The beautiful game: the studios redefining football

Football, soccer, kicky-net-goal, whatever you want to call it: whether you enjoy the sport or not, it’s impossible to deny the impact it has had on gaming culture.

Since the launch of Atari Football and NASL Soccer in the 70s/80s, football games have grown to become a huge market, with both FIFA and PES consistently selling in the millions. Inevitably, they owe a huge debt to the sport they’re based on.

It often seems like the popularity of these games is based on consistency, sticking to the rules, and channelling an authentic sporting experience. So it’s important to ask: when creating a representation of a popular sport, which abides by a set of rules, is there room for innovation?

Is there room for different perspectives within the football genre – whether objective, political, or even satirical? All of the following games have achieved this. They’ve found their own success, while also proving the genre might not be as heavily defined as it seems.

Breaking the Rules

For those who don’t enjoy football, derision has become an art form of its own, turning the language of the sport against itself. I can’t help but be reminded of Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Watch the Football!’ sketch, with its talk of “Constant! Dizzying! 24-hour! Year-long! Endless football! Every kick of it massively mattering to someone, presumably!” So it wouldn’t be unusual to think this perspective had no place within football games, but you’d be wrong.

“I can’t stand football. Not interested in the slightest, and I’ve always been slightly annoyed at how pervasive it is in our society,” says Dan Marshall, creator of Behold the Kickmen. “I dislike nice pub chats being ruined by people howling at a television, and I hate feeling like the bad guy because someone’s conversation opener was, ‘So, who do you support?’”

Part satire, part arcade reimagining, Behold the Kickmen pays no attention whatsoever to football’s established rules. Offside sees half of the field hilariously close off; the pitch is circular, and scoring goals nets you cash. All of this unfolds against a backdrop of nonsensical jeering and amped-up electronica.

Football Drama pokes fun at the sport, but its intentions are good.

“It was nice to be able to just free-wheel some of the rules, especially when they broke the flow of the game,” explains Marshall. “I understand about ‘throw-ins’, but they stopped the game and were boring, so I just made the ball stay in play at all times.

“I’m aware offside is a hilariously complicated rule, because I’ve seen people on telly stumble over it for decades, like it’s the funniest thing in the world. But again, there was no point recreating it properly, and I hit on the idea of just doing it stupidly, and simply.”

Behold the Kickmen excels because it dares to look beyond the established rules of football – like, say, Sensible Soccer, it distils the sport’s elements into a fast, competitive arcade game. “It was all about making something that, at its core, is quite dull, into something upbeat and enjoyable,” reflects Marshall.

Behold the Kickmen’s story parodies the classic sport underdog narrative.

“In an hour-and-a-half of real football, the score might be 1-0, which is one interesting event happening in all that time, which arguably isn’t brilliant for a video game. So amping up the effects, the music, all that stuff, really helped give the whole thing a shot of adrenaline.”

While Behold the Kickmen is also a satire at heart, featuring a central narrative which channels every sport story trope imaginable, its mockery of football isn’t its greatest success. What Kickmen does best is show the benefits of playing fast and loose with the rules, reimagining established precedents, and most of all, valuing fun over authenticity.

As Marshall says, “I always quite liked the idea of playing a football game, but the actual ‘football’ part of it turns me off.”

The Magic of Football

Football’s popularity – what Marshall calls its ‘pervasiveness’ – is difficult to define, even to those who’ve spent their whole lives playing. It’s a subject often covered in the literature surrounding the sport, and one that the game Football Drama seeks to channel.

“You can refer to two different phenomena with ‘the magic of football’: its role in society and what happens in a match,” explains Football Drama’s co-creator, Pietro Polsinelli. “The entire narrative dimension of the game is dedicated to the first aspect; for the second [the matches], I took a minimalistic approach. This means giving a lot of space to the player and their imagination.”

In Football Drama, you play as the fledgling manager of Calchester Assembled, seeking to guide your club to victory through the turbulent waters of league football. But it’s easy to see why Football Drama is so divisive: it sheds the direct control of mainstream football games in favour of unpredictability, narrative choice, and a focus on mysticism.

