On the second to last weekday before a game’s release, you’d think a studio head would be relieved, tired and ready to take a well deserved nap. Instead, I got to see Miles Jacobson drive home his enthusiasm for his games and his work, with a virtual background in our video call coordinated with his match-style football shirt, both decorated with all of the relevant brands as if it was a footballer’s post-match interview.
Jacobson is close to completing his second decade at the helm of Sports Interactive, a quiet, reliable powerhouse within the games industry, producing annual releases of the hyper-realistic Football Manager games. If you’re not already familiar with the series, FM sees players creating a managerial persona for themselves before taking over one of the thousands of clubs available, and bringing it to eternal glory. But of course, that takes time and everyone has to start somewhere – Jacobson included.
Back in 1994, while working as the A&R manager for Food Records – which was an independent label – Jacobson decided to swap two Blur tickets he got at work for an advanced copy of Championship Manager, FM’s predecessor. He then sent his feedback to Paul Collyer – the game’s co-creator – who ended up inviting him to a North London pub for a chat. The meeting spurred a collaboration which years later transpired into Jacobson taking over as managing director of Sports Interactive.
Funnily enough, Jacobson adds, he got the Food Records gig through NME’s editor at the time, Steve Lamacq. “So that is why the NME is partly responsible for Football Manager and what I do for a living”, he laughs.
Fast forward to present day, Jacobson’s energy and determination – which he says is mirrored by the rest of the team at Sports Interactive – has driven the series to continued success that shows no sign of stopping. In fact, the series has become more ubiquitous in recent years, with mobile and touch (tablet) versions being the norm, Switch and Stadia editions available to buy, and a return to the Xbox for the first time in over a decade. But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy journey given the state of 2020.
“Pre-pandemic, there were 160 of us inside the studio, and then over a thousand scouts and translators worldwide. By the end of the game this year, we’re at 200 in the studio,” Jacobson tells me. Scouts are the knowledgeable informants, observing thousands of players from all corners of the world, that feed endless data about each individual player and club to make the series as realistic as possible. Despite the herculean effort of remote working and increasing the team’s size to accommodate different changes of team members’ circumstances, Miles plays down the achievement and instead marvels at industry colleagues elsewhere. “I have no idea how the Call Of Duty devs managed to do what they did. It’s quite incredible, and the same for the team at Insomniac with Spider-Man.”
From the outside, it may appear that the trusted management series doesn’t undergo many radical changes each year. And given the all-consuming nature of the pandemic, it’s not unthinkable for publishers to want to take the easier way out – but that’s not the Sports Interactive way. “With the pandemic, there was a point in the dev cycle where it was all going to be there,” he disclosed. But having seen play-times increase during global lockdowns, he’s become more aware of the responsibility he has as a developer to avoid folding too much of this into the game.
“We’ve done a lot of work with mental health charities. So we served over 100 million ads globally for mental health charities around the world inside the game. And I started getting a bunch of tweets from people going ‘you’re able to help me get through the pandemic. I’m able to escape into your game.’ It was kind of a moment of realisation that we had a responsibility to people to allow them to escape from the real world, into FM.”
It’s worth applauding the team to recognise the social value of their game during this tenuous period, especially as video game sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic as we all search for digital comfort. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any side effects of real world football filtering into certain aspects of gameplay this year.
“I had a bunch of conversations – as did a couple of other people in the studio – with agents that we know, chief executives that we know and other high-ranking people in football, and said, ‘How are you seeing it affecting the transfer market?’ Which led us to realise we had to rewrite the whole financial module within the game.” These changes, along with the pandemic altering Sports Interactive’s work habits, have led to other features and updates to be pushed into next year and beyond.
But there are certain principles where the studio is not going to change anything, and Jacobson was, understandably, adamant about these. “We still have Kick It Out logos all over the game. We still have players coming out in the game. And it’s not a big deal because it shouldn’t be a big deal in real life, you just get told you’ve had a little sponsorship bump. We’re still able to deal with sensitive issues. But we have to do that while not triggering our players. And to be frank, if somebody gets triggered about a player coming out in the game? We don’t want those people as a customer. We don’t want them playing our game. If somebody gets offended by Kick It Out logos and anti-racism messages? Again, we don’t want them playing our game, they can go away and do something else. Whereas the COVID side of things and mental health is an issue that has to be dealt with a lot more sensitively.” Despite the obvious points he makes, it’s refreshing to hear a studio executive be so unwavering in an industry that often turns a blind eye to toxicity like this.
Another major milestone for 2020 was the release of the next-gen consoles, and for Sports Interactive, it was a great opportunity. FM 2021 will be the first title coming to Xbox in well over a decade. “People think I’m joking when I say this but it’s taken Microsoft 11 years to get us back on console,” Jacobson remarks. He says the technical side of things made it easier to transfer the game onto the Xbox, but caused a mini Twitter storm when he shared the news back in September at the lack of a PlayStation version, expressing his frustration at the way some don’t understand his studio’s predicament and how console gaming works.
“They’ve wanted it for years, brilliant. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a games developer turning around and saying, ‘Hey, Microsoft came to us and hassled us to bring our games to their platform and other platform holders didn’t.’ So that’s why we’re on the platform that wants us. The other platform [Sony], they probably do want us as well. They just had other targets they spent longer with. And I’d love to be on PlayStation at some point.”
Jacobson declares his love for all gaming platforms, including PlayStation, but says ultimately, there are many business factors that go into making their decisions, such as the cost of development kits. “If you were going out and making computer games, you couldn’t make a game for PlayStation or Xbox unless you’re invited to. And exactly the same with Nintendo. If you can, you either get invited to or you pitch to them, and they turn around and say yes or no. So at the end of the day, we don’t have the full choice. We can’t turn around and say yes we’re doing this.”
With the ever increasing popularity of mobile gaming, we can’t help but wonder if that may become Sports Interactive’s next focus. However, Jacobson assures us that iOS and Android will continue to feature “lite” versions of the game, with PC being the home of the complete management simulation.
Almost three decades after its launch, FM remains at the forefront of sports simulation games. It may seem astounding, absurd even. But speaking to Jacobson, it all begins to make a bit more sense. We’re not sure about what the future holds for the series, but if Jacobson’s passion, experience and dedication is any indication, FM is not about to knocked off its simulation throne any time soon.
Football Manager 2021 is now available for Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, mac and PC.