In the autumn of 2016, the cult soccer simulation game Football Manager achieved something Brexit supporters had proven stubbornly incapable of doing: it predicted the consequences of exiting the European Union.
Soccer—or football, if you prefer; the game does—is a global game. Trite as that description may be, it’s the reality of a sport in which playing careers regularly span countries and continents. Changing Britain’s relationship with the European Union, then, would affect the free movement of labor across the Channel: from plumbers to doctors to, yes, footballers. Football Manager 2017 entertained a variety of ways this might happen, ranging from a Soft Brexit that was broadly inconsequential, Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom to remain in Europe, a negotiated deal with the EU that exempted star athletes, and a Hard Brexit that would complicate the task of signing players from the EU in Britain.
These were all relatively foreseeable consequences of the Brexit vote. The game had not magically guessed the fallout. Rather, developer Miles Jacobson said the process involved “a lot of reading, a lot of talking to politicians and people in football.” Considering Brexit’s consequences famously became a top Google search in the hours after the June 26 referendum and wishful thinking still prevailed months later, the game’s basic diligence seemed notable. Football Manager may not be clairvoyant, but the Brexit episode brought mainstream attention to its most prized quality: thoroughness.
Renewed interest in this thoroughness, however, exacerbated a tension that had been lingering at Football Manager’s core. It’s one thing to be a simulation game diehards trust to keep up with the Superettan. (That’s the Swedish second tier. You don’t need to know that, but Football Manager sure does.) But if you subscribe to soccer’s theory of everything—that most events affect a globalized sport—it’ll take a whole lot more than detailed rosters to provide a thorough simulation. In broadening its conception of simulation, Football Manager opened itself up to philosophical questions about its worldview: What does it mean to include a variable in a simulation, and what stories are told by those that get left out?
Soccer's Theory of Everything
Gamers, like most audiences, care little about how their sausage gets made. Gameplay is understood to be the product of data, graphics, code, and narrative choices, but reminders of these inner workings are usually signs something has gone wrong, like buffering or error messages. In such a landscape, Football Manager stands out as the rare game to put its sausage factory on display.
Many of the stories told about Football Manager center on how it’s made. These invariably seem to boil down to a sequence of improbably large numbers: 1,300 people scouting in 51 countries producing a database of 700,000 players rated across dozens of dimensions. Other stories serve as tribute to this database. Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino, who will likely feature for Brazil at this summer’s World Cup, was brought to Europe in 2011 after Hoffenheim’s director of football spotted him in the game. Premier League stalwarts Everton revealed their use of the game’s database for scouting purposes in 2008. In 2014, Football Manager agreed to share data with Prozone, one of Europe’s leading analytics firms. This is not a game afraid of overwhelming you with the scale of its inputs.
Football Manager’s gameplay also clobbers you with the array of information on offer. EA’s FIFA may seem to be the most obvious point of comparison, but Football Manager has a singular disinterest in on-field artistry. Recent editions offer animated, three-dimensional recreations of your team playing, but this is widely considered to be the game’s weak point. Players barely look like themselves. Their motions are choppy. The game, one can reasonably conclude, is not hugely invested in this aspect. It is much more comfortable in the world of tables and toggles.
Imagine a game where navigation and setting menus are the main attraction, and you have a half-decent picture of Football Manager. You play as a team’s manager, identifying players to recruit, keeping your squad motivated, and setting tactics. You never kick a ball. Your job is largely a matter of consuming information, giving speeches through a mechanic reminiscent of Twine games, and clearing your inbox. In its focus on resource management and deployment, Football Manager has more in common with city-building simulators or Roller Coaster Tycoon than other sporting franchises. It is a game about widgets where the widgets just happen to kick a ball and sometimes have famous names.
The obvious temptation, which Football Manager hardly dispels, is to consider yourself ruler of the universe. Most video game recreations of team sports use a hybrid point of view that hint at the existence of diffuse powerbases and agencies: players, in turn, serve as coach, general manager, and athletes. Football Manager’s strict point of view, on the other hand, never wavers from that of the titular manager. Agency is concentrated in that one persona. All outcomes stem from their decisions. The manager is a general leading from behind, a ruler enjoying regal remove. This power fantasy is bolstered by the legend of Football Manager and the stories of real-life successes like Roberto Firmino. You are not just playing with random numbers, as the game’s mythos suggests, but using reams of data imbued with real-world meaning.
The narrative challenge of Football Manager’s strict point of view is that no event can truly happen in its world without happening to you, the manager of one team in a world with thousands of them.
Now in the third decade of the franchise’s existence, this remains an awkward way of seeing the world. In Football Manager, a defender’s torn ligament is mainly injurious to the manager forced to reshuffle their roster. Likewise, the lives torn apart by Brexit are reduced to little more than HR problems for what is ultimately a minor industry. This approach is not without merit. Through the accumulation of information, the game manages to signal that lives and problems exist outside of its confines. In that respect, Football Manager’s inbox is a modern spin on the epistolary novel. But the lack of immediacy inherent in the game’s approach to storytelling establishes a clear hierarchy of experiences. At every turn, you’re positioned to feel more for the manager than a player who is actually experiencing hardship. Football Manager’s spreadsheets and mood graphs can acknowledge deeper problems, but they cannot seriously tell those stories.
