Since 2008, I’ve played the game Football Manager. Actually, played probably isn’t the right word to describe it. Addicted fits better.
For the last two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a review copy of the popular simulation-based soccer video game. Which is sort of like taking someone with a gambling problem to a casino, giving them a wad of bills and telling them you’ll be back in the morning.
I’m currently about 30 hours into a stint as the boss of Southampton. And, unsurprisingly, I really enjoy the game. But that’s hardly a review. See, Football Manager isn’t really a game you review. Mainly, because it’s hard to find a free two or three hours to actually write when you’re absorbed with trying to wrap your brain around why you can’t seem to stop your team from leaking goals after the 80th minute. (My traditional review in a sentence: I’ve already played 46 hours since Nov. 1 and I’ve been incredibly busy; so there.)
The hallmark of this franchise — created by Sega and Sports Interactive — is realism. In this parallel video game virtual reality, you take over as manager of basically any club in the world — from England to America to Brazil to Russia to South Africa. You are in charge of scouting, setting up tactics, managing egos, navigating the transfer market, identifying up-and-coming youth players and much, much more.* There are real players and teams from the tip of the well-known English Premier League all the way down to Brazil’s second division.
*One complaint about Football Manager as a whole? It’s a daunting and complicated game right from the start. Which, in continuing this whole “realism” through line, is probably just like it is as the manager of real soccer club.
A traditional review becomes either a listing of the new features or a focus on a few improvements.* There are a ton of new features and improvements. Among the biggest: The match engine (how you watch the game) has undergone a makeover to focus on realistic player movement. (Again: Realism.)
*You can find out more about the features in this 27-minute (yes, 27 minute!) video.
So instead of telling you why you should get this game (if you fancy yourself a soccer tactician/tinkerer/know-it-all, you should), I decided to put the game through a test. A virtual “reality” test.
What would happen if I simulated a Major League Soccer season? How would FM15 hold up in comparison to the real season that is ending on Sunday with the MLS Cup final between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New England Revolution (3 p.m. on ESPN)?
I started the season as an unemployed manager based in America, these are my findings.
I. I know who will win the MLS Cup
Sorry New England fans, but it’s been predetermined: The Los Angeles Galaxy will hoist the Cup. It’s been foretold by the folks at Sports Interactive and the computer bots they’ve built to do our simulated bidding.
In this parallel MLS, the Galaxy won the Cup 2-1 thanks to goals by Robbie Keane (the league MVP — which the game also correctly predicted) and Landon Donovan (who doesn’t have a prolonged retirement announcement during the campaign).
However, the simulator had its own thoughts on the rest of the season.
The opponent in the MLS Cup wasn’t New England, it was Philadelphia — the best team in the East by a wide 9-point margin. The Revs didn’t even qualify for the playoffs.
The Seattle Sounders won the U.S. Open Cup (just like in real life), but failed to make the playoffs and booted Sigi Schmid immediately after the loss. The Galaxy did the double with the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.
II. Chivas refuses to die a simulated death
Chivas USA made the playoffs.
And finished second in the competitive West.
And won a playoff series over Colorado.
And weren’t liquidated in a tragic but necessary fashion with the players dispersed to the rest of the league and a new ownership group polishing its credentials and business plan for two years into the future.
How does Virtual Don Garber get to keep his job?
III. Have goalkeeping gloves, will travel
Perhaps this is just a glitch — those happen in games like this where updates are constantly being pushed out — but goalkeepers were extremely expendable in this world.
It all started with the New York Red Bulls trading Luis Robles to Vancouver for a lot of allocation money and two first-round picks. Two weeks later, New York traded both picks plus two more to Houston for Tally Hall.
Desperately in need of help when Andy Gruenebaum got hurt (Eric Kronberg had been traded to Seattle before the season), KC signed Marcelo, a 37-year-old fourth-division goalkeeper from Brazil. He later got hurt and would miss two weeks, which led Virtual Vermes to fix this temporary problem by trading allocation money for Montreal’s Troy Perkins. He’ll get hurt too, don’t worry. KC ended the year with three goalkeepers on season-ending injured reserve (Marcelo, Perkins and a made-up guy named Steve Purdy), Gruenebaum and two academy signings. Jon Kempin, for what it’s worth, stayed at Oklahoma City all year.
Apparently, the creators of the game were confused by the pool goalkeeper rules.
New England traded Bobby Shuttleworth to Portland for an international player slot. Portland traded now-backup Donovan Ricketts to Toronto because, of course. Toronto then traded starter Joe Bendik to Dallas, who then traded their starter Raul Fernandez to Columbus.
It got way worse during the offseason. The Crew traded now-deposed starter Steve Clark to New York for Bradley Wright-Philips (total goals: 3). Not finished, the Red Bulls then traded to get Shuttleworth from the Timbers. Ricketts, for what it’s worth, was then traded to Orlando because, again, of course.
