The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Don’t Forget Your Life — Championship Manager

Posted by steigs on February 24, 2008

I’ve been playing a lot of Championship Manager lately.  British soccer fans know all about the game, now titled “Worldwide Soccer Manager” in the US.  In the UK, it’s a computer game phenomenon of the highest order, with new editions awaited with the longing we see here for new versions of Grand Theft Auto.  Here in the US, it’s an underground thing, discussed with intensity on bigsoccer and word of mouth among friends.  (“You’ve got to try this…”)

At the moment, I’m attempting to finally win promotion to the Premiership for little Carlisle, the team I’ve managed for several virtual seasons, having already moved them up a couple of tiers.  Back-to-back third place seasons in the first division only earned me painful playoff promotion losses.  (Three of the four play-off games I’ve lost a player to a red card.  For a realistic game, that’s a little unfair…)  I’ve got the boys in second halfway through this season but, seriously, if I can’t do it, it’ll be time to tackle another team. 

Awhile back, I wrote up an appreciation of Championship Manager after going to see the team I had been managing play in person.  An interesting comparison.  Read on after the jump for more about the wonders of Championship Manager and a day out at Easter Road watching Hibs…

Edinburgh B February 2004

It=s a crisp and surprisingly clear Scottish winter Saturday.  I am at Easter Road in Edinburgh, the home ground of Hibs.  A half-hour walk one direction would put me on the tame mountain known as Arthur=s Seat surveying the scenic city.  A half-hour walk in the opposite direction would put me down on the Leith waterfront, the once bustling port now attempting to gentrify with government office buildings and pricey seafood restaurants.  The area around Easter Road is largely working class, sometimes worse.  Irvine Welsh=s druggie characters in Trainspotting often squat in Leith flats and tend to root for Hibs with blind tribal loyalty.  Here=s a bit from the novel:

AHibs were losing to Hearts…Sick Boy=s head was in his hands.  Franco glanced malevolently over towards the dancing Hearts supporters at the other end of the ground.  Rents shouted for the manager=s resignation.  Tommy and Shaun were arguing about the defensive shortcomings, trying to apportion blame for the goal.  Gav cursed the referee=s masonic leanings, while Dawsy was still lamenting Hibs= earlier misses.  Spud (drugs) and Second Prize (alcohol) were bombed out of their boxes, still at the flat, their match tickets good for nothing except future roach material.@

No sign of those strangely magnetic low-life folk today.  The stadium is two-thirds full for the visit of Aberdeen, the team of Scotland=s oil-blessed third city up on the northeast coast.  Like Hibs, Aberdeen are usually one of the better of the Scottish league=s also-rans, with their only recent run at the Old Firm during the mid-1980s under Alex Ferguson, before he went on to greater fame, and a knighthood, at Manchester United.  The gathered fans are a mix of guys out for a day with their friends, fathers with children, and cranky graybeards.  In front of me sits a boy who has dyed his hair green, seemingly to match the colors of Hibs.  His father is nonchalant about it.  Perhaps he envies the boy his unabashed fandom.  I wonder what his mother thinks of it.  Beside me is a half-deaf elderly man who will spend much of the day shouting at the referee, sometimes in obscene terms.

The teams trot out.  I watch the Hibs players carefully, identifying them one by one from the program.  The names are instantly familiar to me.  You see, I=ve managed them for four seasons.  Heck, I even took this bunch to the semi-finals of the Champions League.  Yet here they are scraping along in the middle of the Scottish league, playing the soccer equivalent of .500 ball. 

The public address announcer reads out the starting line-ups and the substitutes.  I nod along.

$                   Andersson at goalie.  Yeah, I think, he=s decent.  I sometimes start him.

$                   Edge at left back.  A back-up for me.  And when he demanded starter=s wages I sold him to Livingston.

$                   Murdock at center back.  An okay player.  More of a back-up than a starter in my book.

$                   Doumbe at the other back.  Oh, he=s good.  Best defender in the lot.  A rock of the back-line. 

$                   Smith at right back.  Interesting.  I usually put him in the center of the backline.  A starter for sure, though.

