Brexit, algorithms and Watford FC: A trip to Football Manager’s studios

Institutional. That’s an accurate description of the ambiance communicated by the walls, doors and windows that make up Sports Interactive’s Old Street headquarters. For a location known for its trendy startups, design-savvy influencers and artisanal flapjacks, the company’s workaday studio stands out like a dad at a house party.

Appearances belie execution, however. These generic surroundings harbour the people and ideas responsible for Football Manager – a series that rewrote, and continues to evolve, the rules of sports-management games. As is so often the case, it’s the initially unassuming entity that delivers the greatest impact.

Spread over three floors, the purpose of each identikit room is hinted at only by framed and signed football shirts on the walls and the promotional materials scattered all about. The individuals who make Football Manager tap into keyboards and observe data patterns on screens. To the layman they look as though they’re playing through their own tales of fantasy management, but their inputs are altering algorithms, testing realism and updating old and young players in line with the latest scouting reports and statistical analysis results.

These are the elves. Studio director Miles Jacobson is Santa. Jacobson’s office bears some resemblance to how I imagine Mr Claus’ might look. Knickknacks and ornaments are dotted across shelves and desk and floor like rejected toys, an open laptop seemingly the only means of sorting and categorising the diaspora. A chair, the lining of which is made from a Watford FC shirt – Jacobson’s favoured team – sits beyond his desk at the end of the rectangular room. Opposite is a frayed couch, with various Sonic the Hedgehog paraphernalia laid about in apologetic indication that Sports Interactive has been under Sega control for a decade.

I sit on the couch, Jacobson in his Watford throne. He’s ill, suffering the same flu-like symptoms suffered by a huge swathe of Londoners every time the year goes from mild warmth to miserly wet. With Lemsip in hand and coughs in throat, his dilapidated-but-defiant aura manages to mirror that of his office.football_manager_3

He has been sitting in front of people like me all day, doing interviews and performing for the dictaphone. I know how monotonous days like this can be, so after small talk revolving around the exotic flavour of Lemsip he’s chosen, I probe with something simple.

“Why have you included politics, specifically Brexit, in Football Manager 2017?” I ask, in reference to the fact that the latest edition of the game holds the potential for teams based across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have their worlds turned upside down by the seppuku the United Kingdom willingly engaged in.

“For those of us that live in the UK,” replies Jacobson, “this is going to be a massive part of our lives for the next decade. It’s not going to be a short, sharp pain and then everything will be okay again. It has felt like a natural step to include it. Brexit matters to football and is going to be a massive thing for football.”david_vintiner_mg_1315

(Above: Miles Jacobson)

Brexit’s inclusion as a real-world event that can impact the lives of fantasy managers succinctly highlights two things. In the first instance it shows just how dedicated Sports Interactive is to making sure their fantasy reflects reality as much as possible, the fiction only being worth engaging with if it can force you to suspend your disbelief. Second, with only four months having passed between the Brexit referendum vote and the release of Football Manager 2017, the inclusion highlights the speed at which the game’s designers and programmers must work to reflect our reality.

For a franchise that some, ignorantly, dismiss as more of a glorified spreadsheet than a video game, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes movement and action required to hit goals of realism and interaction.

Scoring goals with thousands of players

As a game that must turn a profit in order for Sports Interactive to remain in business, it makes sense for Football Manager to please its audience to the fullest possible extent. When you’re dealing with a game famed for its complexity, however, not to mention an audience known for its zealous attention to detail, finding the balance between new and old features can be tricky.

“We’re constantly taking feature ideas from our players and we’ve been doing that for 20 years,” says Jacobson through sips of what must by now be, at best, a lukewarm Lemsip.

“We’ve got features in the game this year that were first suggested on our forums ten years ago, so everything stays around and is looked at by us. Right now we’ve got about 4,000 features in our database that haven’t made it into the game, and there’s something like 1,500 more that have been suggested this year for future games.”football_manager_2

The sheer volume of suggested features – even if some are predictably wild enough that they’ve no hope of ever making it past the most cursory of glances – highlights just how dedicated Football Manager’s audience is. It’s through this lens of devotion that many of the comments in the vein of ‘Football Manager is not a video game’ begin to gain traction and, in the most positive manner possible, ring true.

Closer to football than video games

For certain, there are players of Football Manager that have little to no interest in any other video game. Average play time for Football Manager games are measured in the hundreds of hours, an indication that many wannabe managers play no other games and, as such, do not consider themselves a “gamer”. They are proudly monogamous, comfortable with their partner and seeking no other. Jacobson, too, is comfortable and embracing of the idea that the ship he steers is more a part of football than it is a part of gaming.

Football Manager’s sponsorship deals with football clubs, its vast scouting network and the partnerships with sports-analyst agencies suggests that Sports Interactive’s desire rests with genuine recreation of the real thing as opposed to gamifying the beautiful game. For many, Football Manager is an institution, one that allows them to get ever closer to the institution of football.

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As such, the institutional surroundings in which the game is made make sense. If Sports Interactive’s offices were of the type preferred by the likes of Google, Apple or Facebook – each of which came to be by splicing a rainbow with a few shipping crates – then it would feel too forced, too fashionable, and definable only within a certain slice of space and time.

Football is a timeless game, and so the creation of digital football fits in a timeless space. Perhaps the more drab and institutional your office looks, the less chance it has of feeling outmoded. After all, it’s the wacky that goes out of fashion most swiftly.

Or maybe Sports Interactive’s walls, doors and corridors represent the clinging traditionalists that hold power over the footballing world. Jacobson’s messy office, on the other hand, represents the unorthodox approach and surprising combination of elements that the world’s best players use their advantage. The building in which Football Manager is made, then, echoes the game itself – a structured enterprise built around disruption, in which the most creative of players gain the greatest rewards.

Images: John Robertson, Sports Interactive

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