(Originally published in Issue #3 of Cobalt Magazine at Warwick University, released in March 2015. Read that version here, on pages 42-44.)
Menus. Hundreds upon hundreds of menus, spiralling out from each other like Russian Doll spreadsheets. Even the statistics you find when using the menus have menus. That’s all Football Manager is, menus, statistics and mildly confused frustration. This is football for stock brokers with a habit.
As someone who has never particularly enjoyed strategy or management games, going blind into an online Football Manager game was always going to be difficult, and as expected it was as daunting as organising a schizophrenic serial killers noticeboard. After skipping the tutorials that were so boring I felt myself visibly age after just one line of text, I inevitably found myself facing of a wall of information set out like Rain Mans receipt collection. This was more like HSBCs filing cabinet than it was football.
It didn’t really help that the options were irritatingly opaque; for example there’s no Settings menu. Instead there’s a menu bafflingly called Preferences that’s buried inside other menus with sub menus of its own. Either the developers were actively laughing at new players like they’re a blindfolded cat in a maze made of lino or they see the world purely through the medium of Microsoft Excel and don’t know what rational thought is anymore.
Our plan was to have each of us, four partially capable humans of various Football Manager experience, manage a different Championship team and see who could become the most successful before we all inevitably got bored and went to do something else. I blindly selected my team, which turned out to be a bad choice given the others had actually chosen theirs for solid reasons. I just knew Blackburn had a good striker and went from there, ignoring the defence whose best player is an angry sociopathic Scotsman. He got sent off three minutes into the first game I played. This soon became a theme.
Having made this incredibly well informed choice, I tried to find something to cling on to in this barely legible gibberish, presented in a language that would make sense to Alan Hansen and nobody else. At this point the only menu that made sense to my addled brain was Transfers, so I tried my luck with that. Unfortunately I found that the muppets running my club had given me tuppence and a stick of gum to spend on new players, whereas everyone else had roughly half the national income of Japan.
I made do with what I had, scrabbling for loan players like a hobo looking for milk bottle tops in the gutter, pleading with agents to let the fading pensioner join my team for a weekend just in case my other pensioners fell over too much and disintegrated like a breadstick in the washing machine.
Before I started a match, I was told by the constant Steam chat I should try and work out what was going on in the Tactics menu. Here you edit formation, lineups, substitutes and general instructions to give your team whenever they play. Obviously there are ridiculous levels of complexity to this as well, like contrasting instructions that would only confuse your players if you told them to try and play both wide and narrow at the same time, and multiple subtly different roles a player can have within the same position.
Again, the negatives of any of these options aren’t exactly explicit; when I set an instruction to Hassle Opponents, I assumed it would mean an appropriate defensive or midfield player would close down the opposition and prevent passes with a modicum of intelligence. What I discovered was that almost all of my players would charge at the guy with the ball like it was the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, leaving a gaping chasm for the other team to pass into, completely bypassing the cavalry of overpaid morons.
You have to experiment and find out what is actually useful rather than it being given to you, which sounds like good game design but it really isn’t. It’s the equivalent of being given a choice of seventeen identical looking sticks then getting a thwack on the head and a branch up the arse because you chose the wrong one. Good luck getting it right on your first attempt, and your arse might not appreciate you giving it another shot.
After making a couple of distinctly average signings and creating a new formation suitably dubbed The Penis (make up your own reasons), I suited up and went into battle. Which I lost, because my setup was crap. After waiting half an hour for the others to fiddle their menus some more, I tried again. And lost, because I scored a fluke own goal despite dominating in every statistic the game would throw at me.
This is where the addictive, social life threatening part of Football Manager comes in; nothing you do actually matters. Not in any tangible, definite way. Since you’re not actively controlling what happens on the pitch, all you’re doing is essentially making your own odds more favourable without determining anything – a random number generator where you can nudge the machine a few times if it’s fucked you over a cliff recently. No matter what you do nothing is ever certain, and so the game never becomes truly satisfying. Yes that’s football, but footballs not perfect anyway.
Since it’s essentially a strategy game with random elements there’s always this horrible one more go factor, where you want to try your formation again and hope your full back doesn’t headbutt himself and start humping the post when defending a corner. It’s a case of proving yourself against a bunch of sceptical numbers hidden behind shitty 3D visuals with physics from a particularly glitchy Asteroids clone. It’s like the Matrix if it was set in Upton Park.
Eventually, more and more of the ridiculous user interface began to make sense. I found out I could train individual players in an attempt to improve their stats. Match reports allowed me to prepare better for the next game, such as which areas of the pitch the opposition was weakest. Scouting allowed me to try and pick up promising young players on the cheap, although with my budget management being overseen by a sparrow on LSD this was essentially impossible. Almost anything you could want to do in football exists in Football Manager, unless you want to actually kick the fucking ball.
Slowly all of these options started to come together into something more cohesive; my team was well drilled and my defenders had stopped leaking goals like a colander in the Atlantic. I began to move up the league with a catastrophically unpredictable run of form for all concerned, culminating in a final day race for automatic promotion with only goal difference separating me from a fellow human. I won a close game against 7th place while he was dismantled by an already relegated 23rd. As usual, pissing off your friends is rather entertaining.
Football Manager is hard. Newcomers won’t get why so much of what they try doesn’t work, and an at least average knowledge of football is required to get to the meat of it (what the hell is the difference between an Enganche and a Trequartista). It’s similar to the Candy Crush mentality; an illusion of skill where success just boils down to luck of the draw, like being graded on Blackjack. It has an awful lot more layers of illusion between skill and luck than Candy Crush however, and doesn’t get you to pay to keep playing, so it’s at least not evil. Still, it’s football on a roulette wheel, an endless bag of cookies being guarded by Two-Face dressed as a linesman. It’s not exactly fair, but then neither is heroin.
[The version played was Football Manager 2014, but it doesn’t really matter since this wasn’t a review. If it helps I thought 2014 was great, played it for 800 hours, and thought 2015 was comparatively terrible. Those are the only Football Manager games I’ve ever played]