It is 3:32 a.m., and I am still awake.
At this moment, I am filled with anger and a little bit of self-loathing. I stopped drinking sodas years ago, but three empty cans sit beside my keyboard. I would like nothing more than to go to sleep, but I just can't force myself to get up out of my chair and step away from my desk.
For this, I blame Miles Jacobson.
Jacobson is the studio director for Sports Interactive, the team behind the Football Manager series of games. I call them games, but in reality Football Manager is so much more. It is a jarring, realistic and at times infuriatingly difficult simulation of football management. It is not easily approachable, at least in the way I choose to play it, but it offers untold rewards for those who are willing to try.
Football Manager is why I am awake.
Currently, I'm trying to figure out how to lead my Everton club through the early stages of the 2014/15 Champions League. It all seemed so easy during the 2013/14 season, when Kevin Mirallas and his league-leading 26 goals helped me to secure a fourth-place spot in the Premier League table. I thought I had it all figured out when Real Madrid came to me during the 2014 summer transfer window and offered $50 million for Mirallas.
I took the deal. Of course I took the deal. Everton are notoriously cash-strapped, unable to compete for big-name players with the likes of Manchester United or City or Chelsea. I suppose that's why I elected to follow Everton in the first place, way back when I decided to follow an English club that remained competitive on a yearly basis without spending the kind of money that other top clubs did.
I didn't want to follow the New York Yankees after all; I wanted a club that showed plenty of fire without breaking the bank. It only seemed right.
So I took the deal, figuring that I'd use the cash influx to bolster a few lacking areas in the squad. Midfield, for example, where I brought in Moussa Sissoko, Jake Livermore and Tom Cleverley to play alongside Gareth Barry, whom I signed on a free transfer after his deal with Manchester City ran out.
With Mirallas gone, I needed a new striker, so I signed Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn to complement Nikica Jelavic and Arouna Kone. I agreed to a deal with Chelsea for the transfer of Fernando Torres, figuring I'd have him as a decent backup despite his advancing age, but that went out the window when Torres demanded $13 million a year in salary.
Still, I had a good team. I was ready for the Champions League. I was scheduled for a home and away against La Liga team Atletico Madrid, and I knew it would be smooth sailing.
And then Leighton Baines—my outstanding left-back I'd just signed to a new contract as a reward for his willingness to stick around Goodison Park and not join that traitor Marouane Fellaini at Manchester United—broke his leg in training the week before my first match with Atletico. He was on the shelf for 11 months.
Atletico stomped me, at home, in front of my own fans. Badly. They beat me 4-0, and that was pretty much all she wrote for my Champions League dreams. I managed to score two goals against them in Madrid, but they won 5-2 on aggregate. I was out of the Champions League.
I drank another Mountain Dew, not because I wanted to stay awake, but because I didn't know what else to do. I contemplated drinking something a little stronger, but my squad needed me. They needed me to figure out how to replace Baines with the $11 million I still had available for transfers. They needed me to figure out the best way forward.
I had come so far in a short period of time; now, I felt like I might have a battle on my hands just to stay in the top half of the Premiership.
If you've ever played Football Manager, mine is likely a familiar story. It is a monumental black hole, a world-creator that pulls you in and refuses to let go.
It has always been this way. Hardcore football fans thrill at playing the game. They relish the challenge of leading their local team from the dregs of the English, Spanish or French football systems all the way to the top. They also take pride in discovering the next great football star in the game, long before anyone else in the real world has heard of him.
Jacobson says it's a strange phenomenon.
"If you take a player like Hatem Ben Arfa, for example. He made his debut for Newcastle. In England, we have a TV show called Match of the Day, that shows all of the highlights. And Alan Shearer, the ex-striker was on there," Jacobson says. "He was a big player for Newcastle, and he's saying 'who is this guy? I've never heard of him before. He's made his debut and he's fantastic.' And literally, there was just a wash of people going 'Alan Shearer knows nothing about football. We've been signing Ben Arfa on FM for years.'
"So it's those kinds of things that make us think that we must be doing something good."
Over the past few years, the Football Manager series has seen an incredible rise in international players around the world. I began playing the game in 2010; I'd heard whispers of it a decade before, back when it was called Championship Manager, but I'd never jumped into it because it seemed a bit too draining and tactical. But once I jumped into Football Manager 2010, I discovered that my knowledge of the game grew by leaps and bounds.
No longer was I simply familiar with Everton's starting squad. I could tell you which players you needed to keep an eye on in the Everton youth system, like Ross Barkley. I could give you the names of five or 10 players from what was then called the Coca Cola Championship League. I could even name teams from what is now called the Skrill Premier League, which is the fifth level of English football.
I changed from a casual observer of the game into a hardcore fan—and not just in the little world created and curated by Football Manager. I watched any kind of football I could find on TV, from the Championship to Major League Soccer. And all of that fandom came about because of this video game.
I wasn't alone. Jacobson says that the average amount of time spent on each yearly release of Football Manager hovers somewhere around 240 hours. That is 10 days worth of time, each year, devoted to a video game.
