Sports games tend to operate in a bit of an artificial niche within the gaming ecosystem. Slaves to the annual sporting calendar of the real life counterparts they emulate, most are only able to offer incremental changes to the titles given the reduced development cycle to match. Quite frankly, fans of sports series are going to be buying the yearly update no matter what new features or added or omitted, no matter what the reviews say, and know they are often getting little more than a roster update. Sports game makers have been combating this perception for some time, but if you dig deeper into the new features each touts year on year, you find many features take more than one cycle to iron out the kinks and enter the series half-baked in their first iterations. It's all just part of the cost of admission for following the sports games, not unlike following the sports themselves. You're not going to change your team or fanhood in any one off season, nor are you likely going to give up on your favorite sports video game.
Compounding this situation is the fact that competition across the various sporting genres has dwindled from a once-thriving market to a state where there seems to be a single titan dominating each sport. There isn't much choice for baseball outside of The Show, nothing for American football besides Madden, NBA 2K is the choice for basketball, etc. The one sport that seems to break this mold is soccer. FIFA is the 800 pound gorilla, no doubt, but Pro Evolution continues to nip at their heels through a combination of the strength of their own offering combined with EA's deceptive monetization of modes like Ultimate Team, nickel and diming players long after paying the full AAA retail price for the game to begin with.
And then there is Football Manager 2020. To make a direct comparison to PES or FIFA with FM would be a mistake. FM 2020 is not a competitor to these other titles, but rather takes up where they leave off, leaving gameplay behind and concentrating solely on the many decisions and tactics of both the day to day and gameday management of a football club. You will not be mashing on a directional arrow or button to control every run, place every pass, or decide every shot in Football Manager. As a matter of fact you won't be placing a single pass or shot. You're the dude in the suit on the sidelines, shouting instructions and encouraging your squad. You're also recruiting new staff and players, managing training sessions, deciding lineups, attending press conferences, and every other bit of minutiae involved in being a gaffer.
Fans of Football Manager will know all of this. And apologies to those dedicated souls, but this review might not be for you. If you're looking for a quick rundown of what's different from 2019, well, I haven't actually played a football manager game for quite a few years, and therefore have no frame of reference to detail those annual micro-alterations. But fans of Football Manager are a dedicated lot and have probably already pre-ordered the game and are on their third save file by now, such is the game's popularity amongst it's acolytes. No, this review is for those that might not have ever experienced a Football Manager game, those that have been away from the series for a while, those looking for something a little deeper than what FIFA has to give. Because Football Manager 2020 has so much more to give.
I've never held back my disgust of what FIFA Ultimate Team has become, and I'll not rehash it here. But what ultimately led me to stop playing FIFA as a series wasn't the over-monetization and exploitation of FUT, it was rather how my career mode exploits just bottomed out due to the complete lack of depth in the teams on offer. Sure, there are four levels of English football in FIFA, but take a gander at any other nation and you're lucky to get the top domestic league with maybe the second division. There is no rags-to-riches fantasy to fulfill in FIFA, because there are no rags. It's all Messi and Ronaldo as opposed to slumming it getting messy from eating a Ronald McDonald's sandwich while the bus is pulling away from the rest stop off the M5 heading to your latest Conference North league match away on a cold Tuesday night.
With Football Manager, you can taste the special sauce on that Big Mac, if you want. You can jump into the game however you wish. Want to start at the bottom? Give yourself no playing/managerial experience and hit the want ads. Want to start at the top? Then assign yourself to a mega-rich club. The whole gamut is there. Just know that with great power comes great responsibility. A lower league club might be happy to scrape along and avoid relegation, and won't be offering much of anything in a transfer or wage budget to change your fortunes. The big spenders are going to want results for that outlay: Champions League qualification, trophies, even style of play comes into the negotiation. Eking out 1-0 snorefest victories might not be enough to keep the board happy depending on the club. But each offers its own challenge and reward. It's not only the all or nothing of the top, you can take just as much pleasure in simply staving off a relegation battle in the mid tier, and perhaps more from rising the ranks both by your own employ and by raising the standards of every team in that journey willing to take the chance to hire you as manager.
And that's where it all comes to life. The haves and have-nots are all represented. Clubs take on the ethos of their real life counterparts, and success is more than just swimming through the pre-season and button mashing skill moves. You've got to hire a backroom staff: assistants, youth team coaches, medical personnel. You don't play the games at all, you watch and are limited to tactical in-game adjustments. That pre-season was your one chance to actually get things right before the results really started to matter. The training sessions mid-week are the opportunity to breed that familiarity with the plan. And you get as stuck in with the nitty gritty of it all as you like. Because while there is so many decisions to be made and spreadsheets to pour over in this game, you can also delegate much of that to that backroom staff once assembled. So you can decide your own balance throughout the season or even match to match depending on how results are going. Season going bottoms up? Maybe you need to get more involved with the day to day. Everything running smoothly? Maybe don't fiddle with what's not broken.
