Football Manager is a series which I have played more than any other. Since its inception in 2005 (a successor franchise of Championship Manager for the purists), I have poured thousands of hours into this elaborate sports-themed fantasy of stats, full-time results and incremental, annual updates.
It is also a video game series which has managed to induce untold fits of rage within me. Too many mouse and keyboard combinations have seen their demise due to a stoppage-time defeat or transfer-deadline-day debacle. To play Football Manager is to become an obsessive – with its players more like acolytes of a tight-knit cult – the secret code for entry into the clubhouse being: “How many times have you put on your best dinner suit for a cup final?”
Football Manager (FM) 2019 is the latest annual entry into Sports Interactive’s much-loved simulation series. A more cerebral and much less interactive version of its distant cousin FIFA, the simulator has been described as an imaginative spreadsheet masquerading as a video game – a description that isn’t without its merits.
Taking up the mantle of the titular manager, players must select from a staggering selection of football clubs (that’s soccer for those in the USA) and shepherd them to glory. The joy of the series has always been in its open-ended nature – the experience is as much about imagination as gameplay, and Sports Interactive has always been masterful in creating a canvas for football obsessives to paint their particular version of reality; one which often ends with a non-league minnow hoisting the Champions League trophy high.
Similar to all annualized series, the yearly updates to Football Manager’s formula are usually incremental at best. Small tweaks, fixes, and enhancements are commonplace, with leaps in gameplay mechanics coming along only every few years. 2019 is firmly fixed within the latter camp, with updates aplenty and a new UI to boot.
The biggest enhancement over previous entries is undoubtedly how tactics are managed and implemented. In previous FMs, the feeling of control of your 11 outfield players felt illusionary at best. As a game essentially comprised of statistics and dice roles, setting your team up as ambassadors of an exciting and free-flowing Tika-tika style of play sounded nice on paper, but the results were often more worthy of Blyth Spartans than Messi’s Barcelona.
Due to an often eccentric match engine and too many maverick players, a beautiful counter-attacking tactic could be, annoyingly, reduced to a simple instruction of “hoof the ball upfield, lads!”. While this could be reasoned within your imagination as poor planning and bad relationships with your star players, it could also lead to the aforementioned destruction of a mouse and keyboard combo as your team succumbs to a scrappy 2-1 defeat.
Thankfully, with the new tactics system, this has changed. Between transitions of play, you now have a much greater degree of control, with your squad reacting dynamically, as per your instructions, to the scenario they find themselves within. This also extends to a much more fluid philosophy within teams – with wide attacking play not automatically meaning defenders will suddenly take to opposite corner flags once possession has been lost, laboring under the misapprehension that this is what the gaffer wants.
Training too is much improved, injected with a dose of detail fanaticism. Gone are the days of opening this particular sub-menu once per season or merely to check on your young prospects, instead highly individualized training schedules can be created, as can certain routines in preparation for a tricky fixture.
And while this might be starting to sound like a clean sheet victory for Sports Interactive (to delve into football metaphors for just a moment), this latest entry does not emerge unscathed, instead of nursing a few niggling injuries and with a few long-term problems to think about.
FM will never win any awards for its visuals, however, in the past, it has had an element of simplicity and ease of access. With more systems and things to tell you, FM19 has hit peak clutter. It can be incredibly difficult to do the most simple of actions, with far too many click-through menus and news feed notifications to read. Most damningly, in comparison to UIs of years gone by, it definitely feels like a downgrade and must be filed under the ‘must try harder’.
Visual hiccups put to one side, in all this latest entry to the FM series is the most complete it’s ever felt. The vast canvas of play has been extended a few dozen meters in which managerial stories can play out and your imagination can take hold. For veterans of the series, it’s a much-needed injection of stuff, which will only enable and motivate a few thousand more hours of play.
In fact, FM19 feels like the distant trumpet trill of change for future entries. The series will always be first and foremost a PC experience, however, efforts have been made to create a mobile version, with some success, but often feel like a cutdown and diet version of the real thing. Instead, the issue of balance becomes a real challenge for the developers as the series’ core audience who don’t want the Touch off-shoot and aren’t archetypal gamers. For all of its armchair general appeal, particularly within the UK, stalwarts of FM aren’t the type to own a water-cooled gaming rig, eyeing up 4K SLI configurations and obsessive about FPS.
As average consumers move away from desktop PCs, it feels as though Sports Interactive has doubled down on its core audience who will remain loyal to owning a desktop machine. Perhaps a brave choice in the days of mobile Diablo, it also makes the series incredibly difficult to navigate as a newcomer. Tutorials pop-in and out of view, however, the developer has raised the stakes on returning players, making this the most feature-complete entry for the simulation, and perhaps most-rewarding for veterans, but also increasingly opaque for first-timers.
Whether this is a good or bad thing really depends on your love of the series or of football. Gone are the days where FM could easily stack as a sports-obsessed cousin of other tycoon or management games, where the most casual of football fans could dip their toe and lead Rotherham United to a treble. Slowly but surely, Sports Interactive is edging the game closer to something more akin to a grand strategy title, with an eye for detail that would make the Europa Universalis series blush.