Thursday, January 13, 2011

Football Manager 2011: My Cruel and Tempting Mistress

Back in 2001, I happened to pick up a remaindered British gaming magazine called Strategy Player because it had a disc with game demos on it. In that magazine, there was a review of a game called Championship Manager 00/01, which to me at the time looked absolutely enthralling. Unfortunately, that was the age when if you didn't live in the region where a game might be popular, you'd never be able to buy it, and as a North American, soccer management games were never going to be popular, so I'd never seen that series over here.

And every time I would look through that magazine, I'd wonder about that game series, but I'd soon forget about it.

Skip ahead to last month and my discovery over the course of a single Sunday afternoon that a) my integrated graphics card could play higher end games than I first suspected, b)I unintentionally became aware that there was a PC soccer game called Football Manager 2011 released about a month before that day with some really compelling reviews and c) the place I went to buy it was having a sale that day making it almost 50% off. So I bought it.

I was to later discover that the Football Manager series is the spiritual descendant of Championship Manager... Eidos kept the original name, and the developer, Sports Interactive, moved on and started doing their own games, with Sega distributing their work. So in essence, I was buying into the series that I had wanted to get into for almost a decade.

As a North American, I was also rather surprised to read that the week the game came out, it was the top selling game in Britain. And when I look at some of the other games it beat, well, that is truly impressive. I was to later learn that FM 2011 outsold World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, The Sims III and Starcraft II in Britain in 2010. That is a lot of sales. And yet, it doesn't really get anywhere near that amount of attention on this side of the Atlantic, despite the various legal ways of acquiring it like Steam and other direct download services. The fact that the official site doesn't even list North American in its buying options is an indication that really, I wasn't the target audience for this game.

To best express the general feeling that one of these games gives you, this trailer for the 2008 iteration of the series really nails it while also giving Rudyard Kipling his due.

I love the fact that every trailer I've seen for one of these games touts the experience without showing in-game footage, because frankly, seeing the game in action in a trailer wouldn't do it justice. It isn't really pretty to look at compared with the FIFA or even FIFA Manager series, but it just feels right. There is just so much depth in this game that I really don't need it rendered in 3D and pixel-shaded out the wazoo.

Of course, it can be run in 3D if you want it to, but I prefer watching the little circles move around. I guess that makes me weird these days. I should also mention that aside from the actual games themselves, there is no sound or music. I have to admit that took some getting used to.

But as someone who has had a long abiding interest in soccer games, one thing that has always managed to garner my interest in a particular title is how many leagues and teams it has. Football Manager 2011 has leagues from 51 countries, encompassing 117 different leagues. To put that in perspective, FIFA 11 only has 25 countries and 31 leagues. That is a lot of teams, and a lot of players.

But the thing that is amazing is it is so easy for the modding community to add new content to this game as well. For instance, the game starts off with you being able to choose the English leagues down to the sixth level. Well, someone then created a mod that opened up the league system down to the 8th level. Then someone created a database so you could play as teams 11 levels down in the English Football League System. That's a lot of teams and a rather wide pyramid. I mean, that ends up being almost 1500 teams. It is mind-boggling that a group of people are that dedicated to the sport that they put something like this together... and there is work being done to take it down to level 12. And people are making these kinds of efforts for a lot of regions in the game which either don't have their leagues in the game as of yet in a structured way (like Africa for instance) or extending the league structure in countries like Iceland down farther than I ever thought possible.

But having a lot of teams can't save a mediocre title, and I am glad to say that FM 2011 really does give you an emotionally-fulfilling and deep experience as well.

Let me tell you a tale. I started my first game unemployed and just applied for coaching jobs as they opened up. I eventually got a job with a second division club in Turkey called Diyarbakirspor, and at the beginning, I had some successes, even though I didn't exactly know what I was doing. But then, the team started losing, and I just couldn't get out of the skid. I was getting really emotionally involved in what was happening. And as the losses mounted, (oh, and what a winless streak it was), I could tell I was losing the team too and they had stopped playing for me. Then they started telling me to my face that they didn't trust me. There was a point where I could tell I was going to get fired but I didn't know exactly when.

Then the hammer finally fell after a tough loss, and the moment I read the press release, I almost felt relieved.

The longer I play the game, the more nuances I see. I experienced the heartbreak of losing a good player because I got caught between an arbitrarily set fee from my board and the machinations of an agent who was looking for just a little more from our organization than I could provide... and then that same agent then tried to screw me really bad on another one of their clients just because he didn't like the fact that he thought I wasted his time on the previous deal. Or watching a promising season and cup run collapse because a few of my players got a little overzealous during a game against a rival and got themselves suspended or injured. Or seeing a player thrive after moving them a little bit out of their normal position and discovering how a team can come together if you put it together in the right formation on the field.

Football Manager is one of those games that to understand just how addictive it is, you actually have to play it. Because once you are in, it is like crack and one of those experiences that has you constantly saying to yourself, just one more game or one more season or even one more transfer, and knowing that if you get things just right, you too can be a champion, even with the lowliest of teams. In fact, Football Manager is part of the reason I haven't been blogging as much lately. And for a single game to do that to me, that speaks volumes about its addictiveness. But it was some of the best money I've ever spent given the hours I've put into it and will likely put into it in the future.


Arjan said...

now I'm curious to see what kind of team you formed. Were there any famous ones?
How is football doing in Canada btw..I can't remember ever seeing the Canadian team playing (not that we get a North/middle america cup on tv here..)

MC said...

A picture of my current team is here, though I dropped Martin Astudillo and picked up Markus Heikkinen in his place.

Association Football has a place in Canada, but it is far from the national sport and aside from two teams in the MLS (Toronto and Vancouver and soon to be joined by Montreal), it isn't huge here.

Peter Lynn said...

Now you're making me want to resume playing the discontinued-but-kept-alive-via-fan-updates Eastside Hockey Manager.

Really, even though I'm a good Canadian hockey fan, the enjoyment level should be at least as high with Football Manager, as the games are more about the managerial aspect than about the particulars of the sport. However, I know full well that picking up Football Manager would be a gateway to full-fledged soccer fandom, and my girlfriend would kill me if I made her a multi-sport widow.

MC said...

Well, it is the same developer... and I would totally buy a copy of EHM if it was still available.

But yeah, FM is a relationship strainer (or if you believe twitter searches for it, a relationship ender).

Powdered Toast Man said...

Shouldn't it be called Futbol? or is that just in Spanish countries? I've never played a soccer video game. I've played NFL football, baseball, basketball and hockey. I'm sure it is a good game but doesn't interest me in the least.

MC said...

I know the Brazilians call it that yes.

And it is completely fine that you don't have an interest in it. What a boring world it would be if we were all into the same things. But I respect your opinion on the matter.