The balance is perfectly struck simply because it is not a setting or slider in the options screen, it is a delegation mechanism that allows you to change on the fly how much you actually want to take on and how quickly you want to move forward into the games. Of the multitude of new features that impressed me since my last outing with Football Managers, just how easy it was to glide through the initial tutorials and manage the many aspects of running a football club to the level of detail you desire at the moment was the first and strongest. But what also wasn't lost was how well improved the feedback for my many decisions would be. In the past you give a halftime talk or make a comment to the press and the mechanizations for how that effects things like player morale were all pretty opaque. But not you not only can address talks by team, position group, or even individual player, but the feedback loop is complete because I now get and indication of how well received that talk was on the various recipients. And that's just one example.
There are squad dynamics and tiers of leadership within your player roster that is also now clearly defined in a player pyramid showing who is bedded in as a top voice in the dressing room and who is isolated on the fringes of the squad. The game does an excellent job of presenting the psychology of the modern footballer in such a way that it becomes an effective gameplay mechanic. When a player comes to you asking for playing time, you're only a few clicks from really understanding the squad dynamics and making better decision as to whether sending them out on loan or ignoring that request could disrupt the team cohesion or not. It's no small feat to pull off.
It's also worth mentioning this is my first foray into the 3D match engine. My previous FM time was spent watching pogs shuttle around a green rectangle in something that tried to in broad strokes paint movements that was similar to what a football match might flow like but could also be maddeningly frustrating in it's lack of detail. Why, for the umpteenth time, has your striker took a few wiggles and blasted a poor shot at a bad angle that inevitable completely missed the net when an unmarked teammate was hovering around the penalty spot waiting for a pass? Now I see that wiggle was meant to be a dribble and he tried to create space for the shot and did just that. Still a dumb move but at least now I know why they tried to pull it off. Overall, the 3D match engine will never fool you into thinking you're immersed in anything but a game, however it is a big improvement of how we used to play back when we also walked uphill both ways in the snow to get to school.
Where the game starts showing its cracks, however, are in those same moments of madness. Because for all my dialogue options for my halftime talk specific and poignant instructions are not one of them. "Get your head up and find a teammate when you have no angle on the shot," does not appear in the selection tree. Nor does "If you wander offsides and fail to track back one more time killing another promising attack I'm going to glue your backside to the bench" or many of the many other specific instructions that need to be said. The game still operates in a pre-programmed boundary, and all the dynamic ads you can cram into the advert boards pitchside won't change that. In the end these are still decision trees powered by RNG outcomes. It is faithfully, probably the most detailed sports sim on the planet, but it's not the second life of sports games that will ever really threaten to abduct you from the real world. I know there are a legion of fans who pour hundreds and thousands of hours into this game year on year, but ultimately I believe this fantasies are being played out from a love of the game of football, not a love of the game of Football Manager, as excellent as it may be.
I guess what it boils down to for me is that, yes, Football Manager 2020 is an impressive, expansive, and immersive game. But it's also so darn easy to enter. This is very much a data driven, spreadsheets based sim, not a true action packed sports game. Yet the mechanisms are all there for easy entry. You've got excellent tutorials on every aspect of your managing career that default to "on" to walk you thought the different aspects to be considered but can be turned "off" or reviewed at any time. You have a clever management system of delegation that allows you to skip over any particular pain points you really can't be bothered with. A given season can be plowed through in a few hours, or you could literally spend weeks to months of an actual calendar year on the same one, depending on how involved you want to be. You have a match engine good enough to bring the game to life when the tackles start flying in and a data presentation layer that takes very difficult concepts like squad dynamics and non-verbal communication and actually funnels that back into your dataset to be processed.
There really isn't another game out there like Football Manager 2020. No other entry into the sports genre gives you the level of detail or expansive database of teams, players, and opportunities as this. Yet somehow the game succeeds at removing the barriers to entry. By taking you out of the driver seat as a player and leaving your gameplay simply to be the outcome of the many decisions you had already made leading up to the game, it creates a weight and depth to all of those choices made before. Playing Football Manager is not entirely dissimilar to being a parent: you do the best you can and make the best choices given the information at hand, but in the end it is the team you've assembled and taught that has to go out into the world and do it for themselves. While you might feel joy at scoring that 92nd-minute winner yourself in a game like FIFA, when it sinks into the back of the net in FM, it's more akin to pride.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...