Sunday, February 24, 2019

Do Androids Dream of Electric Soccer Men

S.S. Milazzo have weathered heartbreak in the fourth division of Italian soccer.  Their quest to leave the mud-soaked pitches and empty bleachers in this soccer Siberia for the Holy Land of third-division soccer with slightly drier pitches, slightly larger stands, and maybe even their own van had been derailed by two heartbreaking extra-time collapses: one knocked them out of second place and automatic promotion; a second eliminated them from the playoff and doomed them to another season dodging elbows from part-time gym teachers and performance shorts salesmen.  They press on close to financial ruin.  The club is weighed down by hefty contracts paid to star players because the manager is sentimental and cannot part with those legends who have so nearly brought the team to glory. None of them exist.

Football Manager exists on a bizarre halfway realm between reality and fantasy.  There is an S.S. Milazzo in real life; the game features hundreds of real soccer teams across the planet from the flea-bitten amateur ranks of Britain's seventh division all the way to the juggernaut glamor teams where you can actually attempt to purchase a Digital Ronaldo or get angry at some unholy rendering of Chris Wondolowski.  But for me, the most satisfying way to play is with a tiny regional team and have the program invent all of the players, not only because the algorithm was designed by a genius to spit out names like Paolo Pasta, but because it creates bizarre parallel universe where the world's best player is an Austrian named Dolph Tobaggen. 
The legend

And it is always fun that, with gameplay that remains pretty much the same whether you're playing as AFC Headbuttston or Real Madrid, you can now find out that the titanic promotion battle that you are fighting in the sixth division while fending off the barbs of a rival manager and other teams trying to grab your top players is all taking place for teams whose real life setup resembles a storage shed with a meat pie concession.

The home ground of Redditch United, a team that I took over after it 
was promoted from league so low that that you are not allowed to play 
into the seventh tier and got it to the the second-tier Championship.  
Because I play an old version of the game, the league that S.S. Milazzo 
is in literally no longer exists  

The genius of Football Manager is that it somehow balances a diabolically complex system of controls where anyone monomaniacal enough can assign unique training schedules to all of hundreds of players in a youth system or futz with dozens of obscure sliders that spell out each players' specific role with randomness and utter chaos.  Other sports games allow a human to control at least one player in the field and therefore take over the game; a skilled player or one at least savvy enough to figure out that the NCAA video games have no idea how to stop a cornerback under center who can run very fast can ride those exploits to victory.  Football Manager leaves the game results up to a program that leaves the player to the whimsical vagaries of chance.  The most determined player who has studied hundreds of pages of the various guides that players have put on the internet to form a sort of Football Manager folklore can still watch a Ballon D'Or-caliber superstar make an idiotic glory-tackle in the box in a crucial Champions League tie or players commit errors so egregious that they are either the result of a computer glitch or an uncannily perfect simulation of an oafish bartender stumbling around in the fifth division.

It is in fact that inability to directly control the players that makes it so gratifying or infuriating.  When a person, for example, takes a team to a championship in an NBA game, it is because he or she has taken control of them directly and run the same pick and roll that the game has no idea how to stop over and over again; these digital Darkos and Luthers Head have no apparent agency in this process.  When a Football Manger player named Antonio Crescendo hits a crucial away goal to advance to the next preliminary round of a cup, or someone named Walter Poplar-Stodge flails ineffective to stop a breakaway, it happens passively onscreen in a way almost directly parallel to how we already watch sports.

And Football Manager also puts in shadowy forces above the player as well.  Each team is controlled by a board that operates according to its own whims.  The manager can do nothing without the board-- it sets budgets, must be appealed to in order to improve facilities or even prevent the pitch from gradually turning into a treacherous dirt pit, it can unilaterally cancel player transactions or sell top players out from under you with no warning.  And in the end the board can fire you.  There is no game over as far as I can tell in Football Manager.  Once you get fired from a team, you can try to take over other teams by sending out job applications; I once got fired from two bottom-division teams in close succession (I am not good at this game) and started simulating to see who would hire me next.  I kept fruitlessly applying to be the manager in any league that would take me while years flew by because I was curious whether at some point the game would force me to retire or go into real estate or die.


Football Manager's baroque interface, intimidating options, and repetitive gameplay would make an impossible and awful game if it did not manage to tap into the insane and frightening ability for human beings to inject pathos and emotional stakes into anything that can be vaguely related to human endeavor.  The lack of control in the Football Manager universe turns players into goal-blasting heroes or disappointing losers that are randomly-generated parts of some code.  I spent several seasons in the game in legitimate fear of a computer-generated player named "Ian Sidebottom" who regularly tortured my team in the dregs of the semi-pro Conference National.

Football Manager brilliantly abets this by encouraging users to emotionally engage.  A crucial part of the game involves finding which types of pep talks certain players respond to.  The game also simulates player disgruntlement-- players argue about playing time, demand transfers to larger clubs, and generally irritate you.  It encourages you to argue with other managers through the fictional media.  These interactions on my old version (2012) get boring and rote quickly, but I'm floored that there's an option to add your own text to interactions-- this does absolutely nothing in the game other than give you the satisfaction of calling a string of code that presents as Liam Tradgough, Manager of Brundleswain-Upon-Pants a bloviating pig fucker to absolutely no one.

Sports video games that have no outside plot other than winning the game count on players to instinctively engage with them the same way they do with sports.  I've put my team in financial jeopardy by having a hard time selling old players because they've become club legends.  I've worried briefly about what recruiting a superior point guard on a college basketball team will do to the old stalwart on the roster even though the game has no mechanism to simulate this and a player will start, sit on the bench, or get cut and sent to a digital afterlife of swirling ones and zeroes presided over by the whims of a game genies with no effect whatsoever.  This phenomenon even spills over to games with real-life players; who has not had some sort of lingering affection for some otherwise obscure player that had somehow starred for you in a video game and otherwise has been consigned to the dustbin of Remembered Guys?

On the one hand, it is a little strange and even disturbing how easy it is to reproduce the feeling of rooting for a sports team that has real buildings and people and eleven dollar beers with a digital edifice that, no matter how complicated, is essentially face painted on a volleyball.  On the other hand, it's also gratifying that sports games allow anyone inclined to graft all of the emotions and ludicrous habits of watching sports onto what is essentially a nest of interlocking spreadsheets.  There is a way of playing Football Manager bloodlessly, of accepting the fundamental fact that its soccer universe is a cardboard diorama and it's just a matter of figuring out what buttons to press to make the numbers go up, but to put hours into the game doing that without becoming attached to players or angrily and short-shortsightedly selling a player that has done something annoying or even, with full control of one's faculties, writing to a rival manager that he should live as long as it takes for humans to master cloning and shrinking so that he can finally climb up his own ass even though this insult is going to an entity that does not exist, is more insane.

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