From Solskjaer to Griezmann: How Football Manager keeps virtual fans engaged

How Football Manager has provided a necessary distraction (1:40)

Tom Markham from Football Manager explains the role the game has played for fans and players alike. (1:40)

Away from juggling toilet rolls, growing TikTok followers or training in full kit on Hadley Common in North London, some of the world's top footballers are filling their time in a different way during these days of coronavirus-enforced social isolation. Wolves forward Diogo Jota has been coaching Telford United, Barcelona striker Antoine Griezmann was one of 32 players competing for the Trophee De France (the 2018 World Cup winner is also in charge of Stade Rennais), while football is still very much "part of my daily routine" for Manchester City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.

As the lack of live football continues, the sport's leading stars -- and thousands of fans across the world -- are immersing themselves in the virtual equivalent of their own profession: Football Manager 2020.

Football Manager is a world where reality blends with footballing unpredictability, played on Windows, MacBooks and on mobile. At its most watered-down, it is a turn-based role-playing-game where you take charge of the club of your choice and then compete against the virtual equivalent of real-life managers on the game. It also offers unprecedented control. You can start a war of words with Jurgen Klopp or tap up the next Erling Haaland; you can get angry at your bosses about your data analysts' facilities, or fine a player if he goes AWOL from training.

You can take over-arching control and drill down to the minutiae of your under-18 squad's training, or you can hammer through a season, delegating everything to other staff members. You can also get sacked. (It's extremely easy to get the boot, too.) If you are dismissed from your club, the game continues, blissfully unaware of your misfortune as you pitch to other managerless, computer-controlled clubs to get back into a job. And then you have to watch on as someone else takes control of your old side as if you were never there.

Unlike EA Sports' FIFA series, you can't actively play the matches. You set things up and direct dots on the screen, while getting increasingly annoyed at them for not following or understanding your new gegenpress 4-2-3-1 formation. Then you head into a news conference to handle the hard questions and pressure from the fans. Fundamentally, it offers fans the chance to do what they always felt capable of doing: A better job than the team's real life manager.

In these football-starved times, lovers of the game are turning to its virtual equivalent; demand for Football Manager is going through the roof as supporters try to scratch the itch online. It may not match the real thing, but it's all they've got.

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The origins of an obsession

Football Manager launched nearly 30 years ago. The original incarnation was created by English brothers Ov and Paul Collyer in their bedroom in Shropshire, starting its life as a concept called European Champions in 1985. The original version was made up of 500 lines of code (for reference, there are approximately 30 million lines of code in the latest version of Microsoft Office). EA Sports turned it down when pitched as there weren't enough graphics, but a small company called Domark took a punt. Officially launched as Championship Manager in 1992, the game soared in popularity and the brothers created Sports Interactive Ltd in 1994 to take it forward.

The game rebranded in 2005 as Football Manager. It was bought by computer giants Sega a year later and now totals 118 playable leagues. Users spend 300 hours playing on average per year, according to Miles Jacobson, the studio director at Sports Interactive. Then when the new edition with revised squads and added features comes out every November, more often than not users drop their beloved 50-season saves from the previous edition and start all over again.

"We see Football Manager as a universe," Jacobson tells ESPN. "It might sound strange, but there are hundreds and thousands of non-playable characters in the game -- the players and managers -- and you know a bit about them and you are able to place yourself in that universe."

Iain Macintosh, who once wrote of his attempts to manage Man United and Arsenal for ESPN, loves the game so much that in 2012 he co-authored the book "Football Manager Stole My Life: 20 years of Beautiful Obsession."

"I have always defended this game," Macintosh tells ESPN. "There are people who get very into cricket stats, or model railways. It is an obsession and at first glimpse, it doesn't really seem to serve any purpose, but it does. It's like all of things like crosswords or doing a sudoku, and it's not thoughtless like blasting aliens on Space Invaders. You need a brain and an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of football tactics. It combines relaxation and brain exercises.

"But the game doesn't need humans. It's like Skynet, and that compulsion to prove yourself with a growing level of realism is irresistible."

That realism can become completely addictive and destructive. Macintosh details how Football Manager had been cited in 35 divorce cases. I had a friend at school who failed his key science exams as he was too caught up in the 15th season of his FM 05 save with Scottish second division side East Fife. But there also positive tales of those who make their living playing Football Manager.

"When I came to London in 2000, I managed to triple my sizeable student debt and I was in a particularly low-paid job," Macintosh said. "I tried not to go to the pub so often, and so until 2003 or so I basically had enough money for one night out a week. I was getting my teams promoted while others were out having fun. But it didn't much cost me anything to do that, so it actually helped me through a difficult stage."

FM goes mainstream

Nowadays you can make a living out of managing teams while others watch on YouTube. Ben Carr, aka DoctorBenjyFM, is currently spending his isolation time combining streaming his Great Yarmouth and Inter Milan games while looking after his pregnant partner. But his love for the game was developed during a tough spell.