$                   Thomson at left wing.  Odd.  He=s right-footed.  I use him as a back-up on the right side.

$                   Brown in midfield.  I always play him at forward.  In fact, the Hibs fanzine I bought outside the ground argues that he is better-suited to that role.  I=ll say, he led the Scottish league in goals twice for me.  A demon dribbling on the attack, frequently making long runs with the ball.

$                   Caldwell in midfield.  A bench-rider for me.

$                   McManus at right wing.  He=s quite good, often a star for me.  The fanzine suggests he=s a prima donna who shows flashes of brilliance.  I see a lot of that brilliance.

$                   O=Connor at forward.  I sold him after a season to help with the team=s budget.  Good, but I didn=t miss him with Brown up front.

$                   Riordan at forward.  A dependable starter.

As familiar as these players are to me, I don=t actually recognize any of them.  Murdock is balding?  Smith looks younger than I expected.  McManus doesn=t look like someone with speed.  And I assumed Doumbe was taller, given how good a central defender he is.

That=s because B of course B I managed a virtual version of Hibs in the soccer computer game known as Championship Manager, a best seller throughout much of the world beyond our shores.  The game has developed a whole subculture of its own, complete with websites filled with tips and debate and people trading stories of great games.  It=s only periodically available in America, alas, supposedly due to rights issues. So Championship Manager B or CM as it known B is left with but a minor American cult following, while in the UK it is famous, a Grand Theft Auto for nerdy sports fans. 

I picked up on CM from the evangelic discussions on BigSoccer and downloaded it B legally, I think B from a UK store.  One problem with this approach was that it left me without an instruction manual; something I like to think explains my poor play early on.  I later bought an updated edition B there=s usually a new version each fall to reflect the new soccer season B in a Glasgow computer games store, complete with manual.  I even gave a copy to M., who became, if anything, more hooked on it than I am.  (Ha!  Consider that, my fellow men.  I gave my significant other a computer sports game as a present…and she loved it!  Am I blessed or what?)       

Is CM addictive?  Well, it has reportedly been cited in at least three British divorce cases.  It sometimes advises Adon=t forget your life.@  Last time I checked the cumulative time I=d managed Hibs B not in one sitting, mind you B the game told me the answer Atwo days, three hours@ and then cheerily reminded me to be sure to take a shower.  My best run as a manager came with Liverpool, where I won a couple of European championships and several EPL titles over 17 seasons and more than nine cumulative days of time playing, an hour here, two hours there over several months.

So, you ask, what exactly is Championship Manager and what=s the big deal about it? 

Championship Manager isn=t a video game in the arcade sense B it=s a much more fully developed computer game.  Despite the fun of the FIFA games, soccer is not actually that well-suited to replication as a video game.  The action on the field is too complex and so much of what matters happens off the ball.  Success often depends more on the run to get open than it does on the pass.  Baseball, on the other hand, is quite good for a video game because it boils down to a series of individual battles between pitcher and batter, easy to simulate.  Football has the structure of called plays so even if you directly control only one player you can easily order the teammates around.

The genius of Championship Manager was to step back from the direct game play to make you a coach/general manager.  In CM you don=t control the players as they chase the ball on the field.  You do give them general guidance, like having an attacking or defending frame of mind or deciding who should take free kicks.  But you=re not frantically moving a joystick to maneuver your player past the other team=s defenders.

CM is about a whole season or series of seasons, not simply an individual game.  For each game during the season you figure out tactics for your team, select the starters, and off it goes.  You can change the tactics or insert substitute players during the game but that=s it.  This has the effect of making an individual game in CM more painful than in FIFA >99 because you are at the mercy of your virtual players.  Just like real life.                           

Further, instead of the near-television graphics of a FIFA >99, CM was for years a text-based game.  Recent editions have a primitive overhead view of the field which it displays for a few portions of the game.  The players are represented by dots and there is a running text commentary plus some statistical information.  I often track the in-game player ratings, given on a scale of 1 to 10, with 6 being average.  (Tip: when a player is a 4 or worse, seriously consider subbing him out.)  In the latest versions, the default setting during a game shows a handful of the most important highlights B the goals and the close calls B with the dots moving and passing the ball, even gathering to celebrate goals.