Football Drama might also be the first sports game ever to have a karma system, inspired by the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text of divination: “The I Ching is the second mirror I use in the game (the other being your cat), and it represents your attempts to deal with the flow of life and sport events, that is both inscrutable and always there to be interpreted,” says Polsinelli.

Football Manager grants players a great deal of control over every facet of the managerial experience.

“I’m trying to make the player think about the illusion of control, which the game of football, with its unpredictability, shows so clearly. This, of course, irritates some players, who expect the game to be some kind of deterministic football manager, but it proudly isn’t.”

Karma and Kaos are the two choice-based currencies which determine “your coaching/managerial style.” Both present their own path to winning the championship, and change the effectiveness of the game’s tarot-like playing cards.

Each game in Football Drama is like a divination – you play your cards hoping the players will listen, you use your limited means of control as best you can, and you hope that if the conditions are correct, and the stars align, magic will happen. It’s an idea that channels the mysterious question of what makes good football.

The game also includes elements of satire, presenting a world of corrupt managers and clichéd commentators – and it’s here that Football Drama is at its most special. While Behold the Kickmen uses satire to distance itself from the sport, Football Drama’s satire is affectionate.

“I think that humour is actually an essential component of a healthy football passion,” reflects Polsinelli. “Football mixes sacred ritual with playfulness, and it works when the two go together somehow. One of the most praised features of the game by football fans is that they finally found a game where writing and illustration are filled with that profane spirit that is a part of football.”

Politics in Practice

Football Manager has become a beloved series since its 2004 launch, as well as one of the most successful football sims ever. Throughout that time, developer Sports Interactive has also championed the in-game representation of many political movements within the sport itself.

“We made a decision more than 20 years ago to put the Kick It Out logo in the game just to help promote their work. They’re a great organisation who’ve worked tirelessly to kick racism – and now other forms of discrimination too – out of football,” says Miles Jacobson, studio director of Sports Interactive.

“We’ve also supported many other causes – some financially, like War Child, who get a donation for each PC game we sell, some with in-game adverts, like GamesAid, SpecialEffect, and four other charities each year. The ads in the game are also in-situ – they appear on ad hoardings around the side of the pitch the same way they do at football grounds, but are clickable so people can find out more info – and lots of people do exactly that, which is great.”

At a time when some major developers appear to be actively trying to disengage with political issues, Sports Interactive’s record of grappling with these topics and creating representation in their games is refreshing to see.

In Behold the Kickmen, you earn cash each time you ‘Do a goal’.

Depicting real-world issues that affect the sport also feeds into the game’s sim status. “It is about creating a realistic world – the suspension of disbelief is essential to everything that we do, but I do think it’s educational too,” Jacobson explains.

“Brexit was added because it’s part of the real world, and will affect football in the UK – so I spent time working out all the possibilities of what could happen football-wise post-Brexit and tried to work out the percentage chances, consulting with some academics and politicians to ensure it seemed sane. In the real football world, most of these scenarios are still on the table, and it’s still a subject I find myself talking about far too often!”

It can be easy for games to claim a disconnect with the real world, but Football Manager shows us how a sports game can act as a positive influence on the sporting culture on which it’s based – whether through charity, representation, or by educating players about the issues and injustices facing the sport.

But such an approach can also spark controversy, Jacobson points out. “I’ve now got used to getting hate mail, tweets, death threats… Threats can come from anything – even people losing matches. Players coming out in-game was probably the worst for hate mail. Although I got quite a bit from Brexit, too, mainly from people who didn’t like the tiny percentage chance – so small that I doubt anyone saw it in-game – of Northern Ireland splitting from the UK.

“And lots of love from some people in Scotland who liked the idea of Scotland breaking away because of Brexit – even though as a proud Brit, I don’t like the idea of them splitting away at all.”

Games like these show the power that perspective plays in changing the genre, whether it’s disliking a sport, reimagining the rules to create something wholly fresh, or taking a stand on political issues and committing to realism.

When some of the most popular games in the football genre seem slow to innovate, it’s exciting to see developers showcase how rich and multifaceted the sport can be.

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