Remember how Bendik signed with Dallas? Well, he got traded to Seattle who traded Kronberg to the Revs. I could’ve dug deeper and followed this down the rabbit hole, but I’m afraid it would turn me into video-game blogger version of Rust Cohle.
The Philadelphia Union went with Rais M’Bolhi for 33 of its 34 regular season games and every playoff game, in case you were wondering. He was the goalkeeper of the year.
IV. ‘Virtual Vermes sends his regards.’
After suffering an embarrassing 5-1 aggregate defeat to the Union in the Eastern Conference finals, Virtual Peter Vermes didn’t just “evolve” his team, he “dissolved” it.
After the MLS Cup, the team declined options on Jacob Peterson, Gruenebaum, Lawrence Olum and Kevin Ellis, and waived Victor Munoz, Michael Kafari, Mikey Lopez and Steve Purdy (a made-up goalkeeper signed during the season).
Then KC traded Aurelien Collin to New York City FC for allocation money and a first-round draft pick. Then Vermes let Antonio Dovale go to Toronto for a pack of gum, two cases of warm beer and a supplemental draft pick.
This is still within reason. All of the players listed so far were either cut in real life or potentially expendable now. Then it got weird.
Graham Zusi shunned his “Face of the Franchise” contract and defected to Europe (with, of all teams, Stoke City).*
*Oddly enough, Dom Dwyer doesn’t even seem to flirt with Europe as best I can tell.
The biggest mystery? Seth Sinovic — who finished second in the defender of the year voting and was KC’s only under-contract fullback* at the time — was left exposed in the expansion draft and was, of course, the first choice.
*Earlier in the season, Chance Myers had been traded to Vancouver for two draft picks.
That’s 13 players excised in about three days. It was was Sporting KC’s “Red Wedding.”
Somehow, through it all, Claudio Bieler remained as the “Rains of Castamere” played.
V. The Expansion Draft
One of the features I’m very pleased with in this year’s version of the game is that Orlando City and New York City FC are included. They even join the league via an expansion draft at the end of the 2014 season — a nice touch and a tip of the cap to MLS fans.
Both teams start with their incoming DPs — in January 2015 Kaka is set to join Orlando, David Villa and Frank Lampard are set to join New York City. But the teams built very differently during the season.
Orlando isn’t very active during the regular season, but New York City traded for defenders Bobby Burling and Doneil Henry, midfielder Amobi Okugo, and forward Dominic Odurro in February. Those four will not play a single minute in 2014.*
*Philadelphia bizarrely reacquired Okugo after the season concludes.
During the expansion draft, Orlando built a fairly convincing team with Sinovic, forwards Jerry Bengston, Jack McInerney and Steven Lenhart, defender A.J. Soares, and goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
New York, in keeping with the goalkeeping glitch, wound up with Sean Johnson, Tally Hall, Dan Kennedy and Marcus Hahnemann. By the start of the SuperDraft, NYCFC has 11 goalkeepers under contract. I wish I was kidding.
VI. The virtual reality of ‘virtual reality’
A simulation built on statistical ratings is bound to have its biases — teams and players with higher ratings tend to do better over longer periods in most categories. But simulations are also prone to surprisingly random occurrence — like Chivas in the playoffs, Arsenal being the opponent in the All-Star Game (they won 3-0) and the goalkeeping glitch.
Overall, FM15 did a pretty bang-up job of creating a realistic version of the game — more predictive than I expected, less random than I would’ve predicted.
Robbie Keane scored lots of goals. Obafemi Martins did too. Thierry Henry had the highest average rating per game. Kenny Cooper got traded to yet another team (this time New England). Michael Bradley was one of the best players in the league week-in-week out. Talent got poached by European clubs (Zusi, Carlos Valdes, Luis Gil). And former American national team members came home to roost (notably Oguchi Onyewu joins Toronto).
I’m sure, given another simulation or seven those things would likely happen again. And so it goes.
But in between the predictable and the random were a few interesting coincidences.
Sporting KC suffered an injury crisis: Matt Besler tore his hamstring in August, Dom Dwyer damaged knee ligaments in September, goalkeepers Marcelo and Gruenebaum both missed two months with knee and finger injuries, and Jacob Peterson missed the entire season with an ACL injury.
Perhaps the craziest coincidence? On August 6, Sporting KC suffered a 1-1 draw to Philadelphia with the Union’s Brian Brown scoring the game-tying goal in the 68th minute. (That’s just spooky — Brown scored in the 71st minute in the real life 1-1 draw.)
That sort of accuracy is kind of alarming. But, of course…
VII. Sometimes virtual reality isn’t really reality at all.
Seth Sinovic scored in a regular-season game, his first game with Orlando City and the first MLS goal in club history.
This is not a world I’m prepared to understand.