"I came out of college after a spell of depression and spent six years in that realm until I was 24," Carr tells ESPN. "I was unemployed and that game gave me a focus and, when I was 26-years-old, I went full time. I streamed the game, interacted with people and by deciding to make something out of my passion for it, while it sounds a little dramatic to say Football Manager helped me out of depression, it was a massive factor. It gave me escapism."

His most-watched video to date was when a Reddit user utilised the "go on holiday" mode on the game, where it carries on without you, and simulated 1,000 seasons to the year 3015. It took 58 days in real time. (Good news Sheffield United fans, you're set to win the Premier League in 2374-75 with 101 points, while Brentford are due to be the world's richest team in the next millennium.)

Another influencer, Jack Peachman, aka WorkTheSpace, got his job in the gaming industry having got a foot in the door thanks to his prowess at Football Manager.

Tales of Football Manager obsession are commonplace within the game's users, to the extent stand-up comedian Tony Jameson put together a show based on this for the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival called "Football Manager Ruined my Life." His show sold out. In 2015, he took it on an 18-month, 50-venue tour.

"I guess it's a bit like NFL in some ways, when you try to explain the draft system to someone who knows nothing about NFL," Jameson tells ESPN. "There's a breakdown in communication. It's similar to when you talk to the people who obsess about World of Warcraft or those who dress up as Harry Potter. But, I mean, we've all dressed up in a suit for an FA Cup final on the game, haven't we?

"I once served a touchline ban by standing outside the door as my team played. Rules are rules."

Jameson also learnt the words to the Cameroon national anthem to "help his team" on FM 18, and when he won the Champions League with Blyth Spartans, he booked himself an open-bus tour of Newcastle and played "We are the Champions" from his laptop.

"I've now got two young kids, but the COVID-19 measures mean I have a bit more time to play FM again," he said. "I started a game as Kings Lynn, but now moved to Bangor City in Wales. I've gone international!"

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Aficionados have their own favourite players: cult heroes like Freddy Adu, Cherno Samba, Tonton Zola Moukoko, Andri Sigporsson, Nicolas Millan, Mark Kerr and Maxim Tsigalko were all wonderkids on the game, more coveted and valuable than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but never lived up to their billing in reality. Take Samba -- he was a 16-year-old hot prospect at Millwall in CM 01/02 and turned into a world-beater. Unfortunately, his real-life career didn't live up to that lofty projected path and he retired in 2015 having finished his career at Norwegian third-tier side FK Tonsberg.

Clubs have even turned to the game for scouting tips using its vast database. Everton signed a deal in 2008 to get an early look at the database prior to launch, while even a few current managers took their first steps into the dugout thanks to Football Manager.

"It's a fantastic game, I have learned a lot about football from it," Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said back in 2013. "I remember thinking the same then, that I do as a manager, you want to give young guns the chance and see them develop. Many of my players play FIFA and Football Manager -- I think it helps them to understand football better."

And sometimes it gets silly, like in Azerbaijan back in 2013 when then-22-year-old Vugar Huseynzade earned an 18-month gig in recruitment at FC Baku purely off the back of his Football Manager acumen, built up by playing the game for nine years.

How FM helps those during trying times

Thousands of others are turning to FM 20 during these times of social isolation. FM reached a record six figures of users on digital distribution service Steam when they made the game free for a fortnight, according to Jacobson.

"Any little escape at the moment is good," he said. "It's pretty hard for people to be adjusting to what's going on with the coronavirus. We all feel that as well -- us who work on the game -- we're all human beings and we're going through the same thing, so if we can do anything to help escape that reality then we're going to try and do it."

While the coronavirus pandemic will not feature in FM 20, despite some users asking Jacobson to add it in via an update to keep pace with the real world, the series has been ahead of the curve on political and social issues.

"We've picked up on things in the past and we're incredibly proud of that, whether it be educating people on the potential outcomes of Brexit or having players coming out [as gay] in the game, and not make it a big deal," Jacobson said. "The way we did that was, you'd get a message from your club's commercial director to say shirt sales had gone up for a short period of time and you'd never hear about it again, which is what I would hope happens in real life.

"We've supported charity 'Kick it Out' for 20-plus years and 'War Child' get a donation for every game bought. We've switched our packaging to 100% recycled and recyclable packaging -- again there was a cost to do that, it costs us more money, but we've done it because it's the right thing to do."

The next edition of FM will be out in November. The likes of Griezmann and Jota will download it and experience the same frustration and elation like thousands of other fans. Everyone starts at the same level, despite their real-world ability, and has their own favoured saves.

"I remember winning the UEFA Cup with Southend," Macintosh said. "That was a good time, but when you open a new game, and you win a trophy, you feel that relief you won't get sacked for a while and know you can maybe get a better job. And then you realise you're a middle-aged man, playing a computer game you've been playing for 25 years and, well, you know, you probably need to have a think about some things."

While you can never finish FM, there will always be those using it as a place they can escape to for a few valuable minutes -- or hours -- as the world waits for football to return.

"In the football world we're seeing very little news and in the real world, it's all bad news," Jacobson said. "That's why I believe our game is doing well: it's pure escapism ... it's a peaceful world that people enjoy."