Football Manager’s Miles Jacobson On Leicester, Brexit And Building Better Artificial Intelligence

Just before the launch of Football Manager 2017 [official site], with the beta already released to the many people who preordered the game, I spoke to Sports Interactive director Miles Jacobson about the changes his team have made in this latest game in the series. We talked about AI improvements, Brexit, and whether Leicester winning the Premier League was a happy day or a sad day at Sports Interactive.

With updates to the beta arriving regularly as the people playing provided feedback, commentary and complaints, Sports Interactive is a busy place around this time of year. The fortnight before launch day is an enormous playtest, in which more eyes are on the new version of the game than have been at any point during development.

Jacobson seems happy to take time away from assessment of new release candidate builds to talk though.

“Obviously there’s still a lot to do because it’s the week of release, but on the game side of things we are pretty much done and very very happy. That wasn’t the case last year, when we didn’t have a match engine I was happy with at this point, but this year I’m very happy with our match engine already.”

Having spent far too much time with the game already, I said that I thought the match engine showed clear improvements on anything the series had done before.

“It’s possible that by the end of this conversation, the release build of the match engine will be online. I’m waiting for an update on our internal chat system right now to see if we can push that live. I’m glad that you like what’s there. I’m happy with it but the final version is way better.”

A match, in Football Manager, is an incredibly complicated sequence of interactions. Players, driven by their stats and AI, make thousands of decisions, monitoring the state of play, the positions of their opponents and teammates, and the instructions given to them by the manager, whether that manager is controlled by a human or the computer. I’m interested to know how Sports Interactive go about overhauling those behaviours between versions, and in a video put out before the beta released, Jacobson talked about increasing the number of decisions that the artificial footballers make, so that they’re more likely to act rashly or bravely when the situation changes quickly.

“In previous versions of the game, players were making decisions every quarter of a second, so it was still the most decisions being made by an AI in any sports game, possibly in any game, but it has now been moved up to between one-seventh and one-eighth of a second. Before – and this was particularly noticeable in the final third of the pitch – all players, even non-greedy ones, wouldn’t look for chances to cut back a pass if there was even a slight chance of their own shot going into the net.

“The problem wasn’t that they didn’t have the intelligence to do something else, it’s that they weren’t checking for other options so they’d default to having a shot. What they’re doing now is more like what they’re doing in real life – they’re having a split-second look up to see what options are around them.

“Now, the more greedy players might still try to have a shot there, but those that care about the team more than maybe their own personal goal bonus are the ones that will look up and cut the ball back. But it’s not just the strikers, it’s the defenders as well. What I like seeing in the new match engine is defenders throwing themselves at the ball in that last second before a shot. They don’t always do it, just as they don’t in real life, but at least the possibility is there.

“It’s a really important thing because there aren’t many people who watch the full ninety minutes in FM. The most popular mode is key highlights and we have a lot of features in the game now that just show the games from other matches, and when you’re seeing just those brief highlights and you see repetition – the same kinds of goal or situation again and again – it takes you away from the believability of the football universe that we strive to have in there. When there’s more variation in the goals and when you see players doing more unique things, it’s better for everyone concerned.

“With the beta that we rolled out, there are still issues. The goalkeepers, in certain scenarios, particularly when the ball is very close to the post, sometimes do unbelievable things. We’re working very hard to eradicate that. Defenders, goalkeepers and other players will still make mistakes, and you’ll still see goals that seem unbelievable, but we try to have similar real-world examples we can pull out and show to people.”

If you follow football, you’ll most likely agree with me when I say that Leicester city’s Premier League triumph last season was remarkable. Top level football was exciting again, the grip of the biggest, richest clubs shattered – or at least loosened – in a way that seemed impossible even as it was happening.

As I was watching it all play out, I kept thinking about Football Manager. Was such an unlikely triumph a validation for every weird result and circumstance that the series had ever created? With Leicester sitting on top of the league, I saw a few jokey tweets directed at Sports Interactive suggesting the real world Premier League table looked like it needed to be patched immediately. So, yes, validation that this can happen in the real world as well as in a simulation. But also, perhaps, a concern that Leicester, in-game, now needed to be buffed in some way.

“The Leicester thing for us was brilliant. It showed that anything can happen in football, which is what we’re all about.

“When it comes to how we balance a team, we don’t just improve a club’s chances of winning. It always starts with the players. Look at Troy Deeney at Watford as an example. Troy’s potential and current ability don’t make him a world-class striker, but he has the right attributes to do a job for any team as a striker. He’s integral to the way that Watford play, in real life and in the game.

“With Leicester, they have a lot of players with very high workrate and they didn’t get many injuries during the season. They had the second lowest injuries in the Premier League, in fact. If you can keep a core of players together like that, you are likely to do well. And they didn’t run away with themselves, which is important as well. Even with five games to go til the end of the season, they were saying, “the aim now is to stay in the Champions League spots”.

“By not becoming complacent, they continued to work hard, as they’re doing in the Champions League right now. What is interesting is that if you’re managing one of the bigger teams, you might not be able to build a squad of players like Leicester have because hard-working players who don’t get carried away with themselves might not be attractive to your board and fans. They want excitement and ego and flair.

