How 25 years of AI development and messy reality shape Football Manager

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This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the difficult journeys they underwent to make the best bits of their games. This time, Football Manager [official site].

Do want to play a cavernously deep simulation of a world of viciously competing factions? Do you dream of leading your people to glory and dominating all comers? Do you relish bending complex systems of law to your advantage? Do you savour the idea of surveying the world for the sharpest operators and spying on your rivals’ smallest decisions?

Forget Crusader Kings 2. Its network of aristocratic machinations is a kid’s toy next to Football Manager. And nothing in Football Manager is quite as vast and encompassing as the transfer market, in which hundreds of thousands of players, scouts, agents, and managers live out digital careers in an international scene of countries and leagues. 25 years in the making, Football Manager’s transfer system is a blend of artificial intelligence, maths and hard data, and it’s designed to simulate the real business of football, behaving credibly into an infinite future of football. “We haven’t perfected it,” director Miles Jacobson tells me. “But we’re pretty close.”

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The transfer market was a major reason why the original game, called Championship Manager, took off. Even as it was being developed by brothers Paul and Oliver Collyer from their bedroom in 1992, the aims of the series were set. Its tagline was “The most realistic football management simulation ever!” And that was reflected in its transfer market. Typically, management games of the time would offer each week a random player at a random price to choose to buy, but Championship Manager featured a flexible market which acknowledged that players don’t have a single value for all comers. Just as in the real world, a player can be worth very different amounts to different clubs.

Jacobson illustrates the point with a modern real-world example: “One club chief executive told me this summer that he got a friend of his in Spain to phone up a club in France to find out how much they’d sell a player for, and they were quoted €6 million, and then when he phoned up, he was told €16 million.” Over the years, as regulations have tightened and Football Manager’s own ambitions have expanded, it has grown to model all of the causes of phenomena like this; they’re incredibly expansive and even to someone as unmoved by football as me, they’re fascinating.

There are economic effects, as illustrated by Jacobson’s story. English clubs are simply richer than most others across the world, so they’re charged more money for players. Competition comes into play, too. A local rival or the clubs in the same division will likely want more money for their players because they see them as a challenger to their positions.

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Some of the variances in value between countries are down to them having different registration rules, which set how many foreign players can be in a squad for domestic matches. On top of the individual rules imposed by each country’s FA, all teams competing in European competitions sanctioned by UEFA need four players who were homegrown in the club’s country, and four homegrown in the club itself. Some of these rules didn’t exist when Championship Manager first appeared. There wasn’t even a defined transfer window, setting the times of year when clubs can register new players in their squad.

Then there’s the world of contracts. Another of the original Championship Manager’s innovations was the ability to set up contracts which paid a weekly salary and then awarded bonuses on scored goals. Now there are hundreds of possible clauses, including minimum release fees, which set a minimum for the amount another club can bid to buy that player. They can end after certain dates and a new minimum release fee release clause can be set for the season afterwards. The possibility space in which managers can manage their funds, attract players and massage their morale and drive is extraordinary.

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There’s the personal world. When a club makes an offer on a player, does that player believe they will reach their potential at that club? Do they believe that club will be a stepping stone to better things? Will they be happy there forever? Do they think they’ll actually get to play or will they be stuck on the bench? Some personality types want to play every week, and they’ll take less money if they’ll be getting the chance to be on the first team. Other players are out there to earn as much money as possible. Some think they’re not going to be good enough to play and see a chance to rinse as much money as they possibly can out of the contract. A younger player might have huge belief in their ability and settle for lower salary but a higher appearance fee. And then there’s the human side. Players can get homesick, and they’ll look at the city and even the number of players who speak their language before signing a contract; if the club doesn’t seem like a good fit, they might not go.

