Ian Football, manager of Worcester City football club, can’t come to the phone right now, so I’m here to hold the line until he gets back.
I just wanted to say: I am really enjoying Football Manager 2012.
It’s hardly a secret that the majority of the many-fingered RPS hivemind is dismissive to the point of scornfulness about football, a sport/insane fantasy world so beloved of hyper-testosteronal, hyper-territorial peabrains who care more about the fortunes of a coloured shirt and a few multi-millionaire charisma vacuums than they do those of their own family. However, despite appearances it’s not true that I personally despise the sport itself. I have been known to occasionally find myself in front of a screen depicting 22 men running around, while holding a pint of alcoholic fun-juice in my hand. Only occasionally, mind.
While my mugging-to-camera faux-idiocy probably conveyed the impression of total ignorance, I didn’t go into Football Manager entirely unaware of its strategic charms, but nonetheless I’m taken aback by how absorbing it is to get behind and far away from the headlines about whether a ham-faced embezzler is going to take up the abandoned mantle of an overpaid Italian who couldn’t be bothered to learn the native language of the country he was working in, and find myself in a far smarter land. How fine it is to look so closely at football itself, away from the endemic racism and aggression, the absurd speculation, the mad identification with perfect strangers and instead to focus only on what it’s really about: honing a machine, coming up with a strategy, running a business, becoming a success.
There is much I still don’t understand – not in terms of the words or concepts, but in terms of what are the effective, smart ways to approach hiring, transfers, loans, budgets, training, play styles. I will, quite inevitably, mess it all up horribly. Ian Football, let’s not kid ourselves here, is absolutely doomed. But Alec Meer (hello!) – he’s relishing the chance to learn and experience something new, both in terms of strategy/management gaming and of the football industry, the real world behind the pop-cultural frenzy.
It is a deeply thoughtful and nuanced game, and the derisive calls of ‘it’s just a spreadsheet!’ from the uninitiated have it all wrong in a profound way. It is a game about football… but it also isn’t. It is a videogame first and foremost, one with all the depth and cleverness and complexity that some folk round these parts ritually claim has been eradicated from today’s titles by the money-hungry hordes of mainstream console action games.
Sure, it’s visually crude, even clunky, even after all these years – simply cramming in untold amounts of information clearly takes precedent far above presentation, writing and tone. But I’m fine with that. Watch it churn away to itself even on an overclocked Intel Core i7 chip and a fast SSD, and it’s clear it’s up to a hell of a lot. It’s making the brain of my PC work in a way it rarely does. It’s making the brain of me work in a way it rarely does.
On top of the number-crunching, the player-juggling and the book-balancing, it’s also a quietly remarkable roleplaying game. I am Ian Football, a character of nominative determinism who, self-evidently, was designed as something of a joke. But I am also a calmly positive and encouraging manager of a football team, a man who doesn’t like to diss his rivals in the newspapers, a man who wants to appease any unhappiness among his players, rather than boot them out the door in favour of someone who’ll just get on with things.
I can play the game in a way that reflects my own character, and not purely my forward-planning and risk-taking. And, in turn, my character and my decisions affect real (well, a simulacrum of real) situations and people, not the fate of a race of aliens or a shopkeeper who’s lost his magic key or an immortal amnesiac in search of purgation.
Everyday roleplaying. Roleplaying with plausible events and results. Roleplaying that isn’t about what cutscene I’ll see at the end or whether I’ll get to have sex with a woman made of gas. Real roleplaying.
I don’t want to gush emptily, however. There’s much I don’t like, of course – it’s an incredibly complacent game and coldly, hilariously unwelcoming even to people who know football but don’t know Football Manager. Doesn’t stop me. This is a fascinating game.
Oh, by the way – I can confirm that Ian Football was indeed offered the England job, but he turned it down because he felt he’d be compromising his moral values if he worked with John Terry.
Ian Football will return very soon.