“Different players and tactics are important for different clubs and different scenarios. Look at Burnley this weekend [against Manchester United – ed], putting lots of players behind the ball, well-drilled. And it’s no surprise that Tom Heaton, in goal, has an incredible game, playing against the club that he trained at as a youth and always wanted to play for but was released before he could. Teams play how they need to in order to get results, and we simulate that. The AI adjusts based on what it has at its disposal and the status of its club.

“What can never happen is that a club’s success or lack of success means that we increase their odds of winning any given match. It always starts with the players and the tactics. If it were just a dice roll, with different probabilities weighting the result based on the status of the clubs involved, that wouldn’t work at all. It’s not the case in real life and it’s not the case in the game.”

As I mention in my review, these tactical nuances are clear to see in a match engine that is not only more detailed but more responsive than ever before. What’s harder to judge is the long-term shape of the game, and the ways in which the AI manages clubs over years and decades rather than ninety minute periods and single transfer windows. Football Manager has often struggled to maintain the credibility of its clubs’ behaviour in the long-term, and I asked Jacobson how his team were looking to remedy that.

“It is something that we’ve worked on this year. One of the key things we’ve done is to introduce the galacticos signings. In previous versions you wouldn’t have had Man United going out to buy Pogba when he became available because the AI would have thought that they had enough good players in that position. But if a player like that becomes available, the biggest clubs in the world will go out and try to get that player and worry about where he fits into the team later.

“That goes down to the lower levels as well. Clubs will look at young players who are coming through and predict which positions they’ll be able to fill and at what standard, and then they look to fill the holes that might exist. Obviously, they’re limited in what they can do by their budget. And things also change dramatically when Brexit happens, in terms of that kind of long-term squad-building.”

The inclusion of Brexit in the game has made headlines on sites that wouldn’t normally touch a Football Manager story with a Crouch-sized bargepole. I wondered when the decision to include the unpredictable political situation in the game was taken.

“The result of the vote came in on the Friday morning and I was meant to be going on a trip with Warchild to Uganda the next week. That trip was postponed and I sat in my pants on the sofa that weekend working out all the different permutations of how Brexit might affect the sport that I love. From a business perspective, there had already been emails sent around the studio about which way it might go and what it might mean for the studio, and I wrote a lengthy blog about that which includes some of what went into the game. But I literally sat there reading through the academic research, some of the statements from the ‘in’ and ‘out’ camps – and to be honest I didn’t get a great deal of useful information from either (laughs). I looked at the common sense of what might happen and the different work permit situations that might develop.

“Either Monday or Tuesday the next week, I sat down with the team and said I’ve got these possibilites worked out. I asked, “which of these can we implement?” They told me a couple that we couldn’t do and I asked for an estimate of how long it’d be before we could do it, an estimate, and pretty much everything did end up going in, even the possibility of Scotland leaving the UK to stay in the EU and the tiny chance of Northern Ireland doing the same. Even the Bosman rule not remaining as one of the laws.

“The percentage chances have changed a lot since then, from that initial calculation to the final game, but I’m quite politically minded so I do watch and read and listen to the various statements from political parties and business people to try and keep on top of the chances of various things happening.”

Would those percentages change when Sports Interactive release their January transfer update if the political situation has changed?

“Absolutely. The percentage chances could change today if Theresa May makes a speech.”

Football Manager 2017 is out tomorrow, direct from the developer and via Steam, for PC, Mac and Linux.

From this site

11 Comments

  1. Laurentius says:

    Interesting but very vague. Now that is a situation I would be delighted if someone dive deep into the code of the game to explain how FM is going to simulate Gonzalo Higuain’s inability to score in big games for Argentina even in easy situations?

  2. tixylix says:

    The Brexit people get on my nerves, all they ever say is “I hate Europe” and a load of crap with nothing else to back up their statement. All they go on about is freedom of movement of immigrants… missing out the part where it’s got WORKERS infront of it. This doesn’t stop Syrians coming over, it just stops people coming over for work filling jobs we need to be filled. I’m sorry your job as a Doctor got taken by someone from the EU… oh you’re not a doctor, you’re picking/packing in a warehouse…. you don’t have a good job because you’re thick as shite.

    All we’re doing by leaving is making things crap for ourselves, half the bloody laws we negotiate and do something different to any ways, they’re not binding. Laws that people go on about fishing regulations…. well do you think they go when we leave? No they’re there for population control or we end up with no fish.

    Now we have people on TV saying “we cannot block Brexit, it’s the will of the British people”… no it’s the will of probably 10 million idiots and 7 million people who voted because they were confused or angry. 17 million people out of 70 million people in the country…. not the will at all, especially since now Scotland and N Ireland didn’t want it. Most of the people who voted out are the poor up north… the very people who will be hurt the most by the currency falling in value as the prices of everything goes up.

    I bet if we did a second referendum the vote wouldn’t go the same way. However the Tories are trying to get out in an undemocratic way… if they were so confident the British people wanted out, why not do a second vote? Why not allow the MPs to have a say in the process?

