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

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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.

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