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Football Manager: Where Sports Analytics And Gaming Meet

Sports Interactive have created something so real it has professional applications

16May

Football Manager is without a doubt one of the most addictive video games available for purchase. Initially inaccessible, the game worms its way into the player’s head and is enough to keep a fan up at night. Its allure is well documented, and I myself have poured hundreds of hours into the franchise since I discovered it proper in 2008. Miles Jacobson, the man behind the game, told the Telegraph in 2014 that FM 2014 alone had been played for a combined 23,000 years since its release just 12 months prior.

As it has become more sophisticated, its stickiness has only increased. The closer the representation gets to the reality, the more engrossing an experience the game becomes. And it seems those in the world of professional football also appreciate the value of the simulation, which draws together a player’s statistical data, subjective ratings on 250 attributes, injury history, weight, height, you name it, to create a full virtual representation of real-world athletes.

The game’s bank of data is extensive. According to Jacobson, the game has a database of around 350,000 active players - up from 4,000 when the game initially launched in 1992 - with over 1,300 scouts collecting data in 51 countries and regions across the globe. This is far more scouts than any single club in the world, for reference, making the Football Manager database arguably the most detailed in football. These scouts are primarily football fans, who use the work as a springboard to professional scouting jobs. Jacobson tells the Mirror that Football Manager’s scouts have gone on to become chief scouts at Champions League clubs, an odd but effective testament to just how close the world of the game is to the sport it simulates.

Football Manager has predicted some greats, too. When Alex McLeish was in charge of Rangers back in 2002, his son told him that a Barcelona C team player would one day become the best footballer in the world, having seen potential and then improvement on the game. Football Manager suggested the then-15-year-old would become brilliant, and McLeish could be forgiven for kicking himself over not looking into Lionel Messi when prompted. Mario Balotelli is another that the game saw coming, highlighted by the Football Manager community long before becoming a top striker. 'Lots of people were surprised when Manchester United spent so much money on Anthony Martial, but within the Football Manager community, there were all saying ‘great buy, he becomes an absolute superstar,’ Jacobson said, and if the Frenchman makes history at Old Trafford it’ll be another vindication for the company.

Of course the company is fallible, though, and Harry Kane is perhaps the most high-profile example of the game getting it wrong. Virtually, Kane never quite made it before his real-world Premier League explosion. Jacobson recalls how he personally apologized to the England striker, admitting that he was part of the ‘0.5%’ of cases that Football Manager acknowledges is wrong. 0.5% would be a fantastic margin of error for any professional scout, and the fact that no club holds data so extensive about players makes it a genuinely fascinating resource.

Sports Interactive - the company behind Football Manager - logs player information as deep as their ability to handle pressure, their willingness to succeed and the ease with which they settle into a new dressing room, for example. An amount of guesswork and extrapolation is involved, certainly, but for a club scouting a relative unknown, the data can be a useful reference point. Brian Prestige, former data scientist at Bolton Wanderers, was one of the first to incorporate Football Manager into his recruitment recommendations. ‘It is, without a doubt, the greatest resource in terms of granularity and of coverage across the world,’ he says. ‘It’s a great way to minimize the inherent risk in player recruitment.’ And it is this that the stats accrued by the game’s team are most useful for. The incorporation of ProZone stats and visuals into the game itself gives added context, and make the game a more complete player assessment package. Football Manager will not entirely inform player recruitment decisions, rather it will be used as either validation of a scouting assessment or a way in which to view information not immediately obvious to a visiting professional scout.

Much of the data has been available in the Football Manager database for some time, but only as analytics has truly taken flight in football have clubs started to take note. Larger clubs have the resources to scout anyone they’re remotely interested in, but for smaller clubs with largely part-time scouting staff, the data can be invaluable. Sky Sports even use Football Manager’s player valuations to compare prospective transfer targets as part of their coverage.

‘Football Manager is such a part of the fabric of football now,’ Jacobson says, ‘that there are times agents will come to us asking us to boost their player’s stats, because they know that will increase their value.’ Managers in training, too, will use the game to garner a kind of experience of the job. It’s a case of art imitating and simulating life. It’s a case of life imitating art. VICE described Football Manager as ‘the world’s most influential video game.’ It’s a difficult statement to counter. 

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