This seems ridiculous, but I can vouch that it is true. My copy of Steam, which tracks hours spent on each game purchased in its online store, told me that I had spent roughly 600 hours playing Football Manager editions from 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Six hundred hours. On a game.
Fans of the series aren't the only ones spending hours upon hours managing their fictional clubs.
Football Manager is also popular with real-life footballers, from Premier League players all the way down to local teams. They use it to pass time during bus rides or in the locker room, and they provide real-time feedback to the Sports Interactive team. In exchange for that feedback, the team provided early copies to some 300 professional players this year.
Jacobson says that getting them to play the game was the easy part; ensuring that they didn't tell anyone they had early copies of the game was the difficult one.
"The hardest thing was not allowing them to say that they had the game until just before the beta came out. Journalists are used to embargoes, but footballers aren't at all. The reaction from them has been really good, whether that be pointing out some oddities in the Russian league that we didn't have covered," Jacobson says. "Or through them not really complaining about their stats, because we tend to ignore that, but in actually telling us about young players at their own club that are a lot better prospects than we realized."
Officials at various clubs also helped Sports Interactive understand the nuances of the Financial Fair Play laws—designed to prevent clubs from spending outlandish amounts of money—that will go into effect in the coming years.
"One of those bits of feedback actually led directly to the amount of sponsorship deals that you have, because that seems to be the way that the clubs are all getting around it," he says.
Feedback from real-life football coaches also led Sports Interactive to abandon the way that the tactics system worked in previous iterations of the game. Jacobson and his team attended training sessions and team meetings, where they learned that the old numbers-based tactical system did not reflect how football tactics worked in the real world.
"When you actually have a real-life soccer coach telling you that the way we had the system inside the game is wrong—that you cannot tell a footballer to go higher on his creativity today, what you say to them is that you want them to have more creative freedom today—that is how the new tactics system works," Jacobson says. "You give each player a role, and then you can set individual instructions for that player in English they're going to understand, rather than having it there as a set of numbers."
Still, the strongest aspect of Football Manager has always been the numbers in its enormous database. The game includes more than 560,000 real players from around the world, and Sports Interactive's team of more than 1,500 scouts are constantly monitoring their local teams, keeping an eye on established players as well as potential future stars coming up through their academies.
Jacobson says that it is the world's largest scouting network, and it is used—both officially and unofficially—by clubs around the world.
The most famous example of this is when Everton licensed the Football Manager database to help with its scouting efforts in 2009, but Jacobson says that the database is a great tool for anyone who elects to use it.
"I think that anyone who doesn't is pretty crazy. Scouts at soccer clubs get bombarded with videos of players. They have to go and watch them if they think that player looks half decent. But even with me, and I'm pretty rubbish at soccer, you can put a video together that would make me look like a decent player," he says. "So we are another reference tool where you can go in and have a look at 560,000 players from around the world, at a glance, to see if it's worth sending a real-life scout over to see them. It's a very powerful tool and a good money saving device. "
Realism is the hallmark of the Football Manager series, and it is always the goal for Sports Interactive. Each new version of the game brings about new additions and changes designed to make the player's experience reflect the real challenges of managing a football club.
This year's edition featured more 1,000 changes to the game. Some, like the new tactics system, are a major overhaul of the way the game works. Others, like the new narrative system that guides interactions with in-game journalists, players and your board, will likely have more profound effects in future versions of the game.
But some players aren't so keen on realism. They want Lionel Messi on their local club team. They want to simulate the real-world effects of a rich oil baron purchasing their team and infusing the club with hundreds of millions of dollars. For these players, Sports Interactive is introducing a new feature with the game: a real-time, in-game editor that allows a player to edit just about anything they want to in the database.
Want to give Leeds United a $600 million infusion with a $250 million transfer budget? Simply click the edit button on your financials page. Feel like turning a few of your halfway-decent prospects into future world-class superstars? Just edit their attributes.
For the low price of $4.99, you can unlock the ability to edit just about anything in the game. The only downside? Once you cheat, your scores in the game won't be submitted to the world leaderboard. Cheaters never prosper, after all. But if that doesn't matter to you, and all you want to do is create the football team of your wildest dreams, you can.
With each new iteration of Football Manager, the Sports Interactive team continues moving forward. The newest version just hit store shelves, but planning is already under way for next year. More than 1,500 features and ideas were discussed by the team that didn't make it into this year's game, and Jacobson says there are more than 1,200 additional features that his team has yet to sit down and talk about.
He says that one of the biggest aspects of the new game is that Sports Interactive had been able to maintain the depth that fans know and love from the series while also making it more approachable for the average fan.
The Classic mode introduced in last year's version—designed to make speeding through multiple seasons quicker while not forcing players to take on the more tedious aspects of managing a club that are found in the full game—is back. And Sports Interactive continues to refine every aspect of the game in an attempt to make it more appealing for hardcore and casual players alike.
"Hopefully we can continue adding more simulation to the game whilst making the player actually playing the game have a fun experience. Because there are some people that believed we were getting a little too serious and going down a route where it would only appeal to absolute soccer geeks," he says.
"What we want is for soccer geeks to have the depth that they love, but also for people who are getting into the sport for the first time to play and learn from the experience of being a head coach for the first time."