Miles Jacobson, the man behind the world's most addictive game talks about the forthcoming version, the Chelsea and other Premier League stars who can't get enough of his 'glorified spreadsheet' and the agents who desperately try to get their players stats boosted.
If the world of gaming was a party then Football Manager would be stood in the kitchen, smiling stoically, as drunken elves and blood-stained marines hugged each other and pranced around the living room to shit music.
It’s a game franchise which, despite more than 20 years of success, has remained something of an outsider; never fully embraced by the geek elite. But Miles Jacobson isn’t too fussed.
He’s the studio director of Sports Interactive, the company who are currently finishing work off on the latest version of the game; Football Manager 2012.
How did you start out?
I was working in the music industry to start with. I was what you might call a tasteless A&R wanker. I used to sign bands for a company called Food Records. I began as a scout and then did A&R for them before moving to Polygram.
I was lucky. I got to work with some really, really good bands. When I was at Food Records I was involved with Blur and the likes of Jesus Jones, Dubstar, The Bluetones. Then over at Polygram I signed Feeder and did some A&R for Fat Boy Slim.
I had some good times but I’m not sure if I ever really fitted in with the music industry. I like a drink but I didn’t need anything to make me stay up or bounce around - I’m like that naturally. So I didn’t want to get involved in that kind of scene.
How did the move into games happen?
It was a gradual process. I started off as a tester while still at Food Records. I managed to swap two tickets for a Blur gig at Mile End with somebody to get the tester job. I was a really big fan of the game and as a Watford fan I guess I knew it was my only chance of seeing us win something.
Over the years I became more and more involved with the game. Then in 2001 things became so busy that I just stopped with the music side of things. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
How realistic is Football Manager?
It’s something we’re constantly looking to improve and it’s getting better and better. We’ve made a lot of changes to the match engine which we’re really happy with. And the way we’re starting to see people inside football using our game is a good sign that we’re getting it right.
Some of the older managers tended to sneer at it but there’s a new generation coming through now who say the game is one of the reasons why they got so heavily into football.
I certainly know quite a few managers who play the game at home and it’s no secret that Andre Villas-Boas has name checked the game a few times and he described himself recently as a reformed Football Manager player.
And in terms of realism the database is something I’m really proud of. When you look back at some of the older games and spot 16-year-old players like Leo Messi and Wayne Rooney – pretty much unknown at the time – and see how they develop into world class players.
And there are peoples like Neil Lennon and Danny Murphy who were at Crewe reserves when the game was released but who develop into quality players. Same with a lot of the kids they had at Leeds like Woodgate and Alan Smith.
When you look back – we usually get it right. And that’s thanks to the work of our team: we have 1,500 scouts in 51 countries who are watching football week in, week out at every level – first team, reserve team and juniors.
What about the ones you get wrong?
Yeah, there are a few which have got through the net over the years. The ones that get talked about most are the likes of Cherno Samba and Tonton Zola Mokouko. They were both young players who went on to become world class in the game, but things didn’t work out that way in real-life.
When you look into the background of players like that, you find that there are often things happening in their personal lives which have affected their careers. That’s the kind of stuff which statistics are never going to catch.
Do players ever complain about their stats?
Yes, we had two footballers in here last week and one of them was bitching and moaning about his stats and comparing them to another teammate. We’ve also been asked on many occasions by agents if we could change a player’s stats - there is absolutely no way we would do that. All of our stats are independent and that’s the way it stays.
Is there a danger that the realism makes the game too hard?
With the PC version there’s no doubt that we’re striving for accuracy. And if you play as a lower league club with limited resources then it’s going to be a challenge. But that’s the fun of it. And that’s one of the reasons why we now have the two games.
We have the PC version which is a simulation and tries to be as accurate as it possibly can. But then we’ve got Football Manager Handheld on the iPhone and iPad and that’s a little bit more forgiving. The original brief was to make the perfect game to play while having a dump. It’s meant to work as a five minute experience – without losing too much of the depth of the PC version.
But, yes, it can be tough. Everyone thinks I should be brilliant, seeing as I’ve worked on it for so many years, but it still takes me three or four seasons to get Watford into the Premier.
What makes the game so addictive?
I think it’s the fact that we allow the player to create their own universe. You have the freedom to do whatever you want. Choose any path you want. Be any kind of person you want – our choices are not just about being good or evil.
It’s something we’ve improved for this latest version by adding the ability to choose the tone in which your manager interacts with players. It allows you to treat somebody like Paul Scholes a bit differently from the likes of Balotelli.
It all helps allow the person playing the game to create their own universe and their own story and that’s why people get so absorbed into it. I know people who put suits on when they’re in cup finals. I know people who do press conferences in the mirror – looking at themselves and pretending that the press are there.
Do you think Football Manager gets the credit it deserves from the games industry?
We’ve picked up four BAFTAs so we’re not doing too badly. But generally we’re not too arsed about that kind of thing.
We make the game for people like us – for football fans. Many of them don’t even call themselves gamers - they don’t play other games. The fact that people inside football like what we’re doing and that football fans like it is what counts.
If some World of Warcraft players want to say our game is a spreadsheet then we’re not going to lose any sleep over that. And it’s kind of nice being viewed as an outsider. I’d like to think of us as the The Smiths of the games industry – we don’t quite fit in. But neither do we want to.
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