Every Football Manager story starts somewhere. How will yours end? #FM20 #CreateTheFuture Find out now: https://t.co/iwmpHojNV5 pic.twitter.com/WCSVs9cs94October 29, 2019
The Sports Interactive office in Stratford, East London, is an absolute haven for a football fan like myself. Historic shirts signed by legendary players are framed across almost every wall, numerous TVs are mounted in corners with 24/7 Sky Sports News showing the latest football gossip and transfers, and a bookshelf towards the back has countless reads on tactics and theories around the beautiful game. Step into Miles Jacobson's office, and you're presented with a similar display, although one item did immediately stand out against the stacks of football memorabilia; a huge, soft Pikachu toy sat in the corner.
"I've always been a Pokemon fan," Miles explained. "I've always been an RPG fan. And Pikachu is lovely! Look at him; it's little Pikachu! He's also Watford colours, which helps." Miles' love for Watford FC is no secret; he hasn't missed a game in two years, although he tells me the upcoming match against Everton in the cup may be off the table as Sports Interactive enters the final few weeks of production before Football Manager 2020 (opens in new tab) launches.
Football Manager is an RPG(opens in new tab)
Football Manager isn't like other games, in that anyone who doesn't already play it will likely fail to see the appeal whatsoever – it does, after all, look like a collection of colourful spreadsheets. So I'm curious to learn about how the team takes inspiration from other titles, if at all. Thankfully, Miles doesn't look at me like I'm talking nonsense when I enquire about whether Pokemon influences Football Manager, as absurd as the concept may seem on its surface.
"For at least 15 minutes every day, I'm playing Pokemon Go. So that's 15 minutes I'm not playing [or working on] FM. FM is an RPG, but you're playing yourself. So we are an RPG that doesn't have a defined story, but it allows the user to create their own story because every game is different. As soon as you press the Continue button, your game is different."
"A lot of people don't realise that it's always been an RPG; they think of it as this management simulation. But there are quite a lot of books that people have released, and lots of blogs of people who have released their Football Manager stories, and what's gone on in their career, because every story is unique. I don't want to define how people play the game, but if you think about any of the footballers in the game, you're interacting with them regularly. Every decision you make affects their career as well."
Forging unique stories
If you've played a Football Manager game before, you'll know just how important those unique stories are to play. One of my personal favourites from my time with Football Manager 2019 came just a few seasons after joining Aston Villa and steering them back up to the Premier League; in a moment of madness, I decided to sign French striker Jean-Kevin Augustin from RB Leipzig. In his first season, he scored 34 goals in 33 league games, taking the golden boot, before going on to become one of the most prolific strikers the Villans had ever seen. In a case of life imitating fiction, Augustin was even linked to Villa before eventually moving on loan to AS Monaco in September 2019, showing just how accurate Football Manager can truly be sometimes.
The Football Manager community is full of stories like this. You regularly hear about people who have started following low-tier teams on the other side of the world, only to eventually go out and purchase their shirt with a fictional newgen (a player generated by the game) name on the back. Better still, it isn't unheard of for Football Manager players to go out and get a real-life job at a football club thanks to their success in the beautiful simulation.
"Football Manager is a universe," Miles tells me, considering the community that has built up around his series. "So the fact that people live in that universe and come up with stories, which is why they end up having fake player's names on the back of their shirts, or start following clubs that they've had a good relationship with in the game – it makes me proud, but it doesn't surprise me, because of the amount of time that people spend playing in that story. The two realities merge. With people getting jobs in real football, that's been happening for years. People just don't tend to talk about that."
"We're part of the football world. I don't get surprised by those stories anymore. I love the press they generate, and I love the fact that the bosses of Sega in Japan see those articles, and always email them to me, going, 'This is good, isn't it?' And it's like, 'Yeah, it's great!' but it's pretty much day-to-day stuff for us."
Keeping it fresh for the long-term players(opens in new tab)
It's those players that are willfully dedicating hundreds of hours to single careers that Sports Interactive is targeting with new features in this year's Football Manager 2020. Your Club Vision is what you'll be introduced to as soon as you start a new job, which outlines your goals for the next five years, according to what the board thinks you should achieve. The Development Centre is a revamped way of looking at your youth players and planning for the future. Football Manager 2020 is all about keeping the game feeling fresh whether you're in a simulated 2021 or 2071.
