The news that the Football Manager database will play a role in informing real clubs recruitment decisions via it’s integration into the Prozone Recruiter tool took me back to my earliest memory of playing a management sim. It was round my mate Kev’s house; us both poring over a green screen I forget the title of the game, but it was pretty basic. Players would have a position and a simple rating and formations were limited to a few 4-4-2 variants. You’d choose your team, set the passing style press a button and after what felt like an eternity you’d receive the result.
As technology developed the management sim became more sophisticated and immersive. Players gained new attributes: heading, aggression, pace, even personality types. Formations multiplied and individual and team instructions could be given with tweaks made real-time during games. It was at Kev’s house again where I was first introduced to the Championship Manager series which would in the guise of Championship Manager 2 claim a large chunk of my adolescence as I worked on my project of enabling Ajax to win every single available honour available in one single season.
In parallel games where you could be a player were also improving rapidly. From the ball-glued-to-foot days of the Commodore 64 came the independent ball physics of Sensible Soccer on the Amiga (which in my view remains to this day the best football game ever), and in turn this was superseded by the isometric view offered by FIFA International Soccer.
Near thirty years of striving for realism has led to the point where such games offer such faithful recreations of stadia and players that walking into a room it can be easy to get confused between a game on a Playstation, or X-box and one happening for real. But, for all this visual slickness and authentic-looking camera angles there is still a yawning chasm between the game and reality. Kicking a ball for real isn’t anything like pressing a button and, for the foreseeable future at least, nor will it be.
Management sims have also made strides towards realism with the effect that attempting to play a recent incarnation of Football Manager resulted in the same sort of stomach churning feeling a WWI Sopwith Pup pilot would feel when confronted with the controls of a modern passenger jet, so overwhelming were the number of buttons. But more than just mimicking reality however, the management sim has been influencing it.
Strangely this has come about because of the genres early limitations. In the late 80’s and early 90s Professional football management was still a largely intuitive business. Apart from a few notable exceptions, such as the Charles Reep notebook school, analysis consisted of the manager and his staff relying primarily on their ability to read the game visually. Early management sims – in effect sophisticated calculators – however, utilised every ounce of processing power in number crunching. There was no room for visual representations so to play the game gamers relied on numbers in the form of an increasing array of performance statistics.
Then in 1996 came the launch of the Opta index – an attempt to systematically log performance data. Much of the data gathered would would have been more than familiar to gamers: goals, assists, passes completed, shots on target, crosses into scoring zone, dribbles.It was just the beginning of a change which would see the scientific data-driven approach rise to ever greater prominence among both fans and clubs. last season it was reported that Manchester City were employing no fewer than eleven data analysts. The work of an analyst typically spanning recruitment, identifying weaknesses, developing training plans, tactics and analysing the opposition. This often involves using statistical tools. The victorious German World Cup reportedly utilised a sophisticated software programme called Match Insights which at first glance bears more than a passing resemblance to the match-screen of a management sim.
You can argue that all this may have happened anyway, that there was a certain historical inevitability as technology made it quicker and easier to gather, store and analyse data, but whatever the case management sims were an important primer changing the very way we read the game and in doing this changing the game itself. Looking into that green screen with Kev, neither of us could have imagined how much impact that simple management sim would go on to have.