In the year or so that I’ve been playing Football Manager, I’ve won at least two European Cups. I’ve won the Europa League and the English title with Manchester City, ditched them to win Serie A with Inter the next season, and ditched them for a third team that I literally can’t even remember. I’ve achieved an elusive fourth-place finish with Aston Villa. I went undefeated in all competitions, winning or drawing every league, cup and European game, home and away, with, of all people, Newcastle.
It was easy. I cheated.
That is, I quit the game and loaded it again if the result didn’t go my way. This isn’t really fair. A loss is a loss, whether it’s season-ending and soul-crushing or comes while playing a U18 squad you’re only fielding because the title has been wrapped up. That loss is a part of your record. Martin Jol doesn’t get to go throw an additional defensive player on against Norwich in the hopes of stopping Simeon Jackson’s injury-time header, nor does Sir Alex Ferguson get to throw different combinations of defenders at Demba Ba in the hopes of containing him. I shouldn’t either.
Which is my problem, because I always do.
I know I’m not alone in this. Every discussion I could find on the subject, scattered through various forums and FM advice sites, says pretty much the same thing: everyone does it, though it definitely shouldn’t be done. There’s even a Facebook group: “If i lose an important game on football manager i restart it and try again,” which has only 66 likes and hasn’t been posted on in a year, but which assures me that everyone does it, even if they won’t fess up to it.
These are our video game instincts in action. When we mess up a puzzle in, say, a Zelda game, there is always a way to reset the puzzle to a place from where it can be solved. Get caught in Metal Gear Solid, and we can hide in a locker and choke out some guards until the dramatic music goes away. Miss a jump in Mario and try again, until we run out of lives and get to start over from the beginning in July with $30 million more in our transfer kitty.
This is not how Football Manager – or indeed any sports game – should work. Losses are a natural part of sports; they happen to every team, sometimes at the most inopportune or unexpected time. That’s not true of Zelda or Mario, where, narrative-wise, your protagonist has to solve each puzzle, has to defeat or avoid each enemy, and theoretically doesn’t ever die. The second NES Zelda game, the weird side-scrolling “Adventure of Link”, is pretty blunt about what happens when you lose all your lives. Rather than just the traditional Mario “Game Over,” it says “Game Over, Return of Ganon,” with an evil-looking all-red final screen and a silhouette of the evil boss’ boar form. It’s a reminder that not only have you failed miserably, but your failure has allowed the bad guy to win and destroy the world. It’s kind of heavy when you’re five. In Football Manager, the game moves forward regardless. Progress is made whether you win or lose.
I have kind of a tough time accepting that. What’s the point of this season if I don’t qualify for Europe/finish first in the league/raise the European Cup? If I can’t surpass the expectations real life has set for a particular team? If I don’t, to put it simply, win? It doesn’t feel like progress.
That’s only half the story, because Football Manager is only half sports game. The other part is strategy, the same as Age of Empires or Starcraft or Advance Wars. In the meatiest single-player portion of those games, the campaign modes, the levels work just like a Mario level or a Zelda dungeon: You fail, you start over, you change a couple of things, you try again, hopefully you win this time.
That’s how I approach Football Manager. I treat each matchup as a puzzle, something to be solved rather than something to be played. I test and I tweak, what theoretical line-up will get my Ajax squad through their knockout stage matchup against Arsenal? The goal isn’t to win every game. It’s to win that particular game. Against Arsenal, it took a while, longer than even I’d care to admit in a confessional such as this one, but eventually I found it.
Or did I? Football Manager is not chess, there are elements of random chance built into their algorithm that play as much a part (or nearly so) in determining whether Lacina Traore scores as whether I have him set as a target man or advanced forward, that the luck of the virtual bounce off the crossbar may have as much to do with my success as my strategies.
But I’ve decided I don’t really care. For realism’s sake, I should probably restart less, but I don’t want to give up the satisfaction of figuring out the solution to Arsenal or Madrid or L.A.. no matter how much luck that solution might require. It’s my game – says the six-year-old inside me – and I can decide how to play it as I want, just like I play with the bonus money for landing on Free Parking in Monopoly or no offsides in five-a-side games.
Besides, the same set of slider presets got my Ajax team through Manchester United in the semis too. No restarts necessary.