Why Football Manager Controls My Life

Football Manager knows it is a time sink. When you load a save game, it shows a message based on “addictedness rating”; I’ve been told to order pizza so I don’t die of starvation, that sleep is for sissies, and that flipping my underwear inside out is a great way to avoid washing clothes. I’ve won the FA cup, only to realise it’s 7am and I haven’t gone to sleep. I am twelve seasons and 370 real hours into my job as manager of Grimsby Town FC, but I’m not hooked because I’m a football fan.

One of my best friends describes Football Manager as “like FIFA, but without actually playing.” In some ways that is accurate; the gameplay in Football Manager is effectively just playing around with colourful Excel spread sheets. Most people would find that kind of system incredibly dull, but it isn’t the gameplay that keeps me engaged. It is, believe it or not, the narrative.

Obviously a sports sim doesn’t have a consistent, central narrative. Indeed, at face value there is no narrative at all. But it is this distinct lack of constructed narrative that allows Football Manager to unlock its full story-telling potential. Every event that takes place – every new signing, every match, and every press conference – is part of the narrative. Or maybe “narratives” is a better word; there are a series of intertwining stories unfolding: my journey as a manager, the club’s rise and fall, and the specific careers of each player. Each of these feeds into the others, creating an incredibly complex tale if you want to look hard enough.

My first attempt at playing Football Manager resulted in me being fired from three clubs in as many seasons. Not the glorious start I wanted, but then again, I did have to lie about my age before they would even let me manage a team. While I started over for my current save file, I still count those very unsuccessful times as part of my personal meta-narrative. They were my uneasy first steps as a manager before I found my feet and became the premiership-holding, Champions Cup-winning, miracle-making manager that I am today.

One of the most emotional moments for me is when a player retires. Their personal story as a player comes to an end, and Football Manager presents you with that brief narrative: what clubs they played for, the successes and glory they obtained, and whether or not they plan to stick around as a coach or staff member. Perhaps I am simply too invested in my team of fictional footballers, but Football Manager allows me to create and enjoy my own stories based on the successes and failures of my team.

But this is not something unique to Football Manager. Part of the reason simulation games are so popular is that they allow you to experience a slice of life different to your own, complete with the ups and downs, in a neat little package. Maybe you have a bad harvest in Farming Simulator, or maybe you don’t make your delivery in Euro Truck Simulator. Maybe the opposite is true and you’re rewarded with a huge pay day. Either way, you still get to experience a journey with variation and, if you’re particularly invested (or hopelessly passionate about everything in video games, like me), it can be almost as enjoyable as a meticulously crafted narrative.

While simulation games are an obvious place to find this player-driven story mechanic, it does exist in other types of games, including those that do actually have a pre-existing narrative. Since its release, I’ve read many people’s experiences playing Journey, with each one being unique and characterised by the other players they met and “interacted” with. Even though Journey has its own story – understated as it may be – the real experience is created by the players.

The main advantage of video games as a format in terms of player-driven narrative like this is instant gratification. It takes an entire season to find out whether my team wins the league or fails dismally and gets relegated; in Football Manager, with a little dedication and some energy drinks, I can play through an entire 9 month season in an evening. All the experiences – the clashes with rivals, buying and selling players, league successes and cup defeats – are condensed into a short period of time, resulting in one hell of an emotional rollercoaster ride – and a lot of sleep deprivation.

Hours of my life aren’t pumped into Football Manager because it has compelling gameplay or outstanding graphics. Football Manager isn’t taunting me about my level of addiction because it has an engrossing tale of good conquering evil, or anything of the sort. I’m not even the type of rabid fan you would expect to play a game like this; I watch maybe one A-League match a year when I can catch a broadcast, I don’t follow any English Premier League teams, and before playing Football Manager I had never even heard of Grimsby Town FC.

But what Football Manager does have is a framework that allows me to craft my personal tale of triumph and defeat. I am the manager of (formerly fifth-tier) English Premier League side Grimsby Town FC and the No. 1 best Australian manager of all time – and I, personally, made all of that happen.

Originally published in PC Powerplay #228.