All these factors are constantly churning in Football Manager; each manager, scout, player and agent is weighing them up and making decisions. “It’s an incredibly complicated and complex part of the game because all of those clauses require believable AI,” says Jacobson. Any decision you can make in the game, the AI can, too. The contractual clauses have to be believable, and since you and all these other actors are all in the simulation, everyone is responding to everyone else. “The amounts of maths in the game is absolutely incredible. We should’ve thought a few years ago of selling to Google as an AI company rather than becoming part of Sega.”

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The decisions around the transfer market are based on a process called shortlisting. Clubs look through their squads and their players’ abilities and then, limited by their scouting knowledge and reach, look at other players in the world to see the options they have to improve themselves with the resources they have available. Scouting means that some clubs have better knowledge about the world than others, but still, when it comes to transfer deadline day, the game can slow to a crawl as every club in the world is re-doing their shortlist.

The detail in all these systems is where Football Manager’s magic is, the deep and involving play that satisfies millions of players who on average sink 200 hours a year into the game. Right now, Jacobson is managing a club which is about to get stung by a £5 million financial fair play fine because of the high salaries he’s paying. But he got into a European competition, which means he needs more talented players in his squad. “I knew I’d get a fine and what it’d be, and took it into account with my transfer spending. I’ve spent £5 million less than I could have and I won’t get in trouble with my board at the end of the season.”

That’s why Football Manager focuses so much on reality. When minimum fee release clauses started appearing in the real world, Sports Interactive jumped to ensure the AI could start putting the same clause into its contracts. And when Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain cost €222 million, making him the world’s most expensive player, they had to ensure the AI could be capable of making a similar deal.

And in reality, there are little tactical nuances, such as a well-known way of finding great players for low, low prices in Romanian and Ukrainian clubs, another real-world quirk that seeps into the game. Or there’s a get-rich-quick method for Venezuelan clubs, whereby they can sell their players to Spanish clubs, which can get European work permits much quicker than other Euro countries. By putting a sell-on fee on their original contract, the Venezuelan club gets a nice bonus when the Spanish club sells those players on to a rich English organisation at a higher price.

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Jacobson sees such tactics as features rather than problems: “They’re not really exploits, unless the real world is an exploit, and maybe it is.” And it all naturally balances out through transfer regulations and wider economic shifts (“when Brexit kicks in, you might not have the ability to do that any more”), and the fact there’s a limited supply of cut-price superstars anyway.

Meeting the complexity of reality makes the system robust, with many little systems performing individual checks and balances that tend to steer things correctly. But Football Manager also has to take into account player perception. Injuries, for example, occur at 80% of the rate they do in the real world because players, who experience seasons across hours rather than months, don’t find the real rate credible (in fact, they often believe the game’s reduced rate is too high). As for the transfer market, the simulation doesn’t feature inflation, other than in one league, the American MLS, because it came as part of Sports Interactive’s licence.

“The rest of the game we keep at real-world values because inflation is a bitch, and perception-wise, if a player when you start playing the game is £5 million and then, 13 years down the line, is £50 million, that’s not going to sit right with the believability, because people always base their knowledge on what’s in the real world, not on what’s going to be there in the future.” Jacobson maintains that the lack of inflation is also part of Football Manager’s general drive to transparency: if some system goes haywire and the market combusts, Sports Interactive could blame it on inflation, and that wouldn’t be cricket (football) at all.

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He describes all these interlocking systems as a ‘giant jigsaw puzzle’, and as a whole it has, by and large, grown organically over time, with new systems being bolted into it. They’re tested and tweaked until they behave credibly, through automated testing and overnight soak tests, with the systems outputting data on spreadsheets. But the team also plays the game, because it reveals problems that are easy to miss in reams of data. For example, there’s just been an issue in the beta of Football Manager 2018 (the full release is this Friday) where every new goalkeeper it generated had a rating of one for passing. It was just a bug, but if beta testers hadn’t been playing six years into the build, they’d never have noticed.

