I have been playing sports games since 2008. It started with Madden 09 on the Wii, but by 2011 I was buying a football, basketball, and soccer game annually. Certain games will always stick out to me, such as the aforementioned Madden 09 or NBA 2K17. But there is one title that I have been playing since just July of this year, and it is far and away my favorite. That game, Football Manager 2020, is the most in-depth sports game available, and is the best option on the market.
Football Manager is, as the title suggests, an association football management game. It is an annual title published by the British company Sports Interactive and published by Sega, offered primarily for PC; limited versions exist for the Nintendo Switch, iOS and other platforms.
What separates FM from other soccer titles such as EA’s FIFA or Konami’s PES is the gameplay… or rather lack thereof. Football Manager sacrifices traditional gameplay where the user would control the players on the pitch for an experienced more tailored towards, well, the managerial side of things.
Players can’t directly control their eleven men on the pitch. This is made up, however, by how in-depth every other aspect of the game is. And frankly, that’s a difficult concept to make sense of initially. How can you have a sports game where you aren’t even playing the sport?
But once you get over that, one can fully appreciate what Football Manager has to offer. It is, in short, your traditional franchise mode on steroids. In place of the typical gameplay is an emphasis on the behind the scenes of a football club.
But why Football Manager?
For those who enjoy the X’s and O’s of soccer, the advanced tactics system will more than suffice. Aside from just the formation and generic roles each player fills, managers have the option to go as deep as they want. The default presets can get the job done, but managers are invited to get more specific. Want to keep your clumsy centerback on the defense at all times, or tell your prolific striker he has full authority to unleash a shot whenever the smallest opportunity arises? There are more than 30 distinct instructions you can give to players, and over 40 roles those players can occupy. The sheer amount of possibilities dwarfs any other game’s creative freedom from a gameplan standpoint, making Football Manager a viable option for players left unsatisfied by the lack of tacticianship in other games.
Unrivaled tactical freedom is not the only allure of Football Manager, however. To quote SB Nation’s Alicia Rodriguez, “the day-to-day grind can be almost literal.” Users must keep players happy, while still putting the best eleven on the pitch. Just as you start winning games, your coaches will receive dozens of offers for bigger and better opportunities. Sell a club icon or lose a match you were heavily favored in and the fans will turn against you. All of this must be done, of course, under the watchful eye of the board. Mismanage finances or start to fall down the table and your job security comes into question.
But the nearly tedious gameplay isn’t what makes FM such a fantastic game. Football Manager is a game of world-building; it primarily serves as an immersive experience. The game is as close to a real-life simulation of football management as there has ever been.
With over 2,500 clubs from European giants down to the Indonesian second division, there is near infinite replayability. You can capture European silverware with current contenders or return has-beens to former glory; climb from the depths of the amateur leagues or turn an obscure league into a modern giant.
Over time with your save, however, the true spectacle of Football Manager comes to light. Once you have built even the slightest connection with a club legend or a promising youngster, FM stops being a sports management game and becomes a story-based game. You build relationships with the characters as you would in Red Dead Redemption or Breath of the Wild. Each match, each negotiation is an adventure. To call Football Manager just a sports game robs it of its glory as a true video game. Admittedly, the player does have to build some of the story themselves. But that only enhances the enjoyment. While typical games have pre-written scripts that ensure every player has the same experience, FM makes certain that no two saves are identical.
Football Manager is not a game about winning matches or trophies. While football is an integral part of the game, this isn’t a sports game. It is about creating a story, putting yourself in the shoes of a club’s manager. This comes with the nail-biting victories and heart crushing defeats, but more importantly the ups and downs of any other video game. There’s an experience in Football Manager that you don’t get anywhere else in the sport gaming world; and that’s why it’s the best sports game you aren’t playing.