27 years. That’s how long Football Manager’s developer Sports Interactive has been developing management simulators for the beautiful game. And they’ve got quite the record for quality too. For years on end during the days of Championship Manager, they consistently delivered fantastic games and continued to expand upon it as they were forced to change to Football Manager upon teaming up for SEGA in 2004.
For those unfamiliar with the series, unlike its counterparts FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, which try to emulate the game on the pitch primarily, Football Manager (usually abbreviated to FM and the year’s release) is all about what happens behind the scenes. You don’t directly control the players on the pitch, but you do what every professional manager has to do off the pitch.
This means everything from managing your players’ training, contracts, and morale while also dealing with the media, hiring and firing staff, using your network to find the latest and greatest players, or unearth a gem from your academy. And that’s before you even get to the tactics blackboard.
FM has always been very stat heavy. Sports Interactive hires an extensive set of scouts from across the world for their data, feeding back everything from current ability, personality, and even how they might cope with media scrutiny. It’s extensive but incredibly rewarding once all brought everything together.
The last few years have been relatively incremental in improvements until last year’s game was released. A significant overhaul from the ground up meant that it turned into the best game in the series for quite some time. And Football Manager 2020 builds upon that to make the experience even better.
Nailing the Basics
First of all, this year’s game builds upon one of the best features of last year with better in-game tutorials. For a new player, it’s incredibly easy to start a game, and immediate feel intimidated even by the most basic parts of the interface. A lot is going on here. However, the game’s built-in tutorial has been improved further to make the game as accessible as possible. Every screen has an extensive explanation with it, including the new features, that can be repeated as many times as you wish to ensure that you’re not feeling overwhelmed.
The game also allows you to delegate a lot of the tasks that come with the job of managing a professional team to your assistants. Not only is that smart because it means you can build your experience up as you go, but it also allows you to focus on the parts of the job that you enjoy. For example, maybe you dislike managing your squad’s training schedule but like to place certain players on specialized training to improve certain aspects of their game, and you can make that happen. It’s an intuitive system that gradually brings more rewards as you master more disciplines.
The Development Centre, one of this year’s main new features, is an excellent addition to the franchise. This allows you to monitor the performance of your young players much more closely, while also receiving regular updates about how your players out on loan to other clubs are performing. This adds a healthy layer of depth to the way that your players develop as you can regularly see what needs to be done to reach their maximum potential.
The other main feature of this year’s iteration is the expanded Club Vision set up. This is typically discussed at the start of your career but is used as you go on in the game. There is a heavier emphasis on keeping the more traditional elements of the club going on throughout your career. For example, Manchester United have a history of bringing through young players from the academy, while also playing flowing, attacking the football. You can discuss these with the chairman at the beginning of your savings to see which philosophies you want to continue, or new ones are implemented.
Although it would have been good to see more flexibility in what you want to see the team play (the chairman is usually strict on them if it’s your first job), coming in as an experienced, proven coach will offer more sway with them to help implement or remove certain aspects that you feel restrict your ability to manage the team.
The feature does help to maintain the identity that club have forged for themselves in the past alive, but it does also make the job much harder by forcing you into tactics you may perhaps have otherwise avoided. It tries to make you a better manager.
Other improvements include contract negotiations, where you can now promise players game time in the future rather than immediate first-team action. This is a great quality of life improvement that stops younger players from complaining that they aren’t getting enough football, and rewards gamers who keep to their word with loyalty from players.
Youth intake days for club academies are now dynamic, having previously been the same day each year. This makes it much more difficult for players to farm top-rated youngsters who would restart their save until a gem is generated. It was almost “legitimate” cheating, so this is also a significant change.
There are still some elements that could be better. Despite further improvements to the engine, the 3D match view is still ugly to look at (as the screenshot above shows), so 2D icons are still the best way to enjoy it, while the media press conferences are still not very enjoyable and seem to bear a minimal impact on how your team is performing.
But the package as a whole is incredibly solid, and the series continues to go from strength to strength. As a simulation of being in charge of a team, it feels like every release gets closer to the real day-to-day without actually being there, and that’s precisely what it should do. Realism plays its part, but Football Manager 2020 also offers the fun to go with it. Taking a team that’s down and out back to glory is a wonderful feeling, one that you don’t necessarily need to be a fan of the sport to enjoy.
All you need is smarts to put a good team together, a strategy to unleash your team’s full potential, and the ambition to make the impossible a reality.
Disclosure: Our review copy of Football Manager 2020 was provided courtesy of SEGA.