The Football Manager Live Diaries - Part One
I’ve been a Championship Manager (and, subsequently, Football Manager) nut for many years, now. Since being lent a copy of 96/97 while at school, there have been very few incarnations (usually all on consoles) that I haven’t played, and each year I eagerly await the new version, so that I can fail at Liverpool and then do rather better at West Brom all over again. But there’s no denying that, despite some excellent improvements such as increased focus on player and media interaction, and the new 3D match engine, it’s a series that’s lost some of its sheen of late. The first couple of Football Managers - 2005 and 2006 - were typically great, but since then the game has become a bit more bloated, ever-more bug-ridden until at least the first or second official patch months after release, and just too slow and clunking to be able to adequately plough your way through a career unless you’ve got five or six hours every day to play it (a far cry from the time at Uni where I fired up the still-the-best-of-them-all CM 97/98 and played through about ten seasons in a fortnight). But, of course, I still have cravings for some PC-based football management action. Maybe SI’s Football Manager Live, developed in parallel with the regular series, would offer a viable alternative?
FM Live is a daunting prospect - and the idea of jumping into a football management MMORPG, playing games against potentially thousands of other people across the world, with no real sense of how the game universe would work, initially put me off giving it a try. But the more I read about the game, following its official “boxed” release last month, the more I became intrigued. The game client itself is a bit more stripped-down and simplified - but then, the series arguably reached its peak in terms of the variety of tactical options years ago, and the tweaks that have been made since have never felt like they’d make or break the game - and while much of the good work done in recent years in terms of interaction with computer-generated players and opponents is missing, this is surely made up for by the prospect of interacting with actual human beings, right? I also liked the idea of being able to create your own team, made up of a bunch of hand-picked stars, chancers and wasters alike - one of the game’s unique selling-points, and one that I’m not sure any other football management game has offered before (unlike the short-lived cluster of mid-to-late-’90s F1 management games, which have all been stormed by a “Patrick Racing” team at one team or another).
I spent some time reading the game’s online manual to try and get a sense of how things worked before taking the decision of whether or not to play. As far as I could see, the game breaks down as follows :
- You join one of a number of “gameworlds”. Each player in the game’s database exists separately across each one of these worlds, so there are fifteen or sixteen Fernando Torreses out there, but they’ll never meet. Makes sense.
- When you’re in a gameworld, and after you’ve chosen your players from the available pool (and to a strict budget), you’re free to play matches against anyone in that gameworld, whenever you want.
- The lifeblood of the game, however, is Football Associations. Within each gameworld there are lots of different FAs, which each have their own individual rules and competition structures. The most obvious distinction between them all is the way that each caters for a different level of commitment - so whether you can only get on for a couple of hours in the evening each week, or you want to stay up all night every night, there’s probably an FA for you. Furthermore, matches don’t stick to a rigid timetable - you just get given your fixtures for the season, and are free to play them in any order, at any time, so long as they’re finished before a deadline (and even then, if you miss deadlines the computer will play for you and simply penalise you in cold hard (in-game) cash if it happens too often). This allayed one of my biggest fears - that I simply wouldn’t have the time to get the most out of the game, and would end up falling behind my anonymous competitors.
- You can switch FAs or Gameworlds at any time during the “off” season. Again, this takes the pressure off your initial decision-making, or allows you to hop to a different world if your mates join up and you want to play against them.
With all of this in mind, I decided to take the plunge and fork out £23 for a three-month subscription. And, furthermore, to write an ongoing diary for NTS of my in-world experiences. Which is what you’re reading now, you lucky, lucky people. I have no idea how long this will run for - whether it’ll be the length of my subscription (which at the current rate of progress, means it could end up lasting about twenty-seven chapters), or some earlier arbitrary point (e.g. when it gets boring), I wouldn’t care to speculate. For now, though, let’s see how I get on with setting up my new club…
First up, it’s time to select a gameworld. This is trickier than you’d think – you don’t want to be stuck in one with a rubbish name, nor one that already has too many people in it (because all the good players will be gone), nor one with too few (because it might not launch on time), nor one that’s about to launch too soon for you to pick your team, nor one filled with the wrong kind of fans. I wanted to go for “Fowler”, home as it is to lots of fellow Liverpool fans, but it turns out it’s a “pro” one – and as a new player, I should really be going for “semi-pro”. It’s also not possible to join a league that’s in progress – and so as I want to start straight away, I’m left with only a couple of choices. It ends up looking like my only options are two new worlds, “Metgod” and “Platini”. I don’t like Metgod’s name, and at only 3% full it might be too sparsely populated – so in the end I plump for the 74% full Platini, which starts its season on the 12th Feb. Marvellous.