There's just one issue with that, which is the topic of how Sports Interactive can bring in new players. Football fans who haven't played Football Manager before aren't going to suddenly be enticed by the premise of agreeing to a five-year roadmap with a board of directors, but Miles is keen to stress the game can be played however you like, thanks to the new extra staff responsibilities.
Whether you want to go hands-on with absolutely everything, from day-to-day training to renewing youth contracts, or if you only want to dabble in new transfers for the first team and tactics for the big matches, anything is possible. "If you start with one of the bigger clubs that has a director of football, and has a few of these other staff roles, you won't have to do absolutely everything at the start. You can define what you want to do, and what you want to delegate."
"I know that it's daunting when people first boot up the game because there's so much stuff there to do – if you want to do it. If you don't want to do it, assign it to your assistant," Miles continues. "We also still have Football Manager Mobile for people who want something easier to start with, and Football Manager Touch, which is the halfway house and tends to be played by people who don't have the time to play the full game anymore, because life has taken over, but they still want to play it."
In Football Manager 2019, when you got far enough into a save – usually after a year or so – Brexit would come and go. It goes without saying that it's a sensitive subject for most right now, but there were actually three potential outcomes presented to players, each with various combinations and possibilities of specific rules; hard Brexit, soft Brexit, or no Brexit. There was no way to influence it yourself, but if you were unlucky enough to face a hard Brexit, the rules on signing foreign players to British teams would become much stricter.
At one point, it was widely believed that Football Manager had one of the most accurate and in-depth Brexit simulations out there. But how was it developed? Miles explained to me that he couldn't find any resources for how Britain leaving the EU would affect football, so he spoke to politicians and academics about the scenarios he came up with to work out how probable each one was.
"I then presented all of that data to the government, when we got data back in of how it was affecting people's games, and put a proposal forward for what should happen post-Brexit for football. We will continue making changes until literally the day that the game comes out for the different scenarios. It's more a case of what year we think it's going to happen that needs to be tweaked now, rather than the possibilities of what will happen. Because those haven't been decided."
The fastest way to play
Before the PR kicked me out of Miles' office for taking up too much of his time, there was one more topic I wanted to touch on; Google Stadia. The Internet giant's new console-hybrid platform has been confirmed to feature Football Manager 2020 as a launch title on November 19, and Sports Interactive hasn't been shy in suggesting that it will be the fastest way to play the game.
"We have some technology that's gone into it that was originally designed internally for use by our QA team to be able to play more matches," Miles explained to me without using too much jargon to keep it on a level that we can all understand and appreciate. "So our matches are one of the most intensive parts of the processing of the game, because every match – even the matches that you aren't playing – they still simulate the full match. There are eight-time splices per second. Multiply that up to 90 minutes. It's a lot of splices, a lot of maths, [and] a lot of decisions that get made."
"What the match accelerator software does, it works in a similar way to Bit Torrent. But rather than an internet connection, it uses computational power. So any spare computational power on any of the PCs on our network will start churning away, doing processes for matches, and running more matches. We're going to be doing that in Google's data centres. So the spare capacity in Google's data centres will mean that other machines in those data centres will be playing matches, and then streaming those to you quicker."
Stadia isn't the end goal for Miles though; he tells me he wants the game on as many platforms as possible, from "Virgin shuttles going to the moon" to "every single train in the UK on the back of the seat". He concedes that it would be slightly too expensive, but pushing Football Manager to as many people as possible is one of his ultimate goals. Which led me to wonder why there has never been a PS4 or Xbox One version of the game…
"The research we did a couple of years ago showed that people tend to play FM in different ways. A lot of people play on their laptops while doing something else. [On console] taking over the living room for the period of time that it takes becomes problematic. I'm certainly not saying we won't be on Xbox or PlayStation again, but if you look at the kind of platforms that we have been on, they all have elements of portability in some way."
The dream isn't over though. Miles concluded the interview by saying that they've "had a pretty good breakthrough with both watching on the Switch and Stadia with control pad methodology. So that makes it more probable in the future."