” Melvang added, saying that the game’s expansive database (320,000 active players in 116 divisions in 51 countries) allows scouts to search for talent on a global level.
Sports journalists have also credited the game’s expansive database for helping them cover obscure teams. Football writer Iain Macintosh recalls using the game to gain knowledge on teams that are relative unknowns outside their country: “I remember covering a Ukrainian team called Dnipro and I didn’t have an awful lot of knowledge on them, so I booted up the game and played a pre-season with them. That familiarized me with little things like who the goalkeeper was or who the biggest striker was.”
Football Manager, in a sense, echoes what former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly said about the actual game of association football: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death; I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”