After downloading the software (a surprisingly small download compared to the full FM game, as well – but then, I suppose all the data is stored server-side), the “Setup Assistant” gives me a bit of an overview of the game. I’ve done some reading of the online manual, but some concepts are still a little baffling, particularly concerning just how the overall organisation of the game world, Football Associations and competitions will work. But I figure if I can get my team set up and play some friendlies to start with, then maybe I can get going in a league at some point soon. In the meantime, though, it’s time to set up my team – the mighty Dukla Patrick! First off, I need to pick a home and away kit, which is of course the sort of thing I’ll agonise over for ages – although there aren’t quite as many possibilities here as in the likes of Pro Evo. This is changeable whenever you want anyway, I think, so to start with I’m going to plump for a fetching sky blue/black/white combination (colours that I like, reminiscent of the Estonian flag) at home, and a dashing black and red hooped away shirt. My stadium, meanwhile, is (again, for now) “Ganymede Park”, after a certain Red Dwarf website. I’m so cool. The next page reveals the game’s RPG element for the first time, as it asks me to choose in which area of management I will specialise in initially – which will mean that certain skills will develop quicker than others. I’m going for “Talent Spotter”, in order to try and help my scouting and player acquisition skills.
Now the important part… choosing my first squad! I’m going to try and do it manually to start with, but first of all I get to view the 18 players that have been selected for me. Seeing as I haven’t heard of any of them, I figure it’s worth trying the “Auto Select” function and then augmenting it with names that I might actually know. I tell the game to bias my selection towards players with a connection to Liverpool, but I resist the temptation to specifically look for English players (despite the fact that it would presumably help dressing room communication) because I’m NOT A RACIST. Already I’m spotting a bit of a flaw in the game, though, in that managing finances are important, but there’s no real indication of what a good wage budget might be at this stage of the game. Still, my initially-selected squad’s wage bill totalled around £50,000, so I’ve put that in the Auto Select filter. And once again, I get… no-one I’ve ever heard of. Alright, let’s try and skew it towards English players, and up the wage budget a bit, and see where it gets me. I’m also only going to ask it for two strikers automatically (instead of the default three), so I can then have a bit of cash left over to find someone I actually know.
Hmm, skewing English has still only given me two English players, but what the heck, this looks a better lot to use as a starting point. And look, someone I know! Former Aston Villa twerp Lee Hendrie! Now we’re talking! Okay, let’s go and try and find some familiar faces to pad this out with, and switch out some of the choices. I like the look of Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares, but I’m not keen on having two ‘keepers over the age of 30 – so let’s try and find a youngster as backup. I want someone with decent reflexes and aerial ability, and a 19-year-old chap called Mark Oxley looks to fit the bill. His handling isn’t brilliant, but we can work on that. He’s an eccentric sort who’s brave and good at rushing out – I’m thinking we can mould the lad into the next Bruce Grobbelaar. Only without the match-fixing allegations. Hopefully. Anyway, he’s in. I’m also pleased to see that upon signing him, and releasing the 36-year-old Aussie Frank Juric, the game tells you how this will affect both your wage budget and your available cash for signing-on fees. This is more like it.
I’m short on cash at the moment, so I’m not sure if I want to keep the Brazilian defender Cris in my squad. His wages are far above anyone else in the team, and his acquisition fee (the amount you have to pay to sign a “free agent”) of £250,000 seems extremely excessive for a 32-year-old (it’s half my budget, after all). His stats are terrific, though - he could be the absolute lynchpin of my central defence. I’ll keep him for now, but I think I’m going to have to trim my defensive options in order to cover for him. I’ve got quite a few versatile utility defenders, which negates the need for “two for every position” at the back – so I end up choosing choose between Kim Jung Kyum and Erkan Ozbey. The Turk has the better stats, but the Korean has a much better workrate, and I think it’s important to foster team spirit at this stage – so it’s out with Ozbey, who also saves me two grand more than dumping Kim would have.
Now, I’ve somehow managed to accumulate four defensive midfielders over the age of 30, and I can’t possibly need them all – so I think it’s time to get rid of one or two, and bring in some younger attacking players. Moroccan Mourad Hdiouad gets the push, but I decide to keep the other three – particularly Frenchman Sebastien Sansoni, because of course we Sebs have to stick together. I’ve now only got 15 players in the squad, so I reckon I need two or three more to start the season with (the game won’t let you start with fewer than 16, and reommends 18-20. I’ve got £30,000 to spend on acquisition fees, so let’s go shopping!