How dull, I imagine you=re thinking.  Sounds like watching Pac-Man soccer or something.  Ah, but CM is not about that specific game.  It is, as the sports cliche goes, about the program B building the whole team infrastructure.  You can send out scouts in search of young talent in Brazil or try to get your stadium expanded to increase revenues.  You can try to bring in a few old hand veterans or spend your money on one big star and hope for the best.

CM takes the computer memory saved by having only minimal graphics and builds a complicated, data-rich version of the real soccer world.  Actual players are rated in several categories visible to you B passing, tackling, jumping, acceleration, and so on B and a few, like loyalty, that are invisible to you.  CM also attempts to replicate the financial structure of international soccer, allowing teams appropriately generous or miserly budgets for salaries and transfers as well as the pattern of player contracts, when they expire and so on.  It does this for 42 countries in my most recent version, often including lower-division teams, which means you can probably choose any of more than 1000 teams to run. 

CM means you can take over giants like Manchester United or Real Madrid…or your favorite local heroes, be they DC United or Slavia Prague.  (Well, sometimes you can take over DC United B the MLS isn=t always included in each new version.)  It=s a fan=s dream.  You can buy or sell players.  Bench the starters you don=t think are worthy.  Give the promising kids a shot.  Get your three favorite players together on the same team.  (The Real Madrid team with Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Raul, and Beckham seems to have been put together through this type of CM logic.)  Win the title for your team at long last.  Or see if you can do as well at handling a galaxy of stars as the bosses of AC Milan or Bayern Munich.

However, there are constraints.  There are financial limits, for one.  When I=m running DC United I can=t simply buy Ronaldo.  The team doesn=t have the money for that.  There=s also Athe board.@  When you=re managing a CM team there is a virtual board of directors and they have Aexpectations.@  If you take over mighty Barcelona, they=ll expect you to go toe-to-toe with Real Madrid for the Spanish league title.  If you finish second or third, well, they may fire you.  (I lasted a little over a season as Barcelona boss before being axed B I just couldn=t get a proper midfield mix.)

At the other end of the spectrum, you could take M.=s approach to the game.  She specializes in managing small teams B often picked because she likes the name (AQueen of the South@) or their hometown (AInter Turku@) B and building gradually through youth development.  Her boards are usually just happy the team doesn=t get relegated and when she starts winning, which she usually does, then they are happy to let her stay in charge for years on end.  On occasion, she does so well they announce they=re going to build a statue of her.  (The virtual Sligo Rovers of the lowly Irish league have an army=s worth of her statues outside their stadium after she led them on a series of runs deep into European competitions.)

Championship Manager B and this is important B isn=t easy.  There are dozens of variables to account for B from the team=s morale to whether you play an offside trap on defense to when to sub out a tired striker.  Players get injured.  Players do random stupid things.  I still blame my short tenure at AC Milan on Rui Costa, my midfield playmaker, because he head-butted another player and landed a long suspension, screwing up my attack.  In CM players can demand huge raises, and get unhappy when you don=t provide them.  There=s a possibly apocryphal story that when Michael Ball of Rangers was playing CM as the boss of Rangers that the virtual Michael Ball asked for so much money that the real Michael Ball had no choice but to sell his virtual self.  (There=s a Phillip K. Dick science fiction story in there somewhere.) 

There is no shortage of real-life soccer players getting into CM B and even rumors that coaches use it as a scouting device when up against an unfamiliar team from another country.  Not that they are always happy about it.  When Craig Brown was managing Preston North End he got upset with a journalist when he was rated 12 (out of 20) on Aworking with youngsters.@  Brown offered a rant, which included this comment: AI don=t want to sound arrogant, but I should get 20 out of 20.@

Foreign players in CM sometimes can=t handle living in another country, just as can happen in real life.  Although I was puzzled when a key defender on my AC Milan team from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia found it, in the words of the CM game, Ahard to adjust to the Italian lifestyle.@  What=s not to like about the Italian lifestyle?  The great cuisine?  The elegant women?  The sunny weather?  On the other hand, when the Argentines M. brought to play in Finland had trouble adjusting to the lifestyle I wasn=t too surprised.  She said the game should have had a way to set them up with local girlfriends.  Perhaps the designers will work that into a future option.

