Football Manager 2021 could find next Messi, but would club scouts use it?

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)

Football Manager (FM) is a video game behemoth that has been in circulation in some form since 1992 and, in a year in which we've all had to get used to the "new normal" created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the management simulation has taken on new significance for football fans.

FM is one of the world's most popular sports games ever and the 2020 edition broke its own record of concurrent users in March 2020, with 84,063 playing the game on the Steam platform. But each year fans expect an improved update and for each player at a club to have stats accurately reflecting their real-life ability. As the latest edition gets set for release on Nov. 24, and with real-life football back, we took a closer look at how the game compares to scouting as a profession.

With travelling off the table for real scouts, more clubs are relying on data already available to find new players. Enter FM: a platform built by a network of over 1,300 researchers, working across the world, who can provide information on players in a way that is far more comprehensive than any club could manage on its own. Indeed, if the FM database archive was a country, it would sit 160th in the world in terms of population: the number of past and present players, from over 25 years of the computer game series, sits at 925,000 -- larger than the population of Fiji and just smaller than Djibouti. "It will hit the million mark in a year or two," Mark Woodger, head of research for Sports Interactive, tells ESPN's Tom Hamilton.

In the new game there are 350,000 active non-players and players, 60,000 clubs, 50,000 cities and thousands of competitions. Behind the scenes at Sports Interactive (SI), there are 86 head researchers who cover pretty much every country in the world, with the bigger footballing countries like Germany, France, Spain, Italy and England having two -- in England there is one full-time researcher on Premier League duty and another looking at the tiers below.

Each of those head researchers has a team underneath them: the assistant researchers. There are 1,250 of them. They are usually an avid supporter of their club and will watch all first-team games, as well as a host of reserves and youth team ones as well. These researchers aren't just hired on the spot though. There's a stringent applications process, and many already work in various capacities on the data and recruitment side within clubs. Sometimes the role even leads to bigger and better things, as in the case of Matt Neil (now a Recruitment Analyst at Salford City) who was given a job on the data analytics team at Plymouth directly as a result of him having researched them for SI.

"Not all FM players would make good researchers and not all obsessive fans would make good researchers as they may be too biased," Woodger adds. "So it does need an analytical mind, attention to detail and to be able to take a step back from your own biases as a fan of a particular club."

- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

How Football Manager attributes are decided

When it comes to assigning attributes, it's not like FIFA 21. Real-life players won't see their final ratings (or be able to complain about them) as a number of variables change the end result. A superstar like Lionel Messi is easy to rate, but it gets tougher further down, or with youngsters. The assistant researchers watch every player at their club and compare them against each other, and against those in a similar league -- rating them for everything from finishing, pace and strength, to other things like injury-risk which could bring the level down.

With the head researcher signing off after a few rounds of edits, each player is given a score of 1-200 for current and potential ability. Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, for example, will have a current ability in the 180-190s and a potential ability of 193, which governs his attributes and how he performs in-game, but no matter what you do in FM, he can never exceed that potential. A lower league player would have a current ability in the region of 60, and a potential rating a little higher, but for some of the best young talents coming through there's a different way of doing things that isn't so rigid.

For this the FM researchers use a system called a "minus rating" which alters a player's potential ability with each new save. The "minus rating" can stretch from -1 to -10, with -10 being reserved for players who have world-class talent, making the game more challenging and fun for the user -- though not always in line with reality. Once the researcher has a firmer indication of what a young player's fixed potential could be -- usually when they've had a couple of seasons of first-team football or have hit 23 and are no longer a youth player -- they can set that in the database instead and remove the "minus rating."

"If a player looks really good and you know this guy is better than the level, you look at 'up-ing' his current ability and his potential ability -- if there are other clubs after him, or I've seen him play and he's brilliant," Woodger says. "There needs to be a comparison to players around in the same league. They [the researchers] get a feel for it -- they won't get it right every time; the professional scouts don't get it right every time. It's about tweaking each time and re-assessing them all the time. Looking at if a player has improved or is being found out.

"You have to try to see through the hype. We will get it wrong sometimes; real-life managers or scouts get it wrong all the time -- saying they're not good enough or saying they're too good -- so we have those checks and balances. Usually, we come to a consensus that someone is over or under-rated."

This year, after the Beta launch on Nov. 9 -- when fans can pre-order the game two weeks ahead of general release on the understanding that they report any bugs or irregularities -- top of the agenda was reappraising a few players' statistics like Brighton defender Tariq Lamptey and Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka.

"The week before it was released, we had to lock the data [on the database] -- since then we've made 671,753 changes to the database in those two weeks based on the feedback from anyone playing the beta," Woodger says. Even after all the work that has gone into preparing attributes for the game over the past year, real-time feedback is key as players evolve.