But six years of play is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how long Football Manager is engineered to remain believable. It’s meant to be played to infinity. All through that time, the transfer market has to keep churning, and the players in it have to maintain that balance of great and middling and bad, with the odd wonderkid from Angola appearing to keep things spicy. As you might imagine, planning for infinity isn’t easy: “The problem with wanting it to be infinite is that every game is different. It’s bastard-hard to get right.”

35 Comments

  1. automatic says:

    I wonder if there’s a system to simulate players who fake injuries to run away from tough games and keep their advertising contracts safe, like Neymar did on the World Cup finals.

    Nice article btw. You managed to make me interested in a soccer themed video game, and I hate soccer.

    • Rituro says:

      I can confirm that when I first learned about FM (or “Worldwide Soccer Manager” as it was called in N. America for a short while) almost a decade ago, I was not nearly as interested in soccer as I am now. It’s a fantastic game.

    • Troubletcat says:

      Can’t say I’ve ever seen it happen for that specific reason, but players will fake injuries in certain circumstances.

      I’ve also seen things like players that are unhappy with their contract (particularly those who are not very professional) intentionally throwing matches until you let them go.

      I have literally no interest in real-life sports but I picked up FM17 and played it for a couple hundred hours and have now bought FM18. Because I am interested in management sim kinda games and the depth of the simulation in FM is pretty astounding.

      You do need a high tolerance for what amounts to RNG, though – even if your tactics are great, sometimes your players have an off day and the opposition has a good one, and it can be incredibly frustrating when you see your players make stupid mistakes in important games. And it’s worth keeping in mind that this is also a lot of what makes the game exciting to play when it could otherwise be very dry.

      Also not knowing about the real-world sport means you’ll likely really struggle with match tactics. I stubbornly refuse to read guides or use tactics other people have created and am just now, after 300-something hours of play, starting to feel like I have a decent understanding of how to set up a good tactic.

      Still, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the genre of video games its in, regardless of their interest in real-world sports. There really isn’t anything else quite like it.

    • TheDandyGiraffe says:

      I’m not sure I believe you, what with all the talk about “injuries” and “world cups” and “neymars” and whatever…

    • legopirate27 says:

      Neymar had a vertebrae in his back broken in a malicious challenge in the match vs Colombia at the 2014 World Cup.

      Regardless of the context of the article or your disinterest in football/soccer, your suggestion is undermined when you state a conspiratorial falsehood which has no foundation in the events as they unfolded.

      There are a lot of aspects about modern football which deserves scrutiny, but co-opting a vicious, tournament-ending attack on a star footballer at a world cup in his home nation is a pretty poor place to start.

      • automatic says:

        I’m from that particular nation and can tell you that faking stuff to get away from duties, at a professional level, with the aditional fake medical exams easily obtainable by rich ppl like Neymar, is not an uncommon practice here, specially on unimportant things like sports. People like him have no respect for the nation symbols, nor I expect them to be, because they usually come from very poor envyronments where exploitation is common, and use soccer as a escape route from that envyronment. If offered between faking an injury to keep his fame and be portraited as loser on such an important game I’m pretty certain a person like him picks the first choice. He’s not a hero like advertising companies portrait and soccer fans like to believe.

      • automatic says:

        Plus, come on, dude. Look at that move. How can that fracture a vertebrae? He’s an athlete, not a ballet dancer.

        • Darloth says:

          Speaking from the position of someone who has never heard of that person before today, doesn’t particularly like football, and entirely does not care about the entire issue…

          That man was just kneed right in the back in midair. I make no claim about whether or not he could have been injured, but to an outside observer it most certainly -seems- plausible.

          Ballet dancers basically ARE athletes. People are heavy, even smaller ones. There’s a lot of work that goes into dancing on tiptoe for half an hour plus and throwing other dancers into the air or holding them up so it looks like they don’t weigh anything.

          Unrelated, thanks for the article RPS! I had no idea there was this much complicated simulation happening, and it’s really interesting to read about how much it matches the complex reality!

