Review by Matt S.
How does this series keep pulling me back, year after year? The previous two years of FM Touch are both in the top five Nintendo Switch most played games, and here we are with FM 2020 immediately accumulating more hours across more sleepless nights than I can admit to myself. How is this series so damned good?
It’s especially wild since I hate spreadsheets, despite having to frequently use them, and it’s no exaggeration when people tell you that Football Manager is a spreadsheet game. You pick a team from dozens of national leagues around the world (sadly, there’s still no J-League for fans of Japan’s excellent professional league), and then you’re tasked with managing every element of that team, from the player trades, to the youth development program, the financial aspects of the team, the on-field tactics and the training schedule. Then you sit back and watch your team either emerge victorious or fail completely, based on the tactics that you’ve set them.
That’s right, you watch. There’s no actual playing of football in Football Manager, a fact that will forever relegate the series to the most niche of niche experiences, but actually playing football in the context of this thing would have unbalanced the experience. In a FIFA title, sheer skill with the ball can compensate for a weak team… it’s kind of the point. In Football Manager, a weak team is going to be much more likely to lose than win… and that’s also the point. Your job is to turn weak teams around, or keep the strong teams strong. Doing that on the field would be an easy out to get around poor strategy, and more than anything Football Manager wants you to be strategic. And so, you watch matches, on a very simple 3D engine that looks like it was taken from a football game from the PlayStation One era.
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Presentation in general is very dry. Only a small percentage of the world’s best-known players have portraits, and otherwise you’re spending your entire time looking at pages of data, a map of the field to set your tactics, and menu layered upon menu on top of menu. The most amusing moments, however, is when your team holds a cup, and you get treated to a truly woeful cut scene of the team on the field holding up the cup. At that point you’ll be asking yourself if it was really worth dozens upon dozens of hours of work leading up to the moment… and the thing is, it kinda is.
The weird thing that happens every time that I play Football Manager is that I get very attached to my rows of data and PlayStation 1-era character models. I start caring when my key striker goes on a dry run for a number of matches. I find myself getting very frustrated when an injury-riddled team can only field a B-group for a match against the weakest team in the league and end up losing. I even find myself punishing my player for getting a red card by not starting him in the match after his ban gets lifted. All these silly little narrative threads start coalescing in my mind as I play, accompanied by the little fake news articles and social media feed that is provided in-game. Football Manager doesn’t have a moment of overt storytelling in it, but as a narrative experience, it’s surprisingly effective in making every moment spent in the game count.
There have been a number of improvements made for FM 2020. The interface has been refined further. It takes a while to get a feel for the way the flow through the menus works (for the first couple of hours I was getting very frustrated that the menu for moving reserves to the senior team, or offering players up for loan, was not where it was on last year’s edition), but once you get a feel for it it does allow for a more efficient… workflow. It’s also so much easier to gauge how you’re performing as a manager, as little A through F letter gradings appear across a host of different categories to let you know if the board and fans appreciate your financial decisions, tactical understanding of the sport, and trades you bring into the team.
It goes without saying that FM 2020 is a game that relies on you having a decent understanding on how football works. If you don’t know your 4-4-2s from 3-3-1-3s then Football Manager has no interest in teaching you… it’s simply not the game for you, because you will make poor decisions and you will be rolled by your opponents. Once you’ve got a baseline understanding of the sport, however, it becomes a wonderful way to learn more about it – to see how different formations might work, and how a manager might think in a situation. For people with only a passing interest in football it can be an in to learning the complexities for the sport. And for the most dedicated fans it can be a way to prove that they’d be better managers of their team than the actual managers. I know a fan of Sunderland from the English football competitions that could benefit a great deal from spending time with this game (the joke being that Sunderland has been badly mismanaged for far too long now).
Having the improved interface and flow of information is the minimum that you’d expect from a new Football Manager. The rosters don’t matter so much, since the entire point is that within a couple of in-game years the rosters will reflect your own shaping of the team, rather than real life, but the licenses being there for so many leagues is also good. However, as much as I’ll likely spend another 100+ hours playing this thing, it really is a minimal update. The developers should be bringing on more minor leagues to play with, grabbing the few major ones that are not yet playable, and trying to do something to lift the charm of the game. Those 3D character models and football games are just not adequate.
Chances are I’ve just wasted my time writing this review – either you’re an existing fan of Football Manager and know instantly whether it’s time for you to upgrade to this year’s edition, or you’re not going to be a fan of Football Manager. This latest one is the most accessible and easy to follow yet, but it is still a spreadsheet simulator, and it services a very niche audience.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld