Insert Coin To Continue: Part Seven – The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth, 1992-2019

It might not be what the Proper Football Men want to hear, but the professional game is changing at a dizzying speed, with no chance whatsoever that it’s going to return to what they remember playing themselves. Some of this is probably bad news. More decades old traditions than have already been surrendered will undoubtedly be handed over at the altar of mammon, and the feeling of alienation that comes with something that one grew up with becoming unrecognisable will likely continue to grow.

But it’s not all bad news, and at the top of the good news headlines is that science and statistics in the game have never been used more intelligently. Many clubs now have phalanxes of analysts poring over reams of data in order to increase their team’s chances for the next match. Even managers, who not so long ago would have been best-characterised as bastions in the holdout against technology, are starting to wise up to the possibility that this new technology opens up opportunities to learn that have simply never existed before.

The concept of the football management simulation can trace its roots back to the dawn of the home computing revolution in the UK. Early computer manufacturers were very keen for their products to be seen as something more than being merely the facilitators for a new type of gaming, and some of the earliest games to be released on systems such as the ZX Spectrum were “serious” in nature. Flight Simulation. Chess. Backgammon. There was a presumed market for games of this nature – games of intellectual pursuit that should be considered serious rather than frivolous – and it was resolutely middle-class. The low price of the machine, of course, rendered that lofty ideal redundant after not very long.

Amongst the early breakout hits to propel these early systems into the mainstream was a game called Football Manager, which was released not long after the Spectrum first emerged in 1982. It was rough around the edges and certainly extremely simplistic by today’s standards, but it was also hugely successful. Unsurprisingly, imitators such as The Boss and Football Director soon followed, building on incrementally on the success of Football Manager – it kind of had to be, since the ZX Spectrum only had 48kb of RAM to play with – before Football Manager 2 was released in 1988, by which time the sun was just starting to set on this generation of computers.

Two Shropshire-based brothers, Paul and Oliver Collyer, were playing these games but felt that they could do better. They started designing their own game in their spare time in 1985, finally completing it six years later, sending copies with a substantial document detailing its complexities to twenty different publishers (including EA) in 1991, but only one company, Domark, who’d been knocking around since 1984, expressed any interest. The publishers recommended a change of name from the original working title of “European Champions” to the slightly sleeker “Championship Manager” and the addition of more graphics to a game which was largely text-driven, but other than that it remained pretty faithful to their original vision. In 1992, Championship Manager was released for the first time for the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST and, shortly afterwards, the PC.

Initial feedback for the game was, however, not terribly encouraging. Championship Manager had been written in BASIC, the computer language used by the machines of the 1980s, and even with the addition of still graphics it looked dated in comparison with its contemporaries. Neither were reviewers impressed by the computer-generated names for players. Still, though, the game had a fan-base which was growing and its big breakthrough came the following year with the release of Championship Manager 93, which was written in the far more up-to-date C computer language.

It still didn’t have graphical highlights of matches – they were, as things turned out, still more than a decade away from this particular development – but the text descriptions of the matches were more lavish, injuries were more sophisticated, loading times were (on account of that switch in programming language) considerably faster and, critically, real player names were used for the first time, with a pool of players that could be purchased from abroad to compliment the four professional divisions available in the game. Intriguingly, the game also featured two players called Mark Collis and Ferah Orosco. They were a striker and a defender playing for Cambridge United in Division Three and, significantly, didn’t exist in the real world. They are considered the first ever fictional ‘super-players’ in the series. An Italian version of the game and update discs at both the beginning and the end of the 1993/94 season followed, with the success of this version of the game persuading the Collyers to incorporate themselves as Sports Interactive in 1994.

The next iteration of CM turned out to be, as it were, a game of two halves. Championship Manager 2 was released in September 1995 and included vastly improved graphics – including, for the first time, photorealistic pictures and optional in-game commentary from Clive Tyldesley, then of Match Of The Day – and the addition of the Scottish league. There followed two further iterations of the engine which continued the process of radical change. The 96/97 update added the Italian league, but also fine-tuned the coding of the game, and added changes to the laws of the game and the Bosman ruling. It was the last version of the game to be released for the Commodore Amiga. Championship Manager 97/98 followed in October 1997. For the first time, a database editor was built into the game, allowing players to modify the game as they wished. Nine leagues were now included, of which three could be played in, for the first time, a career version of the game.

All the time, though, the computing world continued to evolve, and from the mid-1990s this increasingly meant being online. The release of Championship Manager 3 in October 1999 was a big step forward, in this respect. For the first time, the ability to play multiplayer games (including online) was included, and there was also an improved match engine, customisable training sessions, more global leagues, more sophisticated tactics, reserve and youth teams, and improved player scouting. Indeed, on the final game to use this engine, Championship Manager: Season 01/02, scouting can be masked, so a player’s abilities can only be fully known once he’s been scouted. CM 01/02 is considered by many to be the peak of the pure Championship Manager experience. It continues to be played by some to this day.

The same could not be said, however, for Championship Manager 4. Released in March 2005, it was the first game to finally include a graphical engine, although this was just an overhead view of dots on a football pitch. More troublingly than this, it was a botched release. The game was ridden with bugs, which had to be patched with a series of releases, and although it sold more than 300,000 copies, the reason for the buggy release was clear. There had been a fracture in the working relationship between Eidos Interactive – who Domark had become in 1995 – and Sports Interactive. The publishers and the development company were going their separate ways, with Eidos Interactive keeping hold of the rights to the Championship Manager name, whilst Sports Interactive took the rights to the game engine itself.

With Sports Interactive taking the name Football Manager for their game, the 2004/05 season would be critical for release. To what extent could Eidos build a game from scratch that was worthy of the Championship Manager name? What value did it have? The answer was, it was a drubbing. If anything, it was more than a drubbing. It was almost a scratched game. Both games were scheduled to be released the end of autumn 2004 but, whilst Football Manager launched on-schedule on the 4th November and ended up the fifth fastest-selling PC game of all-time, Championship Manager wasn’t even anywhere to be seen. Its release date was put back to March 2005.

And then things got worse. When Championship Manager 5 finally was released it was a buggy mess, considered virtually unplayable by many, with issues reported within the game engine, transfers, and even getting to players’ historical data. A patch came with it on its day of release, but even with this installed users complained about its unplayability. It took two further patches to significantly improve the game, but by that point the critical Christmas and New Year period had been missed, and Football Manager 2005 had, of course, turned out the superb game. It turned out having that brand name was significantly less important than having a pre-built game engine that could be tweaked and built upon, as well as a dedicated fan-base who had been compiling statistics for the game for some time.

Championship Manager somehow limped along until 2016 – albeit with a break in 2012 – but the laws of diminishing returns had started to set in almost immediately. Each iteration of Championship Manager was far removed from Football Manager as a game in terms of quality and depth. Football Manager has become a fully immersive experience, and more than either Pro Evolution Soccer or even the FIFA series of games, has influenced the very nature of the game itself. Its statistics database was so reliable that more than one manager admitted to using it for scouting purposes. That sort of statistical analysis has become integrated into the game. One can make a case for saying that Football Manager directly – or at the very least fleetingly – influences the way in which the game is played across the world today. Sports Interactive now employs 110 people, and Football Manager sold a million sales for the fifth consecutive year in 2017. Not bad, for two brothers from Shropshire.