Virtual Emotions, Wasted Time

Well, Doctor, it’s like this. I’ve been playing the Football Manager games for 20 years. Since the very first one, the one with the picture of an angry man on the box, came out I’ve spent hours and hours and hours of my life tinkering with make-believe football teams, playing with tactics, scouting and recruiting new players. When I think about what I could have achieved in my life, the languages I could have learned, the places I could have seen, it really does break my heart. At some point, I’m going to be on my death bed, surrounded by family members, gently ebbing away into the next plane of existence and all I’m going to be able to think about is the fact that I must have spent a cumulative total of six unbroken months playing a computer game.

Taken from Iain Macintosh’s work for the Guardian and the Blizzard.

Iain Macintosh really is the gold standard for this topic. He has taken his obsession with Football Manager and rolled it into his work, writing a book Football Manager Stole My Life and occasionally publishing articles for websites showing what he would do with team x to get them out of situation y (including what he would have instead of Moyes at Manchester United for the 13/14 season).

My experience has been with the EA Sports FIFA series, which has resulted in hours spent in front of a computer, regardless of physical, emotional and social demands. Late into the night, first thing in the morning; so many worn out controllers, worn out discs; virtual high and lows. Yes my life is sad and this is just one example.

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The EA Sports FIFA series has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. In talking about this with my brother, he reminded me that the first version we played was FIFA 95. When I moved back to Michigan, we used to play for hours in his dorm room with opponents trying to get to the “hot spot” to score a certain goal. To prevent this from occurring, the C button was used in order to foul the player.

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I can also recall playing FIFA 97 on the SEGA Genesis system. I seem to remember an outdoor and indoor version, which was a great idea. I took Manchester United to glory and this laid the groundwork for how I used the game. Stephen McKeown had familiar experiences, getting all the iterations, finding the sweet spots, playing against friends.

Once I got the game I would start playing on the easiest level to see how things worked. I looked for two things: how to score and how to tackle.  I would usually learn the game using a middling team from France or Germany, slowly figuring it out, unlocking achievements and setting the stage for the hardest level. At this point, I would always start with Manchester United. Success usually came quickly and I would then move on to another big club in a different league. Once I had mastered the game, I would challenge myself by taking lesser teams and trying to win with them.

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In the early years of the game, I developed a blitzkrieg mentality. For the 1998 version, I rented the game for Sony Playstation and played an entire Serie A season in one weekend as Juventus. Then the obsession moved to the N64. When the 1999 copy came out (featuring The Rockafeller Skank by Fatboy Slim), I played constantly and tried to win the European Cup with the Red Devils but could never beat Kyiv.

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FIFA 2000 saw the addition of Major League Soccer. Didn’t really care for the league at the time so didn’t use those teams. I did play a lot as Derby County. Why the Rams? Well in the early days of the interwebs, I could listen to Derby matches on the internet. They became my first “second” team, so this bled into my gameplay experience as well. This version of the FIFA series contained over 40 “classic” teams, so that gamers could play as retired football legends. Looking back at that, I don’t think I made enough time for this feature. FIFA 2000 had my favorite soundtrack, especially Stop the Rock by Apollo 440, although Sell Out by Reel Big Fish was a blemish on an otherwise fantastic soundscape.

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I switched to the PC version in 2001 and started buying the game every couple of years. Moby’s Body Rock was a highlight of FIFA 2001 and this game came at a time when I had more time on my hands. After a while I recreated the Manchester United team with horrible player rankings in an attempt to still be the Red Devils but handicapping myself. This approach had mixed results as the pseudo Reds weren’t nearly as successful as the real club.

2003

Starting in 2003 I would take an established team and sell off the best players and replace them with players of inferior ability. This took shape in the FC Barcelona as the Blaugrana won trophies with players that I had never heard of.  Finding players from around the world, I reshaped the Spanish giants and found success without Rivaldo and Luis Enrique and Ronaldinho. As a side note, this version had another solid soundtrack.

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In future versions, namely 2007 and 2009, I picked English League Two sides and worked on how quickly I could get them to the Premier League. This was quite time consuming as they played a 46 game schedule plus participated in three Cup competitions. I only got three straight promotions once but found this a great challenge, especially when I ran into Premier League teams in the cups.

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Notts County was my greatest example of this strategy. Picked as homage to the team that supplied the kit that would eventually become the iconic black and white stripes of Juventus, I took them from the fourth division to the top flight in just three seasons. Unfortunately I got relegated but bounced back and eventually qualified for Europe before accidently failing to renew my players contracts which resulted in a bare bones squad. Results dropped and I was eventually fired. On the soundtrack front I really enjoyed Chloroform by Belasco and New York Minute from Mobile on the 2007 version as well as Kids by MGMT from the 2009 copy. I have dabbled with 2013 and 2014 but since my son is constantly on the Xbox (a parenting discussion to be had at a later time) my opportunities are few and far between.

