It’s about time. Sports Interactive (SI), the makers of Football Manager (FM), has announced that women’s football is coming to the iconic series. But why did it take so long and how will SI ensure they do it justice, making it as detailed as the rest of the management simulator
Put bluntly, it’s a lot of work. While there’s as yet no date for the eventual crossover, SI are determined to ensure this is a seismic shift in both the gaming and footballing landscapes, reflecting the continued growth of the women’s sport while managing to enhance a management simulator that had millions of us avoiding social contact long before Covid was a thing.
Played in over 190 countries, gamers racked up a combined 470,827,072 virtual matches on FM 2020 alone, equating to 80,621 years, or 4.9 million return trips to the moon. That senior figures throughout the football industry are known to utilise the video game’s database for scouting purposes (Jose Mourinho has been spotted with the game on his laptop) is just testament to the rigorous research that goes on behind the scenes.
“One of the most eye-opening things for me is that when we’ve spoken to people in football about [this project], the first thing they ask is, ‘Are you going to be doing a database? — the appetite is pretty huge,” reveals Miles Jacobson, Studio Director at Sports Interactive (SI), whose goal is to “smash a ceiling” for footballing equality.
But, of course, Roma’s squad wasn’t built in a day: Football Manager’s men’s database has been an ever-expanding work-in-progress for close to three decades now, each title seemingly more painstakingly detailed than the last. No pressure building one from scratch then…
“Currently, there are over 15,000 researchers on the men’s side, and the women’s is just me,” says Tina Keech, a former player and qualified coach who is now Head of Women’s Research at Sports Interactive. “You look at the men’s FM and there is 28 years of database work, whereas I’ve been doing it for two months. On top of that, [finding] data for women’s football is so difficult. There’s still not enough data I can rely on and I’m having to check all over the place. But it has to be right and it has to be accurate.”
For Jacobson, a long-time servant of the video game, well versed in the art of more traditional, Google-lite methods of scouring the world for data, it’s as if his career has suddenly come full circle: “The data that’s out there for women’s football is not good, there’s not a lot of it, so a lot of it we’re trying to figure out ourselves, just like 28 years ago when we first started putting the database together for CM back in the day, which is really exciting.”
A former county footballer herself, Keech knows that the lower down the footballing pyramid you go, the harder it is to track anything. She recounts the time she was playing in a big match and organisers thought she was making her debut despite being a long-time regular. “They said ‘Here you go, have a medal, congratulations on your debut,’ and I was like, ‘erm, no, I made my debut two years ago’. This is one of the things that drives her now to make sure FM’s women’s database is as detailed and complete as it can be.
Considering I’ve been at Manchester United for 3 years and an adidas athlete for 2… You’d like to think adidas would get my name right.🤦🏼♀️ pic.twitter.com/S3wp18FEf5
— Millie Turner (@MillieTurner_) July 15, 2021
So far, Keech and Jacobson say they have agreed upon 10 women’s leagues worldwide, aiming to select at least five more before they’re able to bring it to screens. “The long-term dream is to add all the women’s leagues that are out there,” says Keech, “I’ve played in the national leagues, I’ve spoken to people in those leagues, and they are there. We want to represent all these female footballers. I’m so glad that we’re finally announcing it because this is a rallying call to the women’s footballing world, the fans, the staff, the clubs; come and help us build a brilliant database because the women’s game absolutely deserves that.”
These may be early days, but the research into physical attributes has already thrown up some interesting changes to matchday gameplay. “For instance, we found that there are more goals in women’s football scored from outside the box [compared to the men’s game] even though the shot power tends to be a little bit lower,” Jacobsen reveals. “Our match engine is incredibly adaptable. Every player on the pitch makes a decision every one-quarter of a second, and, in certain situations, every one-eighth of a second; it’s the data we feed into it that makes all of that stuff possible. It could also be looking at the height of goalkeepers and making the outfield players more intelligent to be looking at the height of players when they’re deciding where to put the ball.’
Then there are the trickier in-game questions posed by elements unique to the women’s game that developers need to introduce into the living, breathing world of FM. “There are things that we haven’t had to deal with in the men’s game such as pregnancy and menstrual cycles,” says Jacobson. “It’s complicated,” he adds. “You have to look at the different trimesters of the cycle, but also what happens afterwards, and when people are going to be back to peak fitness.”
Keech agrees that incorporating these new storylines isn’t going to be easy. “There’s so much research out there and it differs from person to person,” she says. “When I was four months pregnant, I was still playing football with my work colleagues until I was four months; I only stopped because they weren’t tackling me.”
When not on the hunt for analytical data, the team is already hard at work in other areas, including motion capture shoots for female animation with help from twin sisters Rosie and Mollie Kmita, who’ve both played in the WSL, and overhauling much of the game’s iconic matchday commentary, much of which doesn’t translate particularly well to the women’s game: “That goes for some of the most basic phrases that we have in there,” says Jacobson, “like a ‘target man’ – why’s it not just a ‘target’? Translations are a difficulty as well.”
Fortunately, one way the FM team have been able to reflect the women’s game in the most realistic way is by speaking to figures who know best, including Emma Hayes, the Chelsea Women’s Manager who last season took her side to the UEFA Champions League Final and also won a legion of fans this summer thanks to her astute TV punditry during the Euros. “We bring people in from the football world into the office I get to interview them,” says Jacobson. “We also have questions from other people in the studio. These talks are never seen publicly and because of that people are very open and honest with us, and Emma was one of the guests a few months ago. She is going to be helping us make sure we are getting women’s football accurately represented inside the game along with a bunch of people we haven’t revealed. We’re incredibly lucky to have someone like Emma to give us feedback.”
The new database will cost the studio millions and they’re not expecting any return on that, they simply want to do the right thing. Speaking to Jacobson, his love for the women’s game is palpable: “When people ask me who my favourite players are in the world Fran Kirby’s going to be in my top five because she’s a genius, she’s just beautiful to watch. To me it’s football and there shouldn’t be a difference between the two. We all know there’s not a lot of money in women’s game at the moment and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important that we’re doing what we’re doing, and the rallying cry that Tina talks about as well isn’t just to people inside women’s football to help, it’s to the whole football industry, the wider media, and it’s to other games companies as well – come with us on this journey and do the same thing. The only way we’re going to get equality is by treating it equally.”
FM22 is released later this year. Expect to take Hayes’ job at Chelsea at some point beyond that.