          • automatic says:

            Ballet dancers are artists, they do not receive training to sustain unpredictable impact. There’s a whole world of difference here. Plus the other guy’s knee is not even bent straight when it hits, most of the impact force comes from his shin and goes straight to Neymar’s butt. There’s a hit on the spine but far from being enough to make a fracture, unless he has osteoporosis or something like that.

            You also have to look at the context of this injury. There was a lot of pressure on the team because those were finals and although they got there, they performed very poorly on the first matches. It was a certain defeat, most ppl knew that. There was also a suspect they only got there because it was a World Cup on their home country and the weak adversaries from the first games were pre chosen for they not to disappoint brazilians who are passionate about soccer. Well, the majority of brazilians at least are.

        • mikepp says:

          This comment seems to imply that ballet dancers are somehow weak? Because they’re… mostly women?

          For what it’s worth ballet dancers are probably much stronger, and suffer far more crippling injuries than most other sportsman, let alone footballers.

          Like, do you know anything about ballet beyond the fact it involves dance?

          • RuySan says:

            When I did physiotherapy for a knee injury there were some ballet dancers in there also mostly with feet injuries. I have a cousin that is a ballet dancer. That thing is harder than almost any sport.

          • automatic says:

            No, and no. Like I said in another answer there’s a whole difference between an art and a sport. A ballet dancer is not supposed to sustain a hit from an adversary. Just like a circus artist they are capable of physical stunts ordinary persons are not, and that’s part of the beauty of it, but everything most artists does is controlled, scripted, pre-set. An athlete on the other hand is physically trained to deal with the unexpected and that includes adversary aggressions. I didn’t meant artists are soft, but they use their bodies like instruments, while athletes use them as tools.

          • RuySan says:

            @automatic. Yeah, but shit happens all the time. Dancers aren’t robots. Just because it’s rehearsed doesn’t mean it isn’t risky. That’s like saying that being a stuntman is less risky than being a sportsmen because it’s more of a controlled environment.

          • automatic says:

            @RuySan Still, you have to agree a soccer player is supposed to have more resiliance to a kick in the butt than a ballet dancer. Don’t make a big thing of my comment, I do respect artists.

    • Pedro_O says:

      I wonder if there’s a system to simulate players who fake injuries to run away from tough games and keep their advertising contracts safe, like Neymar did on the World Cup finals.

      This is probably one of the dumbest comments I’ve read online. Specially knowing Neymar (trust me on this, since you’ve stated you hate football) and his general competitiveness. Yes, he something goes down easily, but that doesn’t tell anything about his (patriotic) professionalism. It was an important game. In retrospect, Brazil lost 7-1 in an humiliating match. It would be a tough match any day of the week, let alone without Neymar. Miss it due to advertising contracts is ridiculous. It was most likely the most watched game in the World Cup. Advertisers would absolutely eager to have on the pitch.

      Please, no conspiracy theories on RPS. Specially a really crazy and absurd one.

      • automatic says:

        Sorry, I didn’t knew you knew Neymar personally. Tell me more about his competitiveness and his patriotism. Does he even live in his country? Since you’re such a smart person please also explain to me how showing his athlete on a losing match is so important to a billionaire advertising industry.

      • automatic says:

        Btw, no conspiracy theories here. I’m from a place where selling soccer game results is as common as drug trafficking. It’s on the news from time to time (when the news agency itself is not related to it) and ppl knows who does it. The fact you believe on the rainbow colored advertising world of sport heroes does’t make reality any different.

      • RuySan says:

        Yes, even if Neymar isn’t patriotic (i don’t know), playing at a world cup final is the biggest honour a player can have, whatever the country one plays at. He might not have that chance ever in his life again. It definitely sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, specially considering the foul in question that injured him.

        • automatic says:

          These players don’t care about honour, they care about money. The advantage of playing in a World Cup for them is the attention they get. And as expected from people like that when things “go south” they just bail. Most of them don’t even play on brazilian teams because none of them pay as much as the ones from Europe. Soccer is a sport only for poor players here. For the big stars it’s business.

