With the release of Football Manager 2017 I meet a yearly dilemma: Do I pay thirty pounds now to have one-hundred and fifty hours ripped out of the next twelve months, or wait for the Christmas sales and pay twenty to compress that game time to ten months. The time of purchase is usually reliant on Arsenal’s current form (which coincidently has a linear relationship with my love of football) and being able to justify spending money to fuel the addiction. The internal debate happens each year, why do I spend money to waste my time playing essentially the same game as the year before?
I am well aware this is not time I will get back. It’s unlikely that upon my deathbed Sports Interactive will apologise for empowering my addiction and offer me nearly seven hundred hours of my life back – even less likely since I plan to live another one-hundred plus years probably. Despite this I will inevitably buy the game, like a ritual that must be done to appease the gods, like the changing of the seasons, like Arsenal finishing above Spurs, I will buy the game and I am not the only one. So why do we do it, why do we buy essentially the same game with relatively minor upgrades year on year?
Well let’s start with those minor updates, what can you expect? The official website for Football Manager lists many improvements on the previous iteration, whether these improve the game or not we will see, but Sports Interactive’s (marketing) team seems (to be paid) to think so. Having bought each game since Football Manager 2012 I cannot tell you any particular upgrade between the games, they have seemed to get harder and the match engine looks nicer, but this has not driven my purchasing decision. The flurry of initial negative reviews on Steam that seems to greet the game’s release each year also fails to deter me. The one updated factor that does make me excited to return are the updated squads, I cannot get into a game save when that team’s star striker has been transferred (looking at you Milik), and although the communities transfer updates are of a very high standard I can’t help but want the official update least I miss out on the latest Peruvian wonder-kid I can sign for thirty pesos per international appearance for a maximum of ten games. But the high quality scouting and the depth of the database are not the sole reasons for me to spurn so much money yearly, we must go deeper.
Perhaps one of the most apparent reasons to play is the fantasy of being a football manager, at the helm of a multi-million pound franchise that delivers either joy or sadness each weekend to thousands, or even millions. We have all sat there on a Saturday doubting the calls made by the gaffer: Why’s Felliani starting again, what’s Wenger thinking bringing on Walcott this early, why didn’t Rangers sign eighteen year old Messi, thinking we can do better. Football Manager offers us the chance to live out these fantasies, and prove, to ourselves that we can win the champions league with Burton Albion if only we could catch a break.
The sense of accomplishment earned within this fantasy is the main driving force for myself. This is rather unique to the Football Manager series, or at least unique in sports video games, as this series really makes you work for any achievement. It’s one of a few games where hundreds of hours of gameplay, finely crafting your squad and tactics, can result in failure. There is no guarantee of success. This helps to accentuate any minor success you achieve as I have personally experienced, and this is true tenfold for the hardcore players who pour thousands of hours turning FC United of Manchester or Blyth Spartans into European powerhouses. Relative to this, my successes of guiding Nuremberg to European football and winning a Champions League with Arsenal in the previous iterations are minor, but I am still proud of them.
Through each of these main saves I had in Football Manager 2016 I grew attached to certain players. At Nuremberg, Patrick Bamford achieved icon status alongside his mentor, and dare I say friend, me. At Arsenal Danny Welbeck, brought in as a sub for an injured Giroud and slightly injured himself, pops up with a last gasp header to take the Champions League final to penalties. I struggle to think of any other game where there is really no story and yet you develop bonds and connections to players who are really just input sheets of data, which are then translated by the game into performances. This creates an element of uncertainty however due to the sheer amount of data and the ways in which this interacts with the match engine. Games are given an authentic feel due to this built-in randomness. This also gives this series such great re-playability as no two games are identical: in one game this unpredictability can conspire against you causing a one-nil loss, replay the game (cheater) and you may find that you win six-four.
This does not mean that the game requires no skill. Far from it, the level of skill and understanding required to set-up and perfect a tactics is very high. A non-football fan picking up this game would struggle to a far greater degree than they would playing FIFA for example. Even experienced football fans struggle as the various forums online attest to, full up with players frustrated with the failings of their tactics often missing a small detail spotted by another community member. Barring game exploitative tactics, no tactics will win every single match because of the element of randomness, driving those who chase the perfect tactic to madness as they tweak and tweak. To this end Football Manager offers an approachable enigma, a sort of logical problem dressed up as a football game.
Ultimately, we play for the reasons we play any game. We enjoy the game. We come back year on year to attempt to repeat or better our previous achievements, to set and meet new challenges. Is part of this masochism? Perhaps, but a real sense of accomplishment sometimes requires pain (like losing your brand new centre forward to a nine month illness). Football Manager is a chance to achieve in the face of adversity. It’s our Dark Souls, but with analytics, transfers and regens. In order to succeed you must work and get a little lucky, meaning each rush of dopamine released through a last minute winner is multiplied and meaningful.
So yes, I will be buying this year’s game – I just have to decide when.