I immediately find a hard-working 24-year-old Scottish striker called Liam Buchanan, on the market at £10,000, so in he comes. That’s my strikeforce sorted, I think. I’m still wondering about Cris, though. He’s very good, but £250,000 just looks like too much to spend on one player at this stage. For £100,000, for example, I could get Per Krøldrup to play in the same position – with slightly lower stats, but seemingly better value for money. Even better, I find Brynjar Gunnarsson, who has match experience in this gameworld, for only £16,000. He’s 34, but it’s a great price. With him signed, it’s time to drop the Brazilian. Sorry, Cris – you’re good, but you’re not worth that much. I’m keeping Kroldrup in mind, still, but it’s time to see where else I might be able to spend my extra couple of hundred grand.
Searching the list for players with a reputation above “Well-known” and a fee below £250,000, meanwhile, finally turns up some names I might want to sign. Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher both go on my shortlist – I don’t want to spend £230,000 on a defender just yet, but if I can keep my wage bill low, I might earn enough cash for them in a little while. Luis Garcia, meanwhile, is on the market at £230,000 as well. Now that’s tempting. There’s a player to stick in the middle of the park and build a team around. I add him to the squad to see how he fits with the budget – it turns out he’d only leave me with £24,000, but I could probably drop the £14,000-priced Lee Hendrie if I had another creative midfield fulcrum. Hmm. One to think about, but let’s explore other options. Damien Duff is available for £110,000, but is a bit more limited in only being a left-winger… oh, you know what? I should allow myself at least one “marquee” player, and I like Little Luis too much to let him slip through my fingers. Let’s have him. Sorry, Hendrie. You’re out.
I’m really not understanding the “Finances” page at the moment, though, and it would be helpful if the online manual would actually load. Can I get away with spending more money to bulk my squad out to 18 players? Or will I end up collapsing within four weeks? I honestly can’t tell. I’ve got an overdraft of £100,000, and I think the game’s telling me that I’ll consistently have money rolling in over the coming weeks. But does that mean I can spend more on wages? There’s a “budget calculator” in the top-right, but I honestly don’t know what it’s there to calculate.
In the meantime, anyway, I’m bringing in Christian Araboni, an Italian striker, to bulk out the squad - and in order to round things off, I’m seeing what the “Auto Select” will give me if I ask for two more players. Ah, see, on this page it reminds me that “You have an initial budget of £500,000 in player acquisition fees and £100,000 in wages”. So that’s presumably all the cash I have for this initial choice, and I may as well use it up (as the wages won’t use ALL my income) before then trying to save cash for future transfers. Okay, it’s given me a versatile defender/midfielder from Chile called Boris Rieloff, and a Costa Rican right-winger named Kevin Sancho. I think I’m about there. My midfield is a bit skewed to the right (positionally, not politically), but I’ll see how my cash situation goes and then maybe I can pick up someone like Duff if he’s still available. This, then, is the Dukla Patrick squad!
Okay, so, time to throw myself into the game world a bit. First off, though, checking my news items, I see that someone’s made a bid for Birkir Bjarnason, my Icelandic midfielder. I’d be tempted if there were cash involved, but since they’re offering me Unlikely Champions League Winner Djimi Traore, I think I’ll pass. I know I want ex-LFC players… but I don’t want them that badly! Meanwhile, I’m also told that I should look at signing up to a Football Association. Should I do this before playing some random friendly matches, I wonder? I go to the setup assistant, and it tells me to launch the “Opponent Finder” – fair enough, I think. Maybe I’ll get the chance to have a browse and choose someone to play? Er, no. Immediately I’m told that I have a match against a team called Ravensbourne FC, of the Xtreme Evening Football Association. In FIVE MINUTES’ TIME. Er, cripes. I quickly select a team, but in trying to set some team instructions (whether to attack or defend, play wide or narrow, short or long passing, and so on) I’m told I need to be at “level 1 Tactics” in order to do that. Er, right. A bit Final Fantasy, but okay. Mental note to find out how the heck I go about sorting all that out later – in the meantime, this is clearly going to be a hammering.