    • N'Al says:

      Seems like people are going a bit bananas. There’s no great conspiracies here; neither was Neymar viciously attacked, nor did he fake an injury for advertising reasons. It was an accident, pure and simple.

      And I say that as a German who certainly ‘benefited’ from Neymar’s absence in the semis.

      • automatic says:

        Germany would win even with Neymar on the team. Brazil’s team performance was mediocre during the whole Cup. They barely made it to the finals and that while playing home. The pressure was too great, and greater on Neymar, because he was the officially sponsored team star. During 98’s Cup Ronaldo, a less shining star, had a convulsion and still played after it. That’s what an athlete does. Everyone who follows soccer trends marginally, but don’t get into the zombie world of the crowds, knew Neymar wasn’t that much of a thing. He was just a propaganda boy. Sure, as an attacker he had some bright moments, but that’s exactly what advertise is about: bright moments of something that’s often much duller most of the time. Brazil didn’t lost to Germany because they didn’t had Neymar, they lost because they sucked, and that includes Neymar. The fact that some people think he would save Brazil from a 6 goal difference loss proves how convenient it was for him to quit after that “severe injury”.

        • N'Al says:

          Maybe Germany would’ve won even with Neymar on the team, maybe not. Still doesn’t make it a conspiracy.

          It was an accident, nothing more.

          • automatic says:

            I never said it was a conspiracy, I said he quit by his own will. A faul doesn’t need to be set-up for a player to fake an injury. Soccer players dramatize injuries all the time to try getting penalties in favour of their team. If the guy know his career is at stake, because most of the money he makes is from sponsors, it’s not a big deal for him to do the same.

        • Troubletcat says:

          Geeze, you sure know a lot about this, and seem really passionate about it, for a guy who claims to hate the sport.

          • automatic says:

            It’s a national thing. Even if you don’t like it here you end up getting involved. Games from the World Cup are like holydays here. It’s a circus to diverge people’s attention from more important issues, that’s why I hate it.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    If my old colleague Daniel, from Electronics Boutique, Oxford Street, 1997, happens to be reading this — hello mate! :)

  3. dsch says:

    Ah, the annual Miles Jacobson propaganda tour.

    • Aim Here says:

      You do have to wonder if the Football Manager game design documents have a little section for the annual PR feature that Miles can punt to the non-specialist press. Last year it was Brexit, this year gay players, next year it’ll be World War 3 breaking out or something.

      You can’t really argue with the continuing enthusiasm of the Football Manager PR team still trying to come up with new angles to sell a 25-year old franchise, bless ’em.

      • Troubletcat says:

        …Not that this article had much of anything to do with Brexit or gay players. But hey man, whatever narrative keeps you most upset.

  4. Alberto says:

    If things worldwide are the way they are in Spain, the game needs a real state speculation / tax evasion/ fraud / mafia mode.

  5. LivingfortheNight says:

    1-1
    0-1
    0-0
    2-1*

    *results not typical

    football scores

  6. daver4470 says:

    I love how an article about FM’s AI devolved into an argument about Neymar in the comments.

  7. Captain Narol says:

    I have 151 games in my Steam Library, but by far my most played games are FM and CKII (thousands of hours on each).

    Does it say something about me and should I run for president ?

  8. TrenchFoot says:

    Proving again that RPS readers are mostly sports-hating nerds. Players from South America have to put in a lot more effort to play for their national teams. If they play in a European league, that’s a long flight and lots of jet lag. Then some of them don’t even play. But whatever. Sure no one really likes Neymar and the fact that to sign him you have to essentially hire his whole family. That’s the “market,” so it’s not worthwhile to worry about it too much.

    Just getting started on the newest version and it looks like it has mainly incremental changes as usual. The game is mature; what is it going to add? Rocket-powered trainers? Updating the database isn’t trivial. Add those two things together and it’s worth the $50, because, as the article says, those who like it spend a lot of time with it. What’s a movie cost?

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