What do real scouts make of Football Manager?

A professional scout has a much bigger responsibility when assessing players, because their work is the basis for decisions that could ultimately cost a club millions, whereas Football Manager, however accurate and realistic it aims to be, has a different objective: entertainment.

Judging a player's potential is likely to stir up heated debates even among scouts, so while it may be useful to give Football Manager a quick glance to get a second or third opinion on the crossing skills of a Ligue 2 left-back, trusting the game to predict a player's future is a different story.

The chief scout of a Champions League level club tells ESPN's Tor-Kristian Karlsen that he's a fan of the game. "I used the play the game 10-12 years ago, but I downloaded it again now during lockdown, and I know some other colleagues did too," he says. "Let me say this first: their database is fantastic, and I really mean that. They cover every corner of the planet. Their marking system is also good, surprisingly precise."

Yet he's somewhat sceptical that Football Manager would prove integral to the scouting work of professional clubs. "For me it's pure entertainment and I wouldn't consult the game for information I would use professionally," he adds. "At the end of the day it's a game... We have our own network which has taken years to set up, consisting of people that we know and trust, and that's good enough."

But while those in the realm of the Champions League have the luxury of working at well-reputed clubs with substantial scouting budgets, Football Manager can be a valuable resource for smaller clubs.

Toulouse chairman Damien Comolli certainly knows a thing or two about scouting, having worked with Monaco, Saint-Etienne, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and, most recently, Fenerbahce. Comolli has drawn criticism for various transfer decisions at these clubs, but now he's clearly ready to embrace data to help his French Ligue 2 side compete.

"We are not yet using Football Manager, but we will do so," Comolli told 20 Minutes earlier this year. "There are a lot of clubs that are using it. It will not be a central pillar of our recruitment strategy, but it could help... Football scouts make observations on the pitch. Then, they send those reports and we verify them with data. Or we query a database, which produces players for us who follow certain criteria, which we then ask scouts to verify. It works in both ways. All recruitment is done thanks to data confirming what scouts see. The best way to recruit is to mix them both."

Player scouting is not an exact science, but there are some similarities between what Woodger's team do and how real-life scouts operate, particularly in the various layering of information. How they come across a player in the first place isn't so important.

"Scouting is done in stages," a chief scout based in Germany tells ESPN. "The first step is about discovering and the search is very broad. At this point it's not really that important where the information or 'flagging up' comes from. Sometimes agents bring players to our attention, or it may be the database of a computer game. The players that sound interesting to us are then analysed online. If they pass that filter, we will send someone physically to watch. Then, if that player reaches the shortlist stage, we will send one of our senior scouts, or I'll go myself.

"I don't really worry too deeply about how players end up on our table. If one or two of our scouts come up with names that they have come across while playing Football Manager, why not? At least the name's being picked up. In a way it's kind of entrepreneurial, lateral thinking. In any event we have enough layers to weed out the player later in the scouting process if needs be. He would need to pass many exams along the way to make the final shortlist."

So is Football Manager in the future for scouts?

Though the Champions League level chief scout ruled out his club using Football Manager for scouting purposes, he did share an interesting detail which might be of surprise (and encouragement) to some. "Actually, quite a few of the new younger scouts that I know became hooked on scouting through Football Manager," he says. "The finding, buying and selling aspect interested them and led to many looking at how to getting into real-life scouting."

It's clear there'll always be a need for "real-world" follow-up, especially when it comes to delving deeper on a player and checking the accuracy of original information.

For clubs, trust is key. Knowing that the person who has compiled the report or submitted the information possesses the ability to judge the attributes of a player is paramount and it can take years for someone who discovers, assesses or rates talent to build the confidence and gain the reputation to make a living from this work. After all, scouting is a specialist profession -- not knowing who is behind the information or how that person views a footballer makes it unlikely for most clubs to rely on reports submitted by third parties -- at least not beyond a preliminary "filtering" stage.

"Judging potential is the hardest task in scouting," the German-based scout says. "We are dealing with human talent and many of the reasons why a player eventually performs above or below expectations are to do with personality, mentality and environment. Those factors are extremely hard to predict as a lot is down to factors you don't necessarily see clearly on the pitch or in a game situation.

"To get into a young player's psyche you need to spend time talking to him, visit his family, see him in training. And more importantly, you need to know what to look for from those conversations and encounters. For me this is all about experience and a general understanding of psychology and sociology, and how to view a human in relation to sport and football."

Football Manager is an incredible game, but until that level of human interaction can be accounted for, there will always be a place for professional scouts.