One aspect of the game that I explored was creating an alternate version of the game, a series of what ifs. For instance I created several leagues that didn’t exist in real life in an attempt for increased competition for myself and to see how these proposed leagues might work.

My first creation was the Commonwealth League, a fusion of the English and Scottish Premier Leagues.  Playing as Celtic I matched wits with eternal rivals Rangers and the rest of the English teams. I created the league along with custom Scottish Cups and European competitions. While the removal of the Old Firm would kill the Scottish League, it may be the only way for these two to ever be a factor in Europe ever again. The only problem with this exercise was that you had to re-create the league every season.

Next up was the Atlantic League. For a time there were discussions about creating a breakaway league for second and third tier European leagues, which would increase their revenues and levels of competition.  I had found success as Ajax and decided to see how I would do against teams from the proposed countries, drawing from Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. Found that Anderlecht and Brondby were quite strong, but my Ajax were victorious, although the absence of the Scottish teams may have cleared the way for triumph.

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Finally there was the European Super League. I expanded the, at the time, G-14, and added six teams—Valencia, Arsenal, Parma, who I had won several scudetti with, and several other teams I can’t remember. Here was my structure: two groups of ten, played everyone once and the top two from each group advanced to the semi finals. Due to the computer generation, the big teams rarely did well so it wasn’t dominated by Barca, Real, Bayern and the Milan teams. Juve and Porto did well and, due to my ability, I was able to keep Parma competitive. In terms of getting a minimum number of games for the super clubs, this option is attractive but my guess is that if this money spinning competition ever comes to fruition, it will be groups of four with an 8 to 16 team knockout. Did it for three or four seasons and reshuffled the groups every season to get new match ups.

Another aspect of the game I really enjoyed was creating kits for the various teams. Part of my budding #KitNerd-ness, I actually used the sash on a shirt for Ipswich Town long before its introduction into contemporary kit design. Inspired by the silver Juve kits produced by Lotto in the early 2000’s, I created one for Ajax, if for no other reason than it looked cool. And of course I designed an all black strip for United.

Gamescom: visitors play Fifa 14 on the Xbox One

Another FIFA obsessive Dylan Murphy talked about the hours playing the game and the pursuit of glory to determine how good you were worldwide. That never appealed to me. Mine was solely a pursuit of man versus machine. Plus, due to limited internet access, I never got into the live, online experience. I admit I am a little jealous when I hear about something that happened online between players and their epic online clashes, with the accompanying trash talk and virtual recognition, but I’m terrified of playing in any sort of public tournament. Don’t want the bubble of invulnerability to be punctured or to feel the sting of defeat. I’m a delicate flower.

Recently it appears that the game is impacting American fan culture, with recent statistics compiled by ESPN and EA Sports showing that 34% of EA Sports FIFA players became pro soccer fans after playing the video game and 50% of EA Sports FIFA players are more interested in pro soccer after playing the video game.

For me, it was just another way to engage the sport. With limited access before the days of high speed internet and multi-national TV contracts, I didn’t have to wait for magazines or newspapers or tape delayed highlights. I could live the dream every day, I could create a new reality. Hours upon hours were spent learning about new players, competing for trophies (imaginary as they were), and creating a new narrative while drawing from the past. I still play the PC version from time to time as a way to relax, although relax is probably not the right word as the desire for success has led to screaming, both triumphant and angry, and the occasional moment of property damage. No matter what happens, I return to the game.

Would love to hear how other people engaged the game. Post your successes, failures, favorite teams, favorite players, or favorite tweaks in the comments below.

——

Check out more posts on my trips, research and memories on the MatchDay Memories page.

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  1. My first FIFA was around 98/99, definitely had that Bergkamp issue. This is a really awesome post, great call-out to the music and sound tracks too. FIFA’s have always been a source of new music to me (usually global, or of a genre I didn’t know or don’t typically explore).

    I’ve recently stopped playing FIFA. The games are rather frustrating and FIFA 16 for Xbox One had some bugs. They’ve since added downloads/updates to fix the bugs, but the allure has gone away. From playing consistently over a ~5-10 year period, the draw isn’t there for me anymore. Exactly as Iain says – I always think about the time I could spend elsewhere, these days being Netflix, reading, playing REAL soccer, or Halo/CoD if I’m gaming.

    Great post, Austin.

  2. Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

    Time management is a big thing for me: parenting, husband, entertainment, physical activity, actually watching games. Now that the game so advanced, if I was 20 again, I would literally never leave the house. It’s fun to play when they set it up at a bar or event but I’ll never come close to mastering the new versions.

    • JR Francis
    • March 10th, 2016

    Great article! I thought I was a FIFA addict, but comparatively, I’m a rookie. My biggest memory of soundtrack with FIFA was Song 2 by Blur in 98. It was the perfect song to go with the game. I actually watched that into many, many times just because it was so good.

    • Thanks for checking it out. Blur’s Song 2 is amazing and another great memory from the game.

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