That feeling is exacerbated after two minutes of the match, when I go a goal down. Oh dear. To my boys’ credit, they don’t disgrace themselves for the rest of the first half, but concede a sloppy follow-up on 38 minutes. Two-nil down at half time, and it can surely only get worse. Or can it? At the break I take off striker Roni – who’d had my only real chance of the half, firing into the side netting – and bring on the young Scot, Liam Buchanan. I’m not expecting much from the lad, but on 76 minutes the breakthrough comes, as he nicks the ball from a defender, rounds the keeper, and slots home for Dukla Patrick’s first ever goal. 2-1! But surely no chance of an equaliser, particularly after the pressure that my team were putting on before the goal has now given way to a bombardment from Ravensbourne. But Arabioni gets clean through on 83 minutes, only for his deflected shot to bounce off the post and wide, before in the 88th minute a shot from Luis Garcia is saved and only half-cleared, sitting up for Buchanan to thunder in in a left-footed volley. Two-all, and what a comeback! Given that the best I was hoping for from my first match was a non-disgrace defeat, a 2-2 draw is a terrific result, and I’m extremely proud of the lads.
Okay, with that learning experience out of the way, it’s time to join an association. The game has already guessed that I can play my matches on weekday evenings (9pm-12am) and weekends. That’s fine by me, so I hit “Next”. I can choose to play at a “Casual”, “Moderate” or “Intense” level. I think I’m going to go for “Casual” (up to 5 hours of play per week) to start with, as I can always leave and join a different association at the end of my first season if I don’t think I’m getting enough use out of it. It’s immediately suggesting that I join the “Weekend Casual Association”, but I’d rather have a look at all the possibilities before committing, so I hit “No” and have a scout around. In the end, the “All Evening Football Association” looks the best bet, and it has one space available, so I try and go for that. Except in the time that I’ve been pondering it, someone else has beaten me to it. Damn. Looks like I’m going WCA, even though the likelihood of playing games in “real-time” against other managers (as opposed to versus AI in their absence) is supposedly drastically lower in this league.
The league isn’t set to start until Thursday, so I have a bit of a mooch around the game world – clearing up messages, checking out a few players and whatnot, as well as tweaking Ganymede Park to give it a wider and longer pitch (I want to play expansive, open, counter-attacking football with players running on to long passes) and having the grass cut in a circular pattern – but conclude that until I can get a proper look at the manual (it’s still down at this point), I can’t really work out what’ll happen with transfers and money, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford the £15,000 that I’m considering offering for Robbie Fowler, currently playing for Havenpool Porters FC. So I may as well get in some more matches in the meantime. Next up, via the opponent finder, are “Real Richie”, whose manager Luke Richardson (clearly a man after my own heart in the team naming stakes) compliments me upon kick-off on my choice of Luis Garcia. Of course, he can afford to be friendly, given that his side, like Ravensbourne, quickly take a two-goal lead, both goals coming from sloppy defensive errors. Suddenly, somehow scraping together the money for Skrtel or Carragher starts to look like an idea worth considering in the coming weeks. That man Buchanan pulls one back after 76 minutes (again!) but there’s to be no glorious comeback this time, and I go down 2-1. A friendly “gl [good luck] for the season” from Luke and we go our separate ways.
I’ve started to realise something with FM Live already that sets it apart from the regular Football Manager experience. It feels friendlier. Admittedly when you throw thousands of football fans – many of them teenagers – together in one place you’re going to get aggro, but at the moment, the atmosphere in the matches I’ve played and the in-gaming mailing list messages I’ve received has been fairly pleasant. I’ve tried sticking my head around the door of the chatrooms, and they seem a bit more anarchic – but on the whole, in this pre-season time at least, it seems like people are generally quite laid-back.
And maybe it’s that the game makes you feel laid-back. I’m known for getting annoyed and sulky while playing FM, because when I lose a crucial match it often feels like the computer’s cheated me somehow. Here, though, the computer can’t cheat you, because you’re playing against real people. They’re real people that I don’t know, and they could be anyone – and consequently I feel a natural compulsion to be polite, and to not particularly care if they beat me. Of course, this may change when I’m playing competitive matches and no longer have the excuse of being an entirely new side – but for now, despite not feeling like I’ve got much of a handle on the wider nature of the bafflingly huge game world, I’m rather enjoying this.
Will Dukla Patrick ever win a game? Will they sign an elderly Scouse goal poacher? Have they chosen the right FA? And has Seb Patrick really made a FRIEND? Find out, in the next unedifying episode of The Football Manager Live Diaries.