Football Manager 2011 is the latest entry in the famously addictive series of "realistic" soccer simulation games. Brian Phillips explains the appeal and what it tells us about sports fandom in the time of Brett Favre's penis.
I picked Rentistas because their origin story combined disrespect for authority with a sincere and thrilling laziness. Back around 1930, some Uruguayan barrio urchins in Montevideo decided they'd rather play soccer on the street all day than go to work. This was a problem for the neighborhood shopkeepers — honest, large-bellied men who wore aprons during daylight hours — because the neverending game was constantly rattling their windows, and when they'd go outside to shake their brooms at the urchins the ball would ding them on the head and make their mustaches spin like pinwheels. "What's wrong with you?" they'd bellow. "Don't you have jobs?"
"Jobs, señor?" the urchins would exclaim. "No, no jobs — we're rentistas."
A rentista, for those of you who don't follow trends in South American visa classes, is somebody who's independently wealthy — a rich dude, a landowner. For the urchins to call themselves rentistas was like Pee Wee Kirkland calling himself the chair of the Federal Reserve. This wasn't about placating the shopkeeper, in other words. It was about humiliating him, telling a joke that turned the world upside down, deadpanning that the unreal was real.
Eighty years later, the urchins' descendants are a full-fledged soccer club, working not at all harder than they should be in the Uruguayan second division. Their nickname is Bichos Colorados, which sounds like an underground league of au pairs in Vail, but which actually means "red bugs." The Bichos are one of around 5,000 teams whose pretend coach you can become in Football Manager 2011, the latest iteration of the hands-off, spreadsheet-crazed soccer game famous for turning the addiction centers of the brain hot-stove orange when watched by science. I bought the game a few weeks ago. They're the team I picked.
The incredible thing about the Football Manager series is that everyone praises its "realism," even though its genius is that it takes you another step further from any contact with real sports. This is a facile and obviously untrue statement, but it's also a profoundly true statement, so I'm going to write it down: Modern sports fans, who spend more and more of their free time consuming sports, ultimately want nothing more than to get away from the stuff. We'd rather watch sports than play sports; we'd rather watch sports on TV than watch sports in person; we'd rather play video-game sports than watch sports in any form. We'd rather follow fantasy teams than real teams. If there were a podcast about dead baseball announcers imagining pie in hell, we'd never listen, but we'd faithfully read some guy's blog summary.
Football Manager is a coaching sim, meaning that you sign players and devise tactics, then sit back and watch matches over which you have no direct control. Born in 1992 as Championship Manager, the series waited 11 years to introduce any real-time match representation at all — before that, it was databases all the way down — and didn't add 3D graphics until the 2009 edition. (The early ads were a terrifying march of 16-color menu screens and the music from some "Michael J. Fox takes charge" montage.) Most sports games give you godlike powers, or at least prissy-ballet-choreographer-like powers, over your team. In FM, you can make tactical adjustments and substitute players, but for the most part, you're watching video-game sports on TV. You're a spectator.
People play this for days at a time, literally without blinking. The game-status screen includes an "addictedness rating," which tells you things like, "Your soul belongs to me forever, and my dark claw is clenched around your heart" (I'm paraphrasing). Marriages have broken up over it. This is, again, a game in which you spend much of your time staring powerless while tiny imaginary players stage a somewhat convincing representation of a soccer match.
But everyone goes on about its "reality," by which they probably mean its detail. It is phenomenally detailed. The database of the new edition incorporates something like 350,000 players and a mazy universe of leagues and cup competitions in dozens of different countries. (The game designers employ a vast network of scouts — real-life scouts, who flit around watching real-life players, the better to transform them into algorithms — and have licensed their database to an actually existing Premier League club, Everton.) As a pretend manager, you can scale the heavens as mighty (um) Arsenal, or you can toil in obscurity with some quaint medieval afterthought, like Forest Green Rovers, or Newcastle. You can look for the team with the most unspeakably badass name (Turkey's Afyonkarahisarspor, which means "Black Rock Opium Sport Club") or the silliest name (the Netherlands' Go Ahead Eagles, which is basically a 1970s trumpet line waiting for its cartoon credit sequence) or the name that most looks like Yosemite Sam dropping a pickaxe on his foot (Iceland's Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar). You can play with "real" players or imaginary players. You can hire staff members. You can start media feuds with other coaches, some of whom, if you're lucky, just might be named "Diego Pitbull."
You have options. But your choices, once you've started, largely revolve around trying to figure out whether a defender with a Heading skill of 4 but a Pace of 17 would be better in your 4-2-1-3 than one with 12 in both areas, but a Determination rating of just 6. Then you go to a press conference, which looks like email, and click predetermined answers in blue squares. It doesn't track reality all that closely — but then, I've always thought it was weird that a game so committed to the language of addiction would care about realism in the first place. Isn't reality what addicts are trying to escape?
Here I am in my coaching garb. Don't act like Jay Wright wouldn't put this on if Zegna released it in a chalk stripe.
One of the great things about Uruguayan soccer is that, because Uruguay is a tiny country (3.5 million people) with a tremendous soccer history (two World Cup titles, semifinalists in 2010), there are teams around every corner. Just in our barrio, Cerrito de la Victoria, there are two clubs fighting for supremacy: my Rentistas and our supercolossal archenemies, Cerrito. Coaching this team is going to be about taking the block, then taking the neighborhood, then eventually taking the city. Like The Wire, only if Stringer Bell decided to give up real-estate development and go straight through intelligent wing play.
