Football Manager 2020: 30 years of play

I thought myself immune to the lure; where others were reaching for those things of comfort from their lives to help through upended times, I remained resolute. I shall not, I will not fall into the comforting embrace of the old, the nostalgic, the familiar.

But even as those thoughts left my brainlips, I knew them to be false. I’d already downloaded it. I was already planning on what the new run would look like. I’d already researched which formation would work. 120-hours’-play-across-three-weeks later, I wasn’t even bothering with the pretence anymore. Football Manager 2020 had lured me in, just as every single entry in the series previously had done.

Why fight the inevitable?

I’ve written these words so many times over the years that they come without thinking. It looks like a spreadsheet, but give it half a chance and it’ll take over your life. Yes, even non-football fans can get into it, if they approach with an open mind. It’s the best role-playing game ever made. And so on, and so forth.

None of it’s stopped being true, it’s just that I’ve hammered out those sentences – or variations thereof – so much in the past decade and a half of doing this professionally that I feel like I don’t need to say them again and again (and again). Isn’t it established fact now, that Football Manager is the nectar of the gods? That it is the ultimate time sink, yet also the ultimate in making you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something? Why belabour the point?

Maybe I should, though – maybe I should stick with trying to hammer home the points that this unknowable beast of a game, honed and tweaked and perfected over nearly 30 years of development, is actually worth the effort. It’s confusing. It’s seemingly unconquerable at first glance. It’s a lot of numbers on static backgrounds. And yes, it’s associated with football and that’s a whole other thing to moan and argue about. Football Manager is quite a lot like hard work.

But with that hard work comes something literally no other game has ever managed to pull out of me: real, honest, genuine emotional responses that resonate and persist over time. Yes, a game has shocked, surprised, or saddened me; maybe even maddened me. I’ve been happy at finishing off a tricky boss fight, I’ve fist-pumped at beating someone in Street Fighter II, I’ve cooed at the original The Last Of Us’s sudden, ambiguous statement of an ending. But all of those feelings were fleeting; temporary. Lost like tears in the dying seconds of a cup final loss.

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Oh, Rubén – in five years (20+ real hours) you’ll be good enough for the first team.

Football Manager gets under the skin, it makes these base emotional responses matter – it makes a game of numbers and weird generated player faces and Manchester United probably not existing in future entries owing to ongoing legal action seem like so much more.

I don’t know exactly why, though I have my theories. The main one rests on the time factor: a single season in Football Manager is a slow-paced affair. Even if you’re rushing, it takes a matter of hours to get through one footballing year – at least in the major world leagues (it’s quicker in the smaller ones, naturally).

For the most part, you’re getting your good ship Football into working order, sorting out backroom staffing issues, making sure you have the right players for the positions you want to play them in, looking at that team of 17-year-olds to see whether any of them could be money-making superstars in a few years, looking at numbers. It’s sedate, but involved. It is, in every sense of the word, a slow build.

So you progress through things – not even a season, just through the course of a week – and you’ve already made half a dozen, 10, 20 decisions about how things should be. A player’s picked up an injury in training the day before your next match. Pick a replacement. The replacement isn’t match-fit because he’s already played in a reserves game earlier that same day. You have to risk it and play him anyway. Shore up the area, make another senior player work harder to cover the gap you’re leaving by calling up an untested, unproven, lower-skilled, and potentially knackered reserve player…

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FM Touch does away with many of these stats, so is a good place to start.

Do you see what happened? Suddenly it becomes an involved decision-making process, with the real chance of loss resting on the fate of this one young kid who’s been forced into an impossible situation. For one match, for one moment, this guy could well be the hero this particular tale focuses on – or he could be (more likely) an irrelevance who fades into the background. But the potential’s there.

It’s matchday, and the stress ratchets up. Things go off without a hitch, your kid plays a 6.7 rating – absolutely fine, if thoroughly unspectacular – and you move on to the next week, the next batch of preparation, the next upcoming match, and potential for injuries and changes and surprises.

This whole merry dance plays out – dozens of micro-stories with a beginning, middle, and end, all presenting themselves in an emergent fashion and most coming to a close within a few minutes, and all together set across many hours’ play across a whole season.

Football Manager tells countless stories in just one in-game year, and every one of them matters to you personally more than it could ever possibly do in most other games. I said I wouldn’t play it again but really, why would I deprive myself? I’ve been playing it nigh-on 30 years for a reason.

RECOMMENDED ALTERNATIVES TO SITTING STARING AT SPREADSHEETS FOR HOURS ON END:


Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
SNES, arcade, multi
When you want something a bit shallower – but still with a level of depth – look no further than Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting. Whether you’re on your tod and a bit bored or with a few friends around, the enquickened SFII is fantastic.


Danger Zone 2
PS4, Xbox One, PC
Or maybe you want something even shallower? Step forward Three Fields’ puddle-deep but utterly beguiling Danger Zone 2. Distilling the Burnout experience down to just the crashes has been the desired outcome of plenty of fans of the series, and… well, here it is.


eFootball PES 2020
PS4, Xbox One, PC, mobile
Or, perhaps, you do want to stick with the footballing world but want to dial back the intensity of things a bit. Well, enter PES 2020’s management modes. Actually playing on the pitch gives it a more immediate fun factor.

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