Is Football Manager the Greatest RPG Ever? (tldr: YES!)

I recently wrote about why Football Manager isn’t just my favorite game, it’s also a stressful tool I use to relax and get better at data analysis. It was a quasi-LinkedIn-style post to justify writing about a game I love, so it was funny when someone on LinkedIn suggested it was “as good or better a roleplaying experience than so many avowed RPGs,” which had oddly never crossed my mind.

I love RPGs but rarely play them anymore because they’ve gotten so long that I never finish them, not even ones I’ve really liked. From various D&D adaptations to Path of Exile and Divinity: Original Sin, I never complete their main campaigns. Cyberpunk 2077 was too boring to tolerate its complex systems and slog through its janky first act, and more recently, the thought of jumping into Baldur’s Gate 3 was extremely daunting despite it apparently being really good. The Shadowrun Trilogy was a rare exception, partly because they were all tight stories, and RPG-adjacent games like Diablo and The Division don’t count because their storylines are also usually tighter than traditionally sprawling RPG campaigns.

20-40 hours is the sweet spot for RPGs, while 100+ hour campaigns are a big red flag for me.

That said, I’ve put nearly 600 hours into Football Manager 2023, and I can’t stop playing!?!?

Even though it’s a management simulator, it has all of the core mechanics of a traditional RPG and does one thing even better than any of them ever will: emergent storytelling with real consequences.

Football Manager: The RPG GOAT?

Character Creation

First, the basics. In Football Manager, you can customize your avatar, including uploading a photo to make an uncanny valley version of yourself that you’ll see in-game more often than you do in any first-person RPG. You can also update it at any time to change your outfit type, color scheme, and even add a little gray as your career progresses!

This is me right now at 60 years old in September 2030, nearing the end of my ninth year in-game, four seasons into managing Atlético Pamplona (aka, Osasuna), which I took over after successfully getting Las Palmas promoted from the Second Division. (See previous post, and more at the end of this one.)

My manager avatar in FM23, in Atlético Pamplona colors.

You also get to determine your initial attributes at the beginning of your career, which impact your tactical expertise and how you engage with players, improving as your career progresses based on various decisions you make and their outcomes. Do you prioritize attacking over defending, adaptability over determination, or go for a jack-of-all-trades approach?

Along with choosing the first team you’ll manage, it’s the first of so many decisions that actually impact your gameplay experience and will result in that experience being unique to you throughout your career.

No two games of Football Manager are ever alike, and the “true ending” is largely up to you.

Inventory Management, Economics, and… Real-Time Combat?

Instead of weapons, magic items, and gold, Football Manager is all about people and money. Your players are your weapons, and every match is basically combat with a mini-boss. The better they play together, the more games they win, the more money you’ll have available to improve your team and win more games.

Depending on your team’s financial situation, you may also have reserve teams and youth squads to develop, and in addition to managing those players and their training, you have a whole staff to manage, too. That staff all have their own stats and areas of expertise that impact how good your team can be. Your recruitment team can help identify players to buy from other teams, or free agents to sign when you have no money to spend; your coaching staff can help develop their abilities to become better players; and your medical team can help them recover quicker from various injuries they get in comb– um, training and matches.

The in-game economy isn’t static, either. With each passing season, salaries and transfer fees go up, and it becomes more expensive just to field a stable team, never mind aiming for improvement. Bigger teams will poach your best players, giving you an influx of money but leaving you to rebuild all over again. Bigger teams also have bigger payrolls and expenses, and one bad season can completely derail their financial situation, or at the very least, get you fired.

It’s not enough to have the best players (and staff) you can afford, they also have to work well together, which means your tactical system is one of the most important aspects of the game — and you have full control over it. While you can’t choose between a rogue, fighter, or sorcerer, your choice of formation and playing style are kind of the equivalent but with more intricate skill trees, and it will impact which players (and staff) are the “best” for you rather than simply trying to min-max the best overall stats.

If you like multiple overlapping systems with a depth and complexity that can’t easily be min-maxed, Football Manager’s got that in spades. Praise RNGesus!

Consequential Decisions

Branching conversations that lead to different outcomes are practically a requirement for modern RPGs, and when done well, they can simulate a unique experience with emotional impact. In most cases, that means a few NPCs may treat you differently, or you may even cause someone’s death, and there are usually 2-3 different endings to the main story, one of which is the “true ending.” When done well, it can be amazing, but usually only the “true ending” fully delivers on what came before, while the other endings might not perfectly align with the experiences that led up to them.

In Football Manager — EVERY. DECISION. MATTERS.

That’s not marketing hyperbole, either. From the minute you take over as manager of your first team, you’re faced with an overwhelming number of systems to learn and decisions to make. Even if you prioritize them well, you’re potentially looking at hours of poring over data before signing (or selling) your first player or playing your first friendly match.