My star player is a tiny, blond 19-year-old called Angel Silva, a sort of squiggly elf of a midfielder who survives by eluding defenders who would flatten him dead if they caught him. He's the only guy in the squad who can either pass or shoot. He hates me.
We got off on the wrong foot when I gently criticized him after a bad performance in our first friendly. I was like, kid, get your head right (game option: YOU NEED TO IMPROVE ON YOUR LAST PERFORMANCE OR YOU'LL FIND IT HARD TO STAY IN THE TEAM), and he was like, bitch, do you know who you're talking to?? (game response: I THINK THAT'S A BIT UNFAIR), and I stood up in such a way that my generalissimo medals glinted in the afternoon sunlight (game option: I'M THE MANAGER AND I DON'T APPRECIATE BEING SPOKEN TO LIKE THAT), and he squealed like a spooked piglet and scurried out of my office (game response: I THINK I SHOULD LEAVE NOW AS THIS CONVERSATION ISN'T GOING VERY WELL). For a while, he was so upset he couldn't focus, which meant that the team played with all the skill and panache of a guy who's fully committed to doing something, but is also terrible at that thing. We went at soccer the way America went at staying mad at Michael Vick. America got redemption, we got a 2-2 draw with Juventud de las Piedras. It's not clear who came out ahead. Either way, Diego Pitbull was safe.
A couple of games before our first big match with Cerrito I called Angel Silva back into my office. I was like, listen, we need to clear the air (game option: I'M SORRY IF I UPSET YOU), and he sat down, sighed, and, not quite making eye contact with me, said, look, boss, I was probably just being overly sensitive because deep inside I'm a 10-year-old girl who learned all her emotional cues from watching Miley Cyrus date boys in trucks (game response: THANKS FOR UNDERSTANDING). When he left, I checked his "personal" screen, and under "player interaction" I saw "Feels he has a good relationship with you."
Cerrito de la Victoria means "the hill of victory." I fear nothing and I never need to sleep.
On the other hand, it's not as though real sports — I mean real-life sports, the kind involving actual living creatures — is itself overloaded with reality. The other day I heard on NPR that Zenyatta had "the soul of an artist," an idea so imaginary that an imaginary character in a Robert Musil book imaginarily dismissed it 70 years ago. Every story about athletes these days involves digital representations of somebody's dick being transmitted invisibly through the air, only to materialize in the middle of your chem class, like a less-smug Captain Kirk. And guess what, the whole thing was a Nike commercial! Does Greg Oden even exist?
We need some way to describe this phenomenon, which is why I'd like to introduce the Brett Favre's Cock Principle of Ontological Transference (BFCockPOOT). BFCockPOOT is a mathematical truth I made up just now, which holds that as real sport seems more unreal, unreal sports will seem more real. That is, the more times you gaze upon Brett Favre's pixelated man-shaft, the less philosophically unbridgeable you will find the gap between your PlayStation and the NFC North. The more times you see David Beckham and Kevin Garnett being friends, or read Lance Armstrong's steroid denials, or hear that LeBron James is a copkiller, and that Michael Vick has never been at war with Eastasia, the more your fantasy team will seem to have actual substance.
You'd think that if physical contiguity would matter anywhere, it would be in sports. But BFCockPOOT says that the addictive pull of Football Manager 2011 may have to do with realism and lack of realism at the same time: It feels sort of real, which makes it an escape from reality.
It's clearly the greatest video game ever created. On every page, at every moment, there's something odd or wrong, and yet the hours melt away like you're in an anesthetic sleep. The different phases of the game each seem to light up a different part of your brain, only it's as if the developers realized at some point that the entire human brain can be broken down into Shopping, Name Recognition, and Chess. What makes it feel real is that, within its insanely wide scope, it generates a weird, squabbly, unpredictable world, a world which — unlike in most video games — you have only a limited power to control. You tried pushing your wingers forward to steal a late goal, and the opposing left back shattered your guy's femur? See him in seven months. You want to sign a player, but his agent hates your personality? You are out of luck, forever. The story keeps unspooling and unspooling, and because none of it's scripted, and a lot of it doesn't even involve you, it seems to have its own rules and not to care very much how you feel about them. It's a database, but it wants you to think it's a millionaire.
The week before our grudge match against Cerrito, we crush Cerro Largo 3-1 behind two goals from Angel Silva. I spend an hour drawing up derby tactics, and tell the press I'm pretty sure we're going to win. The Cerrito manager is complaining about our pitch, which is in terrible condition — he says his players are in danger. I call my guy at the Montevideo Football Times and tell him my counterpart should worry about his tactics, not the grass. In the locker room, I tell my guys to win one for the fans. Before I know it, the whistle blows. It's a cold day in Uruguay, except that it isn't, and rain is lashing down on the pitch, except that there is no pitch, and the soccer team I'm coaching, whose players don't exist, has just given up a goal to go down 3-0 to their hated rival, whose players also don't exist, and my heart is racing, and the curse words I'm uttering are purely and wonderfully real.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.