When Kevin Toms invented the first edition of the Football Manager game in the early 1980s, he struck oil because he used it to appeal to one of the strongest aspects of football participation – the sense that we know better than the person actually running our team. The chance that this game gave people to control a pixelated version of their club and conduct transfer business is something whose popularity has endured ever since Toms breached the dam. A 1990s advance on the original, Paul and Oliver Collyer’s Championship Manager (since rebranded Football Manager) captured the imagination of the public to such a degree that people with no interest in gaming bought it and created their own tales of ‘buying’. Thus Tonton Zola Moukoko and Tommy Svindal Larsen propelled an unlikely club to world domination (Queen of the South, in my case). Live action games with detailed match engines such as Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA catered for those in search of a more kinetic gaming experience.
Graphics were not the point of these games. Whether you favoured the largely text and [numbers-based] format of Championship Manager, or the 3D match engines of joypad controlled games, both types of game reduce players and their physical attributes to avatars and metrics based on the perceptions of game developers and field researchers.
Monday’s announcement of the deal between Prozone and Sports Interactive will officially see the Football Manager database incorporated into Prozone’s Recruiter tool, already used by Premier League clubs as a scouting aid. This demonstrates the influence that management simulations are now having on the professional game. It also demonstrates an openness within football, not generally known for its receptiveness to outsiders, to outside influences. Simon Kuper wrote in Soccernomics that “the number-crunchers…have begun to unearth the player stats that truly matter”. While the machines that big clubs employ are more sophisticated than looking for a centre-back on Football Manager with good ratings for heading and tackling, the roots of modern scouting are in the immersions in databases that were the basis of Toms’ and the Collyers’ games.
This begs a bigger question about how we watch football now. While these games are clearly fantastic educational tools on one level, we need to remain vigilant about taking them for what they are. We can now easily create fantasy worlds within these games with avatars of players, some of whom we haven’t heard of. Are we therefore in danger of basing our perceptions of the game on knowledge that we don’t really have? As diligent and thorough as research on player attributes can be, it still only scratches the surface of the people about whom the statistics are compiled. While these databases are comprehensive, artificial intelligence can’t accurately replicate the nuances of a player’s personality – another thing which clubs like to know about in-depth prior to signing them.
The ease with which players can be transferred and cast out in management simulations makes for a virtual scenario in which human factors are disregarded. This can, if unchecked, create a wider sense that footballers and coaches are disposable.
Given the notorious impatience of modern day owners and supporters, it is persuasive to see a link between the reduction of human beings to a set of metrics in games and what goes on in ‘the real game’.
Football has always been about opinions. Whether the opinions we have today are any more informed than they were in the past is up for discussion.
Do you think that a computer game can ever accurately replicate a team or player’s attributes? What is your own greatest achievement in a football game?
Read more from Tom Simmonds here!