Football Manager 2013 was released in November, sending football fans across the country into hibernation. Over the last 20 years Football Manager has developed from a mere computer game into a lifestyle choice.
It began life in 1992 as Championship Manager — the result of a decade-long obsession for programmers Paul and Oliver Collyer. It offered football fans the chance to live out their management fantasies from the comfort of their own home.
With each new version of the game, the database of players and teams has grown (now there are over 500,000 players). The level of realism has increased to the extent that a gamer can genuinely believe they have developed a relationship with their virtual charges. As well as picking the team, a ‘manager’ is also expected to interact with the press, talk to the board and try to assuage a new signings’ homesickness.
The parallel universe that Football Manager provides for wannabe master tacticians can be a little too appealing.
Stories of avid players being caught conducting 4 a.m. press conferences or calling in sick from work to concentrate on finding a new striker are commonplace. Others have taken it further still with one obsessive ‘manager’ arranging his honeymoon in Bulgaria specifically so he could watch a team from the game. Football Manager has been cited in 35 divorce cases to date.
However, Iain Macintosh, Kenny Millar and Neil White, the authors of Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession, released to mark the game’s 20th anniversary, believe that at heart, the video game is still a force for good.
“A number of my friends’ girlfriends still blame me for introducing their boyfriends to the game,” Macintosh explains. “They regard me as having led them down a dark path like a drug peddler.”
He recalls on one occasion, hearing the story of two footballers who contacted the game’s manufacturers Sports Interactive, complaining that both had agreed that one was better than the other, yet the other had worse ratings.
“I think that’s the only time they agreed to change ratings although they get countless footballers and agents phoning up and trying to persuade them,” says Mackintosh. “It’s a fantastic concept that players can just load up the game and see how good they are at each aspect — imagine if you had that in normal life!”
Even professional footballers have been known to play the game. Stoke City striker Cameron Jerome recently tweeted: ‘Managing Barca on FM. Just signed myself for £6.5m. The fans are disappointed. They haven’t even give me a chance.’
Although football clubs don’t generally take kindly to the flood of applications for coaching positions from candidates who list virtual jobs on their CV, some Football Manager enthusiasts have managed to make life imitate art.
“One massive Championship Manager fan managed to get a job at Sevilla as a translator based on his knowledge of the squad from the game,” Kenny Millar recalls. “The only problem was that he didn’t speak a word of Spanish!
“Lionel Morgan, a former England Under-20 international got injured and fell out of the professional game but he was able to get a job as a football analyst for Opta just because they knew him from the game.”
Football Manager has sold 20 million copies worldwide, often bringing unexpected fame to players who are far from household names.
“The best example is Tonton Zola Moukoko,” Millar explains. “He was a child prodigy in Sweden. He turned down Inter Milan to join Derby County in 2000 but came off the rails after a personal tragedy and became something of a recluse. But he was bombarded with nice letters and even phone calls from Championship Manager fans and that really helped him.
“A Welsh defender called Gareth Jellyman who plays for Boston United in the Conference North gets weekly fan mail from Russia because he’s a good signing on Football Manager. That’s the effect it has on some people.”
One final extraordinary story of Football Manager’s ability to create an alternate reality came from a British soldier.
“He told us that a group of soldiers used to play Football Manager in Iraq and Afghanistan and they used to spend all day talking about their teams for that evening as a distraction,” Neil White reveals. “Apparently they used to get so into it that they played through a mortar alarm going off at their base!”
“We’ve heard so many stories about the game and the effect it has had on people’s lives and they are by no means all negative,” Macintosh concludes. “Above all, it really has the power to bring people together.”
Football Manager 2013 is out now on PC and Mac.
Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 Years of Beautiful Obsession by Iain Macintosh, Kenny Millar and Neil White (Back Page Press) is out now.