In addressing this dynamic, it’s not enough to simply argue statistics can’t capture feelings. That’s a Luddite’s lament. Football Manager has also long included indicators of player’s sentiments. The latest edition approximates players’ happiness levels and friend circles. As ever, Football Manager’s problem is not a lack of data, so much as the worldview through which that information is refracted. Football Manager is a game about capital: the stuff businesses invest in hoping to secure future profits. Some of it is of the boring physical variety, like seats in a stadium. Many resource management games stop there, but Football Manager goes further and focuses on human capital, which is to say the skills and training embodied by employees. What is coaching, after all, other than developing and massaging talent so it becomes more useful to its employer? This capitalist approach leaves room for feelings, but only insofar as they affect productivity. Anything above that threshold is a bonus, and quite likely a misallocation of resources.
These narrative and ideological tensions come to a head in Football Manager 18, which attempts to simulate an active player coming out of the closet. This, Jacobson told the BBC, was inspired by the success of the previous edition’s Brexit feature: “it helped us realise we can be a bit more outward in our thinking in trying to make the world a better place.” This sort of utopian thinking permeates the resultant simulation. When a player comes out in Football Manager, a brief news spike is followed by an increase in revenue because LGBT fans are buying more jerseys and tickets. That’s it. That’s all a proudly thorough simulator can imagine happening in this scenario.
This simulation is liberal wish fulfillment so unmoored from reality it’d make fans of The West Wing blush. At present, not a single active male footballer is openly gay. Justin Fashanu, the only gay active player in England’s history, came out in 1990 and endured a torrent of abuse before killing himself in 1998. In 2016, the chairman of England’s Football Association said Premier League players would face “significant abuse” if they came out. Football Manager, for all its thoroughness, can only imagine positive outcomes to a player coming out in this environment. Developers Sports Interactive say they consulted with the anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out, but having good intentions is no guarantee of a smart simulation. In a world filled with warning signs and worrying data points, they produced a simulation that cannot conceive a single risk to coming out.
The game can, however, imagine the merchandise sales. Tellingly, that’s all it can imagine: the one dimension that neatly fits into an actuarial table. That’s Football Manager’s ideological tell. It is a game that can vividly imagine a range of Brexit outcomes but cannot conceive of any human complications that might arise from a male athlete coming out. Since those complications cannot even be turned into indirect costs to management, they cease to exist. This is a failure of the imagination, but more specifically a failure of Football Manager’s capitalist imagination. Not every story can be told—or even hinted at—by watching capital flows.
A World in Spreadsheets
At the same time, Football Manager was attempting to integrate life off the pitch into its simulations, its soccer rival was attempting a similar trick. The 2017 edition of EA’s FIFA introduced a feature called The Journey. This narrative mode allowed players to experience the world as a burgeoning star who has emotions and a backstory to go with his countable traits. These are the things Football Manager can only hint at. The Journey ekes closer to the filmic wish fulfillment of the Goal movie series than a traditional video game. EA deploys the same narrative impulse in Madden 18's Longshot mode, which focuses on the struggles of a down-and-out prospect trying to reach the NFL. It may be slightly grittier than the cartoonishness of The Journey, but both modes are incomplete segments of traditional rags-to-riches character arcs. They’re interesting exercises in reconciling narrative impulses and the desire to empower the player at every turn.
The narrative success of EA’s “story modes” is a reminder that some experiences are best conveyed firsthand. Therein lies much of the medium’s emotional potency. Video games, Ruins developer Jake Elliot once argued, are places where “you can try on different behaviors, see the outcomes, and learn how you feel about it.” FIFA’s narrative mode is powerful precisely because it’s an opportunity to experience the outcomes of professional athlete’s choices. In a more extreme case, the survival game Rust’s experiment with randomly assigning your character’s race as an immutable trait is powerful because it makes you feel a different experience than your own. Football Manager can only allow you to try on the identity of a boss when, in your real life, you likely toil under one.
Only so many stories, it turns out, can be told from a manager’s point of view. To the extent that you can learn empathy from Football Manager, the best-case scenario is that you become a “woke” boss. Congratulations, you are now mildly attuned to the hardships your employees face. You only know a fraction of what they are going through, but the accumulation of data makes you think you know everything. This is the danger of a data-fueled power fantasy. It’s too easy to feel like you actually know what everyone’s feeling. Games have no obligation to make you a better person, but Jacobson’s public statements about affecting social change suggest Football Manager wants to be judged on that metric. In that respect, its empathy is that of a performatively “woke” boss—the man who says the right thing while doing little. The plaudits being sought here are out of proportion with the actions being performed.
Football Manager’s struggle to see a world beyond its spreadsheets is an interesting story, but the game does not appear to know what to do with it. The game is, on the one hand, unwilling to use its weaknesses to make a point about the limitations of seeing the world through the prism of capital alone. It is, at the same time, seemingly incapable of sticking to the things it does well. Football Manager has become a game that wants to “make the world a better place,” but it cannot imagine that building that better place might require the dismantling of its worldview and power. Management always tries to have it both ways.