It has been getting progressively more difficult to talk about the Football Manager Touch releases on the Switch. I love the series a great deal and will inevitably spend dozens of hours with each year’s iteration trying to carefully manage the weakest team that I can find in the 6th division of the English football league all the way to the EPL, but the reality is that the updates from one iteration to the next have been pretty thin. Not “just a roster update”-thin, as there had always been some tweaking to the user interface, AI and features to try and make it more playable, but nonetheless thin.
Most significantly, it didn’t feel like the series was actually getting better. The UI was tweaked from one game to the next, but the developers never quite made it ideal to play with a controller, making the game all but pointless on the big TV.
That’s what’s changed with Football Manager Touch 2023. By adopting the same basic interface as the console edition of the game (available on Xbox etc), this is the first time I’ve been able to play the game without feeling like I need to undock my console and use the touch screen. Last year’s edition of the game gave us a “virtual cursor” for controller input and it was an absolute and unrelenting pain to use. With this one, you can navigate easily around using simple button presses, and the control stick to select “categories” of actions that you want to interact with. Football Manager has incredible depths of information, and it can’t have been easy to organise all of that into an intuitive UI, but that’s what the development team has done here, and hats off to them.
While the information is better organised, presented, and interactive, the depth of information that you’ll be wading through has not changed an iota. Neither has the general aesthetics. The gameday replays that allow you to watch your team in action seem like they are a carbon copy of last year. Menus and displays all look basically the same. This is probably all the Switch can handle at this stage (and in fairness, the improvements that you see to gameday action etc on PC/consoles aren’t that much better), but it’s enough that you’ll be caring about your team within a few matches of taking over the management of them.
The thing that has always been compelling about Football Manager is the emergent narrative. The story itself isn’t much more than “you’re the manager of the team now. Here’s what you need to achieve with them or you’re going to be fired”. It’s the stories that you “write” as you play that are compelling. When you make a big trade and stake the club’s fortunes on this new, young striker you’ve gambled on, you’re naturally going to be invested every time they take the field. When the fans boo your decision to let a key player go in the in-game “social media” platforms, you’re naturally going to prove them wrong.
When there’s a string of losses, you’re going to feel pressure to improve performance, and I swear it’s like stuffing up spreadsheets in actual work. You just know that your boss is going to be disappointed in this. On the other hand, when your team does raise a cup or earn a promotion to a higher league, it really does feel like an achievement. Football Manager is work. It is, with only a thin veil over the top, an exercise in data analysis. And yet it’s also one of the most powerful narrative experiences in video games because it gives you a truly granular level of control over a sports club that exists in the real world, as it appears in the game.
This brings me to my annual gripe about this game: it remains so damn Euro-centric. There’s an incredible range of leagues across Europe that you can play in, and some of them go really deep. It’s no exaggeration: You can choose to play as a team in the 6th tier of English football. It’s a thrill to take such a minnow to the Premier League, yes, but there is such a dearth of leagues outside of Europe. South America is fairly well represented, but there’s just one league across all of Africa represented (South Africa). There are only eight across Asia, and that does include Australia, as well as some really minor leagues like Singapore and India, but, yet again, the excellent Japanese J-League is missing. There is also precisely zero football leagues from the Middle East, and given that Iran’s Pro League is rated more highly than both the J-League AND the Australian A-League these days, that absence is increasingly notable.
I understand that licensing is challenging in some of these cases, but, on the other hand, that is the developer’s job and you’re not really giving us a “world game” as long as you leave out big chunks of the very best examples of it.
Aside from excluding a vast swathe of the world from having the same opportunity to take control of their favourite teams as most Europeans do, Football Manager 23 Touch is a substantial step forward for the developer. For perhaps the first time they’ve figured out how to make the enormity of data that you’re going to spend hours looking at and tweaking playable with a controller. It might not sound like much, but that must have been a monumentally challenging UI effort, and the development team really did nail it.