The Joy Of Football Manager’s sparse crowds

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We’re poised in the drop zone, hanging on by a thread, and nobody seems to care if we cling on by the skin of our teeth or tumble into oblivion.

I am the manager of Bury FC and the terrible results aren’t the worst thing about this season. The truly heartbreaking thing is the apparent demise of a small club and its generations-old local support base. If a last minute goal condemns a team to relegation and nobody is around to see the ball hit the net, does it even matter? In Football Manager [official site], they only sing when you’re winning.

Football Manager’s 3d match engine is optional and I know plenty of people who’d rather pick a fight with Roy Keane than use it. They stick to the commentary mode, or the top-down 2d pitch, but I’ve been a convert of the 3d engine since its second year.

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The appeal is partly in watching something that resembles football, so I can pretend I’m down on the touchline barking orders rather than tinkering with a simulation, but it’s also in the little details. Burger vans are parked around the grounds, players will occasionally do that sheepish thing where they kick someone’s legs from under them and then run away from the referee as if they have an urgent appointment on the other side of the pitch, and I have absolutely shouted at opponents who are clearly diving or going down after the slightest contact.

Like football itself, the match engine leaves some aspects of the game open to interpretation. But the finest of all the details isn’t open to interpretation at all. When your players file out onto the patch, a glance at the stands will tell you precisely how packed or empty the ground is, and blocks of empty seats can be as crushing as any goal.

You can see the actual numbers, of course. At half-time the attendance is revealed and you’ll be told what the likelihood of a sell-out or unusually low turn-out is before the match, but I love that I can see the evidence for myself. That’s partly because I can’t think of another sports games that treats crowds as changeable things. Load up Pro Evo or FIFA and every match, from a pre-season friendly to a Champions League Final, is the BIGGEST AND BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED. The crowds wave their flags and go through their chants as if they’re trying to summon the god of football to witness the sacrifices made in his name, and the commentators bang on and on about how important it all is.

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What Football Manager gets is that football isn’t always important. Sometimes, when Bury are playing Fleetwood in a mid-table, mid-week slog, nobody really cares. Not even the fans. And if Bury are playing badly, people will stay in the pub or at home. Or, worst of all, they’ll start supporting one of the Big Manchester Teams instead. And so will their kids, and their kids’ kids.

And that’s why the crowd means so much to me. My inbox might tell me that average attendance is only 25% of the ground’s capacity, and shrinking, but seeing it for myself makes all the difference. I’ve been in those stands – those specific stands, at the real Gigg Lane which Bury still call home – and the patchwork of people scattered across them is strange and sad. I’ll never take Bury to the Premier League in my current Football Manager save, but I might bring a few thousand more people through the turnstiles every weekend, and that’d be an achievement.

Or we might be playing to a near-empty house next year, down in League Two, with a complete lack of financial support to go with our lack of fan support. Sport isn’t all glory and banners and chants; it can be sad and lonely.

Football Manager’s crowds tell all kinds of stories. Right now, I don’t think any of the stories I’m hearing have a happy ending.

8 Comments

  1. kins.akd says:

    I realized nobody had commented on this piece, so I HAD to create an account just to do so.

    Great insight, really, even though I’ve abandoned the way-too-complex football managing sims more than a decade ago, I can relate. We all call ourselves unconditional fans, but deep below we know that if our team isn’t playing for anything, we’d rather watch the game on tv. It happens here, and it’d seems it happens over there as well. Sometimes, even fighting to stay just out of relegation is a better incentive to go to the stadium than being mid-table.

    Thanks for the original observation, and good luck to you! Don’t lose hope yet!

  2. Dogahn says:

    Fascinating that this game feature exists. I don’t play sports management games normally, but this attention to the reality of teams on the fringe, rooted on by friends & family of the players and not some gigantic corporate machine, is intriguing.

    I understand the goal is to become one of those ginormous organizations, so how does one recover from being so far off the talent scale? It’s not like you can coach weekenders into top tier talent.

    • tasteful says:

      fm is like a paradox game, small clubs are fun to play as and try to work your way to promotion

    • Troubletcat says:

      Generally speaking the process of taking a low-tier team to a considerably higher level in FM involves gradually transferring in better players over the course of several seasons.

      If you’re performing above expectations in a league because you’re doing a good job with tactics and general management, you can start to attract better players to your club, and the board will be more willing to splash a little more cash for transfers and wages.

      You do have to be a little careful though – you risk upsetting your players if you’re replacing too many of them too fast, not giving people their promised playtime, etc.

      I’m not interested in real-life sports in the slightest but recently got into playing FM17 on account of… there aren’t many strategy or management games with more complexity and attention to detail, and that’s something I am super into.

      • Silent_Thunder says:

        It’s one of the reasons I love the Total Extreme Wrestling series. Yeah, at it’s core, you’re playing pretend with wrestling stories that only need to make sense to you, and if you aren’t being honest with what people are being judged on in angles it’s really easy to game the system.

        But the real joy is in managing the people in it. The interpersonal spats, the problems of larger promotions like the WWE raiding your talent. The fact that the next big thing, your new Hulk Hogan, is really your new Roman Reigns and despite investing years of effort into him, the fans don’t care or like him because they are fickle.

        Or hell sometimes the owner is fickle. My current game is a real world mod set in 1991, as Herb Abrams’s UWF, and Herbie, in his coke filled lunacy (not a exaggeration, the man IRL was a massive coke fiend), wants me to bury our best up and comer to the level of jobber because they hate each other.

        It really is the managing of it as a whole that makes it fun. Even when bad things happen like a career ending botch or a drug conviction taking away your favorite guy.

  3. racccoon says:

    looks like its an away game in the sticks

  4. fish99 says:

    That’s a nice feature. It always strikes me as odd in a game like Forza when I’m racing some crappy 100 bhp hatchbacks in a 5 minute race, that not only did we get to race at Indionapolis but that 200,000 people turned out to watch.

  5. Rihadan says:

    I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only person looking at the crowds. As a reallife football chairman too those empty seats can be the reason for that budget cut next year.