How China’s new-found focus on soccer affects the latest version of blockbuster game Football Manager

The latest iteration of the hugely popular football management simulation is released next week and the vast Chinese market is a target for the creators

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 2:24pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 5:31pm

Since starting out in a Shropshire bedroom in 1992, the football management simulation that came to be known as Football Manager has become a worldwide phenomenon.

The game gives every football fan the chance to prove what they are sure of: that they could do a better job in charge of their club than the manager.

But it appeals to more than hardcore fans, with many players being known to play the game. France stars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann have both fuelled rumours of a move to Stamford Bridge after being photographed studying the Chelsea lineup on their laptops.

Dubbed by Vice “the world’s most influential video game”, the game engine has been used in training courses for real-life football managers, while the database has been put to use by various professional clubs over the years. Several addicts have got careers at professional clubs as scouts and analysts due to football knowledge built up on their computers.

It has inspired academic studies, stand-up comedy tours and the book Football Manager Ruined My Life. It has been the subject of two separate documentaries and more webspace than can be truly healthy.

Devotees number in the millions across the world and in China Sports Interactive, the game’s makers, say it has more players than in any other country – despite the difficulties buying the game on the mainland.

So how has the country’s newfound focus on football affected the virtual world? Ahead of the release of Football Manager 2017 we spoke to Miles Jacobson, studio director of Sports Interactive for the answer.

All eyes are now on the Chinese leagues because of the huge transfer fees they have spent in the last two windows but Jacobson suggests this is not unique: “Apart from inflation in wages, it’s not that different to what many clubs and leagues have gone through in the past 20 years. Whether that be the Abramovich revolution at Chelsea, the Galacticos at Madrid, the MLS picking up players in their twilight years or Middle Eastern clubs attracting players who are moving mainly for salaries.

“There are patterns with the kinds of players being picked up by Chines Super League clubs, and patterns on salaries too.”

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After two decades of plotting those patterns, the FM office finds the transfer window fun rather than disruptive.

“We live and breathe football, so the more things that are happening in the football world the better for us,” Jacobson says.

“We already model the kind of moves that happened during the window, so the main work was checking that they could happen in the game now and, if not, make tweaks to improve the realism.”

The game sometimes predicts real life. Take the Asian record move of Hulk to Shanghai SIPG in the summer. Surely a player dropping a few levels – by swapping the Uefa Champions League for its Asian equivalent – affects how they are represented statistically?

“We don’t quell someone’s stats because they move club,” says Jacobson, “because the numbers are based on the previous season but are affected by other parameters.

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“Those European clubs who might have been interested in real life before his transfer will of course still be interested in Hulk, but they wouldn’t be able to afford his salary unless he became very unhappy and was prepared to take a pay cut.” Given Shanghai SIPG’s recent struggles to offload Asamoah Gyan, who was on a reported US$250,000 per week wage, this makes sense.

The investment in Chinese Super League clubs has been part of the push from the top to make China a football superpower by the middle of the century.

Jacobson suggests that president Xi’s desire could be generated many seasons into the alternate realities of Football Manager.

“It could already happen”, he says. “The investment that the Chinese government and businesses are making, especially in training facilities and education, have been noted by us and are reflected in game.”

Jacobson has been impressed with the infrastructure he has seen being put in the place during his own frequent visits to China, especially in schools: “To get coaches in place that many league clubs in Europe would be happy to have there working in schools is a very good starting place in president Xi’s push.”

Some of those children will go on to become professional players but what of those Chinese footballers already within the game?

Jacobson says it’s unlikely any will replicate the likes of Cherno Samba and Tonton Zola Moukoko from previous editions of the games, men who are now cult heroes in real life among FM fans, but whose real-life achievements never matched those in the virtual world.

“Those players were all what I would class as ‘data errors’ and from a time where it was harder for us to stop mistakes,” Jacobson says. “I certainly hope there won’t be another error like that in the game from anywhere in the world.”

There is room for true superstars in the game, though, when that time comes and Jacobson thinks China is giving itself its best chance of getting there: “I think what president Xi is doing will help China find what real footballing talent is there, but a player like Messi or Ronaldo can’t be manufactured. They will certainly have better chances of reaching their true potential which is something I don’t think was in place previously.”

One untapped area of potential is management and maybe that’s where Football Manager can influence real life.

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The company has developed a new game Football Manager Online for China, the reason for Jacobson’s visits, where players manage a team of their own creation rather than a predefined club and play against other human opponents instead of the game engine.

Jacobson describes it as “battle to see who is the best manager in China.”

Whoever takes that title might go on to more and given the China national team’s recent travails there could soon be another vacancy .

Football Manager 2017 is out on November 4th.