It's Football Manager week at Bleacher Report and day three brings exclusive insight from the scouts who rate players for the game.
I met up with a professional player for coffee and discovered he was an avid Football Manager fan, and he jokingly questioned his attributes in the game.
Unfortunately, he was a bench player in real life, and his stats reflected that. But of course he thought he deserved a few better ratings. However, that would have meant he'd have been first-choice a lot more often in the game, which wasn't the reality.
He told me he kept signing himself, but would eventually release himself from his FM club because he couldn't hack it. Ironically, that's what happened to him in real life. He has since retired after making just a handful of professional appearances.
Rob Delport is the South African Head Researcher for video game Football Manager (FM). Based in Cape Town, he edits prominent Nigerian and South African football websites and tells Bleacher Report he has a "huge passion" for the sport's development on the continent.
An avid note-taker, he watches as many Premier Soccer League games as he can—whether on television or at the grounds, where, he says, he can follow more than merely the path of the ball.
"I make thousands of notes about the progress of players," he says. "I also get input from a lot of people I know in football, so the final data isn't all my impression."
Delport personally knows numerous coaches and players, and every now and then they'll approach him about his work with FM. The above anecdote is just one example of his interactions with curious footballers, and the conversations are generally good-natured.
"Most of the time they're amazed that FM has so much data on them," Delport says. "I've had guys say, 'Come on, make me a little better!' But they're usually joking."
Federico Aranda has had similar exchanges with footballers in Uruguay, where he serves as FM's Head Researcher for the country's players, managers and officials from his home in Montevideo.
"There have been some occasions in which someone has contacted me to raise his attributes," Aranda explains, adding that several players have asked that he be more "lenient" in his assessments.
"But," he says, "it's always in a fun environment."
"Fun." It's something Football Manager has been able to connect with the worlds of scouting, tactics, transfers and club management since it was released as Championship Manager in 1992. And with each, annual offering, the game has been taken more and more seriously not only by average users but also by some of football's movers and shakers.
Aranda, for example, has been asked to scout Uruguay-based players for Greek and Portuguese clubs, and several domestic sides have requested his opinion of their transfer targets. Delport's reference has also been solicited by club employees, although he says his relationships with coaches and scouts are mutually beneficial.
"Getting their input is wonderful because they're seeing these players day-in and day-out," he says. "They can often add elements that would be impossible for an outsider to get."
Not that Delport is anything close to an outsider. A promoter of grassroots South African football, his involvement in the sport has included media work and youth development in addition to his role with FM.
"Every time I see a player or get some news I make notes," he says. "I think I've had one document open on my computer for the past four years. I'm kind of obsessive about it."
Football Manager's burgeoning reputation is built on that sort of dedication, which in turn buttresses expertise.
Alan Clark, who assumed the Head Researcher role for the United States and Canada in 2005, watches every Major League Soccer match. All of them. He oversees a network of assistant researchers who provide player data, and he insists the process of information-gathering is never complete.
"There's always something that can be done—whether fine-tuning players, adding deeper histories or working on the lower-level stuff," he says, in reference to North America's more obscure divisions.
The nuances of MLS, which employs a distinctive player-trading model in addition to the Designated Player system (where the wages of certain players don't count against the salary cap) provides a unique challenge for Clark, who admits that part of his job involves ensuring that FM coders understand "very difficult MLS rules that are very different from the rest" of the game.
To that end, he explains, testing the product is absolutely vital in ensuring MLS is properly represented at the time of release. But he's bullish about the final product and believes the game presents an accurate representation of the players in the database.
"Between technical, mental and physical attributes, as well as traits and preferred moves—and how the game interprets all of it—it's as near as you can get," he says.
Aranda concurs. He says FM's attribute categories, as well as the approximately 200 fields that determine game-style, preferred movements, mental traits and inter-personal relations, combine to deliver the best-shaped profile possible.
But, he adds, there are certain elements the game simply can't take into consideration.
"There is no way we can replicate some of the things that affect players, coaches, and officials on a day-to-day basis," he says, identifying family relationships, economic difficulties and other mental distractions as examples.
"I see it every season, with players who have very good skills but can't deliver on the pitch. And then, sometime later, I learn that there was something in their personal life that affected them."
Delport points out that while the game's initial data is quite accurate, how it evolves is a mostly user-generated process.
"A young player signed by Barcelona will improve at a different rate than if he stayed at a small club in central Africa," he says. "He may not become Lionel Messi, but being coached by a top staff and playing with world-class players will create a different future from the reality."
Some of Delport's boyhood heroes included players who were never afforded the opportunity to develop at top clubs. Jomo Sono, for example, was an Orlando Pirates icon before moving to North America, where he turned out for teams including New York Cosmos and Toronto Blizzard. Patrick "Ace" Ntsoelengoe also played for Toronto after attaining legend status with Kaizer Chiefs.
Current Toronto FC attacker Dwayne De Rosario is one of the players who attracted Clark to MLS more than a decade ago, although David Ginola remains his all-time favourite.
"I'm a sucker for a flair guy," he says.
Aranda, finally, admires the playmakers who help build the attack—those, he says, who "cleverly choose when and to whom to pass the ball" while getting the best out of their teammates. He holds Andres Iniesta in particularly high esteem.
"I think those are the best guys to play with because they have a great sense of the team, which is what football is all about," he says. "A team of players against another team of players."
It's not at all surprising that Football Manager scouts and researchers are fans, too. They're passionate about the game—both the on-field version and the digital one—and they've dedicated themselves to bringing football closer to home for fellow fans around the globe.
It's a labour of love.
Says Delport: "My entire day is football."