Until earlier this year, I worked in the media department at a top-tier professional football club. During a team flight to a European match a few years back, one of the squad's best players at the time was sitting in the row in front of me, playing Football Manager on his Nintendo Switch. The fact that a man in his 20s, a professional footballer who lives and breathes the sport, might be interested in Sports Interactive's hugely popular football management sim didn't surprise me. What did, however, was the fact that he was two seasons deep into a save file with a team he'd been heavily linked with during the most recent summer transfer window.
It could have been a coincidence. He might simply have liked the team in question. He might even have had the save file running prior to the transfer speculation. Or, months earlier, perhaps he was reconsidering his future. Maybe he was keen to learn a little bit more about a potential prospective employer, and wanted to dig a little deeper into the club's players and staff than stats sites and social media would allow.
I can't say either way, and neither can Nic Madden and CJ Ramson, the match producer and QA lead for match AI at Sports Interactive respectively. But real world players playing and investing in Football Manager? That's something both agree is commonplace. "We know that football players play Football Manager," says Madden.
It's cold in Newcastle
Perhaps the most exciting proof of this occurred earlier this year, when Barcelona forward Antoine Griezmann shared a clip aboard a France national team flight, announcing he'd led faltering English Premier League side Newcastle United to untold success. While showing off his laptop screen, Griezmann is seen shouting across the aisle to inform countryman and teammate Kylian Mbappe – one of the best, and thus most expensive, players in world football today – that he'd signed him for €134 million (£114 million / $155 million) from his current club, Paris-Saint Germain. A seemingly unphased Mbappe comments that, to his mind, the city of Newcastle has unfavourable weather.
It's a silly exchange that has retrospectively sent the rumour mill wild, following the lucrative takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi Arabian-financed consortium in October, in a deal said to have been worth around £300 million ($408 million). At the time of writing, the Tyneside outfit have not yet won a game in the 2021/22 English Premier League campaign, and yet are now the richest club in world football. In theory, the club could afford to buy Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, and Frenchman Ousmane Dembele, who also features in Griezmann's in-flight video, in a single transfer window. It's possible, but it would cost Newcastle United a lot of money.
"We've worked closely with a huge number of football clubs. We have had access to the managers themselves, and they've been able to look at our data which is something we've seen reported in the press," continues Madden. "This can influence their transfer targets and it's no fluke that some players who are really good Wonder Kids in Football Manager always seem to make a good big transfer a couple of years down the line. We're fortunate enough that we've got scouts all over the world that help make the game as realistic as it can be."
"In terms of players, Antoine Griezmann was on social media playing his Newcastle save – which is quite interesting now, given the takeover of Newcastle, and he's talking about having bought Mbappe. He's asking him if he wants to go to Newcastle and Mbappe is asking if it's cold there. So it's clear that players do play our games; we don't know fully how many do, but it wouldn't surprise me that there are professional players in the professional game that will look up particular clubs in the game. This is a good way for them to do it – who's in the team, how are they compared? If you're playing professional,you can easily see your own data. You can say: how am I rated versus how is someone else rated?"
"It's definitely something amongst the younger players as well, the ones that grew up playing Football Manager, or had access to it," adds Ramson. "Even if it's not looking at the players or teammates themselves, most people know about the Best Wonderkids in real world football through Football Manager. I remember being at a Barcelona game a few years ago, and Artur, the central midfielder who's now at Juventus, I'd found him in the game two years before that. I remember watching him thinking: This is mad! I signed him randomly for my Portsmouth team on FM18. And now he's here, at the Nou Camp, starting with Lionel Messi. Like Nick says, we get so many of the Wonderkids accurate, and that's down to the research team around the world. There's probably 20-30, maybe more, players who I've known through Football Manager."
"Even Mbappe, that's a great example of the game reflecting reality. The season before he broke through at Monaco, that year when he had a run in the Champions League, our French researcher told me to look out for this player. I said, 'Who, Thomas Lemar? I know about him already.' And he said, 'No, in the youth team below him, a player named Kylian Mbappe.' This was the year before his real breakout year. So, Mbappe, one of the best players in the world now, is one I put down as a Football Manager Wonderkid success story – I knew about him in Football Manager before I'd seen him play in real life."