    Now we’re being called Remoaners….. so I have to listen to you lot saying how you hate the EU for 30 years, but I cannot stand up for the EU now? I’m not trying to stop democracy, I’m using it by saying my beliefs, why not have a second vote? Lets just really make sure before we ruin the country.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Brexit and Donald Trump are cries for help by those people who get left behind by progress. The people who don’t match the “skilled, flexible and hard working” descriptions that are always attached to the “this will benefit you” statements. Because the sane politicians failed to provide a plan for these people they are turning to snake oil salesmen who pretend that the solution is easy and painless (and possibly involves punishing the people they hate anyway). The solutions are pure garbage and will not help the working class one iota but there seems to be a lot of hope that radically shaking up the status quo cannot possibly make things worse for them so they want to try their luck.

      Without a plan to address those left behind this will not go away. If it doesn’t pass as Brexit or Donald Trump it will arise in another, equally bad form.

      Waiting for old age to kill them won’t be enough, there’s always going to be more people left behind until we address the problem. Young people may not vote for this incarnation but once they’re older the ones that didn’t make the cut may vote for whatever form “burn it all down” takes the next time around.

      • tixylix says:

        They got left behind because guess what, not everyone can be rich, they fill the role in society that they carved out for themselves. This has nothing to do with Europe and everything to do with their own selves…

        It’s easy to sit drinking Cider outside the Job Centre and moaning how you don’t have a job… but tbh look in the mirror to why no one wants to hire you. Maybe you work in a low income job… well what are you expecting out of life? How about you go get some education and then move to some other country in Europe and use that education there if there is no work here?

        All leaving the EU does is hurt the UK and now we’re going to have this non vote where the only option is the Tories, they’re dressing up the upcoming election as choice, but who do you vote for? Labour are dead and their tramp of a leader wants Brexit as well, he’s not a Labour leader…

        Any ways I’m just hoping Scotland grows a backbone and leaves the UK, then we’ll see NI rejoin Ireland and the destruction of the UK. Then we’ll see little old England on it’s own with the Bitch Wales and just how little England means in the world today as the Pound drops to like £100 to a Dollar and a tiny economy that matters nothing, especially when all the Banks leave London.

    • Fnord73 says:

      ” I’m sorry your job as a Doctor got taken by someone from the EU… oh you’re not a doctor, you’re picking/packing in a warehouse…. you don’t have a good job because you’re thick as shite. ”

      Ah, really? The reason why the EU folks lost the vote is made abundantly clear right here. I happen to have a degree in history from uni, and I have worked a lot in warehouses and factories trundling along on my forklift, both as a student and later as an artist in order to make money. And let me tell you, some of the best and smartest folks I have met have been in those jobs, people who can build their own cars with their own hands and so on. If you think that the “proles” are all stupid as shit, odds are that they will not take you very seriously when you try to talk politics TO them as opposed to with them. The elitism of the current ruling system is about to give us the biggest FY in history with president Trump, wich will be an utter and total disaster, and usher in a new era of fascism. Well played fking elitist snobs, well played.

      (When oh when will we get the “Industrial Forklift Simulator”, by the way, oh high and mighty gameindustry who has given us Trucksimulators en masse?)

      • Themadcow says:

        Well said.

        On a separate note I love the way some people are absolutely convinced that all 17m who voted Leave are confused or stupid. Yet when I try to have a debate with the people who say these things, I tend to find that their awareness of macro-economics and the EU is borderline non-existent. I’ve yet to meet a Remain voter who can explain to me how changing nothing my staying in the EU would help the UK tackle the underlying trade deficits that have left our “wealthy” country as the most indebted in the world.

        • gwop_the_derailer says:

          Woah! Are you claiming to be some kind of… expert? Not sure Michael Gove approves of the likes of you…

          Anyway, I’m sure the parliament would love to hear the three Brexiteers’ road plan to reduce Britain’s trade deficit.

      • spindaden says:

        Ask and ye shall receive:

        link to store.steampowered.com

      • gwop_the_derailer says:

        Well, when poor people expect Thatcher’s party to look out for their best interests, you can’t really blame others for calling them idiots.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    Thanks Adam for this interesting interview. This year really seems like a good one to update my Football Manager, especially considering the improvements to match engine and players AI.

    Full disclosure (steam source), I am officially a FM addict :
    Football Manager 2010 : 1979 hours
    Football Manager 2011 : 2509 hours
    Football Manager 2014 :3490 hours

    Cumulated : 7978 hours

    I always watch full matches for official games and just recently started to use key highlights for friendlies. FM is quite my unnoficial screen saver while I do other things, lol !

  4. Hedgehogs says:

    I wonder if they fixed the inflation in the game where any 4+ star player would be unattainable. I had a Spurs game where, in my second season, I sold Son to Madrid for $120M (already ridiculous) and tried to buy Coutinho from Liverpool for $400M (yes, four hundred million). Liverpool was insulted and told me to come back with a real offer. Ditto for Pogba, Neymar, basically any 4+ star player under 25. I ended up just banking hundreds of millions because I couldn’t spend it on upgrades, which ruined the game for me, because it was unrealistic and because I couldn’t make my team any better, despite me being able to.

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