Making the game beautiful: Football Manager, Sensible Soccer, FIFA and the virtual reality of David Luiz

Yahoo Sport UK
David Luiz eyes the video games that made him the footballer he is today.
David Luiz eyes the video games that made him the footballer he is today.


Who’s up for a game of Subbuteo? In 2017, this is not a question that’s asked very often unless you’re inadvertently starring in a documentary for Antiques Roadshow or looking to inject some much-needed humour into the flooded and flogged world of football tactics. Either way, the answer is most likely to be “no”. Which is a shame, because a child hasn’t really lived until their star striker has been decapitated by falling floodlights as he weebles towards goal. But no man can stand in the way of progress, particularly if he’s 3.9 cm tall.

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Invented in 1947 by former RAF serviceman Peter Adolph, Subbuteo was the leading tabletop football game across Britain for decades until the advent of computers. Although somewhat limited in terms of gameplay, there was a commendable effort to conjure a realistic level of style and detail, going as far as introducing policemen, streakers and even a mini-Her Majesty the Queen to present the FA Cup. However, by the early 80s, it’s fair to say the world was ready for Football Manager, even if computers were not.

What’s going on here, then? Ostensibly it looks like a goal has been scored. Given the disproportionately massive distance between the posts, it would be hard even for Fahad Khalfan to miss. Kevin Toms single-handedly invented the football management simulation with this hard to look at “game”, which was quite literally written in BASIC. But what if you wanted to actually replicate the drama of 1982’s unforgettable World Cup on the pitch? Released a year later, International Soccer may have realistically not brought the competition to life but that didn’t stop one presumably blind reviewer calling it “a pure action game, but, oh, what action!”

It was not until 1992 and the release of Sensible Soccer that football video games started looking less like an aneurism of data and dots and closer to “the beautiful game”. In a carnival of colour, entertaining action and free flowing pixels and panache, Sensible Soccer housed a then staggering 24,000 players and 1,500 teams, regularly allowing players to score from the halfway line, something not even David Beckham would do for another four years. Pretty much as influential as it’s possible to be, Sensible World of Soccer has been named one of the Ten Most Important Video Games of All Time by the History of Science and Technology Collections at Stanford University.

The advancement of processing power, tech platforms and a growing hunch about the knockout potential of data also helped to illuminate the path Kevin Toms had mapped out a decade earlier with the launch of Championship Manager. Written by brothers Paul and Oliver Collyer in their Shropshire bedroom, this was an experience capable of bending time. In fact, its pull remains so powerful that Britain’s greatest thinkers might ponder where our industry would be, let alone the nation’s educational standards, had the game not fracked its way into the psyche of so many over the last 25 years.

A recent newspaper article marked this anniversary by documenting the tales of some of the game’s recovering enthusiasts/addicts, most of whom have now emerged from their Champ Man coma to enjoy relatively normal lives. “I once missed my friend’s wedding reception because of my managerial career. I kept saying to myself ‘just one more game, one more game’ and before I knew it I was two hours late. My friend was so angry, I had to lie and say my car had broken down,” admitted Mo Suleman. Meanwhile, Robbie Meechan, who masterminded Grimsby Town’s 2029 march to global domination, mused: “Over the years, I’ve often wondered why I didn’t obtain better GCSE results.”

Despite empirical evidence to suggest it could not be stopped, Championship Manager was ultimately defeated by a rebooted Football Manager when creators Sports Interactive and publishers Eidos split in 2003. But the grief-hole tales about juggling family lives and careers during crucial contract negotiations with Cherno Samba continued. Happily, FM has also had an undeniably positive impact, earning real life credibility and official licensing deals. Around 1,300 scouts are now employed globally, many with no actual football experience, and in 2012 Azerbaijani student Vugar Huseynzade became manager of FC Baku’s reserve team based on his FM success. Amusingly, one player recently reverse engineered the game back to Victorian times, leaving Zlatan Ibrahimović stricken with gout rather than a boring knee injury.

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Of course, the legacy of Subbuteo is more closely aligned with on-field action and over the last quarter century two opposing teams have gone head-to-head. With a network of 9,000 data reviewers, official licenses, engrossing modes and a level of detail encompassing interactive transfers and RPG elements, FIFA is the footballing behemoth that’s played, endorsed and debated over by the sport’s biggest names. As Guardian writer Simon Parkin comments, “the word ‘FIFA’ is synonymous not with football’s scandal-ridden governing body, but with the video game that licenses its name.” Admittedly, while FIFA’s spectacular evolution since its first iteration in 1993 has allowed players to peer behind the curtain, there are times when the random sparks and malfunctioning levers remind us this is still JUST A GAME.

Pro Evolution is essentially David to FIFA’s Goliath. Perennially praised for its intuitive, natural feel, PES emerged after the breakout success of International Superstar Soccer Pro in 1997. While the critical acclaim continues, the series seems forever hamstrung by the absence of real names. East Dorsetshire vs Lancashire Claret at Mohamed Lewis Stadium, anyone? “It just makes a game feel budget and unofficial, regardless of whether it’s technically the better game,” admitted a former employee at publishers Konami. This is reflected in sales, with FIFA 17 said to have shifted 40 times more copies than PES 2017 in the week following release. As the realism and immersion of these virtual experiences continues to astound, this battle and the questing evolution of such games is clearly far from over. Like life imitating art, it’s almost as if football is now actually imitating video games, just as ancient sporting philosophiser Gary Nevillus once predicted when observing that Chelsea’s David Luiz played like he was being controlled by a 10-year-old on a Playstation.


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