Or, you can take a few shortcuts, at least one of which will almost certainly come back to haunt you.

  • Start out with a big team with high expectations? Winning over the locker room quickly is important, and you’ll have to deal with influential players who make more money than you and can turn the team against you within a few weeks if you make the “wrong” decisions, and then you’re leading the sack race.
  • Start with a small team with modest expectations and no budget? They’re still going to expect you to win some games, and one good losing streak can destroy morale and then you’re leading the sack race.
Football Manager odds for being fired next: me at 4-1 despite being in first place at the time.
I was in first place at this point!

What’s a bad decision in Football Manager? In the infamous words of The Mandarin: “You’ll never see me coming.”

Every player has their own personality and relationships, different levels of determination and leadership, preferences for the role they play and who they play it with. It’s your job to get the best out of your team, and sometimes that means benching or selling an influential player; or retraining them for a different role they’ll complain about. Get it wrong and you’re sitting in a meeting with a handful of their teammates who may or may not be open to a reasonable explanation or compromise, and then the locker room turns against you… and then you’re leading the sack race!

It’s rarely immediately obvious when a conversation will go wrong, or a decision will backfire on you. While you can save before big games and reload to replay it if your team loses, that not only cheapens the overall experience, it’s also not going to save you from a misguided formation tweak or training adjustment a few weeks earlier, or listing the wrong player for sale at the wrong time.

In most RPGs, it’s the rare NPC who can completely derail your game, but in Football Manager, literally any of them can. And just for fun, you can also piss off other managers and even journalists, which can have ripple effects in other subtle ways!

Emergent Gameplay

“Emergent Gameplay” is basically a nerd concept for games that allow for an unusual amount of player agency. Rather than following a pre-scripted narrative with fixed objectives, some games allow for more creative decision-making to achieve those objectives. Football Manager lives at the extreme end of that spectrum, offering a completely unique experience every time you start a new game, with varied objectives and the terms of “winning” are mostly up to the individual player.

It’s basically the gaming epitome of “data-informed, never data-driven.”

As soon as you take over your first team, everything that happens next in that “save” is procedurally generated, leveraging tons of real-life data that is immediately influenced and changed by every decision you make from then on. Players get better and worse, bought and sold; teams get promoted and relegated; managers and their staff get fired and hired. The longer you play, the more unique your save becomes because your decisions are having a direct impact on every aspect of that virtual world.

Whether your goal is to save a team from relegation, win the league, or lift your region’s equivalent of the Champions League trophy — how you get there, or don’t, is completely up to you. Until it’s not, of course. While you can choose your first team, you’ll have to interview for subsequent jobs and your past performance will determine if you even get an interview. Start and quickly fail with Barcelona or Manchester City, you may have to drop down a division or two for your next job, and your Champions League dreams may have to be rewritten. Or, you’ll just start a new save and try again.

I love playing long careers, usually starting with a second-tier team where my Moneyball approach fits well. (Perhaps the Rogue equivalent in Football Manager?) In that scenario, getting them promoted is always the first goal, and then it’s a choice between mid-table stability or jumping to a bigger team with championship aspirations. Taking full advantage of my scouting team and poring over data to find the right players for my preferred style of play is incredibly rewarding when it works, and being able to do it for more than one team is definitely one of my main criteria for a successful save.

Depending on how you choose to play, success can also be anything from avoiding relegation, beating a bigger team in a mid-round Cup match, and winning the league and/or a trophy multiple times. In my FM22 save, I defined success as mid-table stability for Alaves over a six-year run that started with promotion and included an unexpected Spanish Cup trophy along the way.

In FM23, I’m still figuring out what ultimate success will be, but starting in MLS and working my way into a La Liga job was the initial objective. Interestingly, I’m currently watching the Las Palmas team I left after getting them promoted three years ago with a bunch of free agents and young development projects turn into a top-four contender competing in continental tournaments, and I feel like I can take credit for that success because they’re still working from the foundation I built there four years ago.

With FM24 coming out in two months, I’m not sure if there’s another worthy objective to set for myself in my FM23 save, but the ultimate beauty of the game is that you can actually just keep playing without a specific objective beyond the ever-present threat of leading the sack race!

3 thoughts on “Is Football Manager the Greatest RPG Ever? (tldr: YES!)

  1. I’ve been playing the mobile version for years, but you’re making an awfully strong argument for jumping into the full version. Thanks for this!

    1. I played the mobile version for a couple of years and it was solid, but it doesn’t come close to the depth of the full version. Not everyone wants that depth, though. The console version is a good bridge between them, too, especially if you’re not a Netflix subscriber.

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