While playing CM you are always reacting and adjusting.  It=s just not the kind of reacting involved in video games where you=re pounding on a button or bending a joystick.  Should I bench my slumping forward?  He might pout and demand to be sold to another team.  Should I shop for a better goalie?  But then you might get stuck paying a big salary to the current starter if you can=t get rid of him.  Shall I tell my team to attack from the start of the game?  The other team may find more openings in my defense if I do.  Should I sub out my left-winger who hasn=t playing well and has a yellow card?  But his sub may not do any better.  My FIFA >99 game was mostly about hand-eye coordination.  CM is a mind game.

The thread on BigSoccer discussing CM is an epic, pages and pages long.  Aside from the regular topic of Ahow to get CM in the US,@ it gives you a sense of the different styles of play.  Some are homers.  They just want to play their favorite team and do it right, damn it.  They want to build Stoke City or Notts County into the Premiership winning side it should be.  I did try my hand at DC United early on and managed to win another championship for the RFK faithful, largely due to forward Jaime Moreno going on a goal blitz during the playoffs.  I was fired midway through the next year with the team in the middle of the pack. 

Other CM players want to be masters of the soccer universe, taking Barcelona or Arsenal to glory, managing the world-famous (outside of the US) stars of soccer in Europe.  I have tendencies in this direction.  I like having players on my team that I have seen play on television.  Managing a major team also often educates me about their less glamorous players, which makes that team more interesting to watch in real life.  The fact that I=ve often been fired before finishing my first season suggests I have a lot more to learn and need to watch more of their games on television, perhaps.                       

The game kicks off at Easter Road.  Hibs give up a goal quickly when a free kick for Aberdeen takes a deflection that fools Andersson in goal.  Hibs spend much of the rest of the game dominating possession but are unable to score, much to the frustration of their fans, losing 1-0.  No wonder they=re in middle of the pack.  They don=t seem to play much like my virtual team would.  I took this Hibs team to second place in the league and followed it up with back-to-back third place finishes.  One season we even went on a run through the Champions League to the point where we were a mere fifteen minutes from making the final, before PSV scored two late goals to knock us out.  The old guy next to me would probably die of a heart attack during that game.  The green-haired little boy would have worshiped these players for the rest of his life B telling his sons and grandsons about the time back in >04 when Hibs took on the best in all of Europe and nearly won.  There would be little babies christened Scott (for Brown) and Tom (for McManus) all over Edinburgh.

Instead, they=re just trying to get to get it going.  One reason is injuries.  At least four players I considered automatic starters are out with long-term injuries.  Perhaps Hibs will start winning regularly when they return.  There is also the issue of age.  Hibs ran into financial problems a couple of years back and responded by selling off most of their high-priced veterans.  The result was a young team that is more potential than proven track record.  Brown, the star of my virtual Hibs, is only 18 out there on the pitch.  Most of the others are in their early 20s.  Maybe my virtual Hibs side just hit their stride a year or two before the real one will and the green-haired boy will still get his golden age starting next season.

On the other hand, maybe the CM person responsible for ranking the players in the Scottish league is a closet Hibs fan and made the virtual players better than their real counterparts.  (If so, I better not play rival Hearts because they will suck.)  Maybe the real-life Brown plays CM himself to enjoy a universe where his virtual self is the leading scorer in the league, knowing he will never achieve that. 

Or there=s always my favorite explanation B I=m just really good at managing a soccer team.

Now I just need someone to convince of that.  Maybe the Hibs management will look at my CM game and give me a try.

Or I could just head back home, open up a beer, and spend the evening attempting to get Hibs back into the Champions League…                           


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