Dynamics and deadlines
For me, Football Manager's Dynamics System is the feature which mirrors real world football closest. Introduced in FM 2018, Dynamics is an RPG-like story-generator which forces virtual managers to consider the wellbeing of their squad both on and off the pitch. This means success is no longer solely hinged on winning football matches, but is also tied to keeping your team happy behind the scenes. In practice, a ‘Hierarchy’ structure ranks your players' influence within the dressing room – wherein social groupings are determined by things like nationality, time served at the club, seniority and age, among other factors.
In real world football, it's probably no surprise that players from similar backgrounds form friendships; in the same way players settling into a new country, where, perhaps, English isn't their first language do so too. Social media offers voyeuristic insights into celebrity’s lives from afar, but even the players who choose to get photographed together upon winning silverware is a telling sign of off-pitch friendships; as is who they might sit besides on the team bus or the plane to a European match abroad.
For my money, the most sophisticated reality-reflecting feature the series has seen since the Dynamics System comes via this year's Transfer Deadline Day, which aims to capture the "unpredictability and immersion of the transfer window's climax". If ever I'm recommending Football Manager to non-FM players, I double down on its role-playing elements. Having lived and worked through a few Deadline Days on the media side of things at a top club, and having watched players come and go at the eleventh hour, I can attest: FM 2022 nails the mood, feeling, and logistics of the experience, with the perfect amount of RPG storytelling flair.
"We're really trying to heat up the moment of the deadline, have the clock ticking down, make you feel like you're in the experience – that, even if you feel like you've done your business in the summer, there's a chance you could get a player, or maybe agents are in your ear, or you're just trying to make a move on that last day," says Madden. "We're trying to create that panic, but also that immersion and it's really interesting. There's definitely a role-playing aspect about it."
"We always just try and improve every year with things like the tactics revamp and the training revamp. They're all things that we've just tried to educate fans to help them create tactics, to create training systems, and give them that authentic experience. With Deadline Day, it's making it feel like that day should do – like you're watching it on the telly, or you're the manager just waiting by your phone."
Another standout feature of Football Manager 2022 is its new Data Hub, which employs the same analytics systems used by top-flight professional teams in the real world. Everything from goals and assists, to key passes, duals and aerial challenges won, xG (expected goals) and a litany of other performance-related stats can now be easily tracked. Having interviewed countless professionals over the last few years, even the most old school of players are interested in their performance stats today, and in my experience, statistics drive the majority of younger stars in their development to becoming better players.
Stats are of course a huge part of other football games such as FIFA, particularly its FUT offshoot, but while Football Manager strives to gamify the minutiae of modern football, FIFA's interpretation is more superficial, and is more a reflection of the broadcast – a Sky Sports, BT, ESPN, or whichever other network you follow, simulator of sorts.
Ramson points out that Football Manager has always been driven by numbers, but as wider interest in stats has piqued in football – similar to how American sports fans have taken to stats over the last couple of decades – the onus on Sports Interactive has been to make the stats-tracking process more visible.
"We've always had the stats in-game, we've just made them more accessible to players, easier to find, to read and to understand. It's something that I've always been into, I'd always go over the analytical data of my previous match and work out what's going wrong with my tactics, and I feel like this year's Data Hub makes it a lot more accessible,” Ramson adds. “I can't speak for all football fans, but I think a lot of modern supporters want to know why things are happening. It's no longer just about players being 'good goal scorers' or 'good penalty box players', but more about how many touches are they making in the opposition's area, or what's their expected goals."
"There are still people reluctant to fully embrace stats, but I think most fans recognise the value of data. Those people might not chase the data themselves, but are happy to be told it and are happy to see it in the likes of Football Manager. I'm happy to see Football Manager at the forefront of it and keeping up with what the modern fan wants and consumes."
With the numbers side of the game more visible and accessible than ever in Football Manager today, naysayers may now scream 'glorified spreadsheet' louder than before. But if FM is about holding a mirror to real world football management, then its story-generating properties – not least Football Manager 2022's Transfer Deadline Day and Data Hub features – galvanise its place as the most sophisticated interpretation of the beautiful game – in video games, or any other medium for that matter. I say this with confidence, having lived on both sides of the training ground fence. The Nintendo Switch-playing player I mentioned before? He's since moved on to a different club, in a different country entirely. But I do wonder if he scoped them out on FM before he did. And I wonder if Mbappe will ever end up at Newcastle. Football Manager 2023 could be pretty interesting indeed.
Looking to improve in the digital dugout? Check out the best Football Manager 2022 tactics to win matches and titles on your path to success.