More Than Just Spreadsheets: A History Of The Football Management Sim

Joel Harvey

How do you create an immersive video game world?

One where you as a player can fall deeply into for hours, days, even weeks? You could create vast visual landscapes like No Man’s Sky. Or maybe a living, breathing city like Grand Theft Auto. Or, you could just create a world of text and graphs, like every football management simulation ever.

For some, it’s a hard concept to get their head around. They don’t understand why such a genre of games has become so successful.

“It’s just spreadsheets, you don’t get to actually play the game or anything” they bemoan, before returning to FIFA to “actually” play the game of football. They don’t understand. They’ll never understand the joy of playing a footy management sim. Because it’s so much more than just spreadsheets – it’s a second life.

The First Football Manager

The genre began with a familiar name: Football Manager. The original incarnation of FM was released back in 1982. But this was not the FM we know and love today. This was the brain-child of a computer programmer, Kevin Toms. And it was a basic affair. No, literally it was; the game was written in BASIC.

In FM Zero (as we’re now calling it), you were pitted with the ultimate task of any footy management sim – take your lowly team all the way from the bottom, to the top of English football; simple, yet dangerously addictive.

To modern eyes today, it’s akin to looking at caveman drawings. But it was revolutionary for its time, as it became the pioneer of the management simulation genre. Football Manager came from nowhere and ruled the home computer game charts in the early eighties. This was the birth of football management sims.

With the phenomenal success of FM Zero, everyone wanted in on the act. A flood of sims hit the market for home computers, some good and some woeful. None of them captured the imagination like the original Football Manager did; until, that is, Premier Manager and Championship Manager arrived in the early nineties.

Champ Man vs. Premier Man

These two titans of the football management sim reigned supreme in this decade. Premier Manager came first in 1992, and it was effectively an updated version of the original FM. Again, you had to manage a lowly club and take them to the top. But now we had fancy graphics and animations. This was a big upgrade on previous management sims, which had largely been text-based.

Championship Manager, on the other hand, kept things old-school. It had no interest in providing any kind of visual element, happily keeping things entirely textual. The surprising thing was though, that it worked. Premier Manager was a fun game to play, but in many ways the visual elements were distracting – like pop-up pictures on every page of your favourite novel.

Champ Man was pure though. It was undiluted, graphics-free geeky management. You had to use your imagination and create your own graphics; that’s what made it so damned intriguing and deeply immersive for players.

The series was also a technical marvel, as it was built on a large database of players previously unseen in the genre before. With each release, and each leap up in technological advancements, the Champ Man world grew like a behemoth. It decimated all other management sims in its path – it was the Godzilla of manager games.

And then, it evolved and became something else; something familiar, yet brand new too. It became Football Manager MK II.

The New Football Manager

The developers of Championship Manager, Sports Interactive, left their partnership with Eidos (the game’s publisher) in 2003. And with it, they took all the core elements that made that series the best management sim going. After SI bought the rights to use the Football Manager name from Kevin Toms, the rest was history.

Over the course of 15 years, this iteration of FM has grown beyond anything previously thought possible of the genre. It’s sold around seven million copies over this time, and has infiltrated the lives of many football fans. You can see how far we’ve come in the management sim, as the world of FM today is monumental and complex. Hell, it even became the first video game to simulate Brexit last year:

But FM has never lost the focus of why football management sims are popular in the first place. They were capitalising on a previously un-realised dream of gamers – a dream to become a manager of a football team. For any football fan, this made perfect sense.

We often argue about how a team should play, and we berate real managers for their tactics and signings. With the management sim, we could finally put our money where our mouth was.

Football management games are essentially an RPG for footy geeks everywhere. They’re an opportunity to create our version of the football world by turning the teams we love – sometimes not very good ones – into veritable titans.

They’re a place where anything is possible and where evenĀ Cherno Samba can become the next Alan Shearer.

That’s the joy of the football management sim, and that’s why we’ll forever be buried deep within the universes that they create.