How two teenage brothers turned a legion of football fans into Football Managers

When it comes to football everyone’s an expert, but two teenage brothers gave the world the opportunity to put that to the test. We speak to Paul and Oliver Collyer about how their hobby became part of the beautiful game

When two football-mad teenagers from Shropshire, England began spending their summer holidays making a game to play with their schoolmates they had no idea that what they were working on would one day become as synonymous with football as warm steak pies enjoyed in freezing cold stands or children using jumpers for goalposts. But from humble beginnings what is today known as Football Manager (FM) was born. Of course Paul and Oliver Collyer, the brothers that created the game, just referred to it as ‘the game’ back then.

“It was purely for us and we just wanted to make it as good as possible to play. We had a lot of fun playing it with friends,” says Oliver Collyer. “They’d come round on Saturday afternoons and sit for hours.”

To its legion of fans Football Manager is still the game, and even though to the uninitiated it can appear like a series of spreadsheets punctuated by the occasional observed football match, it is now supported by 1,300 researchers worldwide, a 100-person strong game development company – set up by the brothers – and one of the world’s largest computer game publishers in Sega.

But more than that, the game is now part of the beautiful game, and is played by football players and managers around the world, as well as being used as training tool by the League Managers Association (LMA).

When the former Rangers manager Alex McLeish was looking for a new striker he would normally have consulted his scouting department, other professionals or perhaps even his own players. Where he wouldn’t, and didn’t, look was to his own Football Manager-obsessed son who had spotted a talented young footballer playing for Barcelona’s B team.

“He’s going to be the best player in the world,” said Jon McLeish to his father. But the Rangers manager didn’t agree, and thus Rangers missed out on a young Argentine striker called Lionel Messi. Who knows what happened to him?

“He’d have been ruined had he have gone to the Scottish League: ‘sorry lad you’re not big enough’,” says Oliver.

Inspired by the radio

The idea to make a realistic management simulation came to the Collyer brothers when they were still in school, aged 16 and 13, because although they were football enthusiasts, and Oliver can still remember where he was when Everton clinched the Division One Championship in 1987, they were less than enamoured with the standard of football management games available to them.

Image courtesy of Sport Interactive

Image courtesy of Sports Interactive

“We played lots of management games in the early 1980s, and although we spent a lot of time playing them, there was a certain dissatisfaction with the way that the game was angled at the user,” says Paul Collyer. “We would prefer to be in a world and these games tended to make you the centre of the world.”

“You couldn’t see the players on the other team and things like that,” adds Oliver. “The only players were the ones that were in your team or a selection that you could buy, so you never felt like you were in a world, so I just think that we just felt, hang on, why don’t we do something a little bit more ambitious here.”

What the brothers came up with was Championship Manager (originally titled European Champions), a data-heavy game that featured four playable English divisions – and no real player names. The game was decidedly light on graphics – which is one of the reasons EA infamously rejected the chance to publish the game–and relied on a match engine that consisted of a clock, three small meters that showed whether a team was attacking or defending and lines of text commentary that described the match action.

The reason for creating a game that relied on data, rather than “live action” as EA put it, was because, in truth, it was all the brothers, who had no professional or academic experience of programming, could manage. But they also believed that matches would be more exciting if they were left to the user’s imagination.

“At the time there was very little football on TV, most of our football was on the radio, and I think that’s maybe where the lack of prioritising the graphics came from, because that was our culture,” says Paul.

“We thought if you leave it to the imagination you can do a much better job of creating a football match in your head than watching some little dots moving around which almost destroys the illusion,” adds Oliver. “Putting the one line commentary bars up, sort of radio style: ‘cross comes in’; ‘he rises at the back post’ – little pause – ‘just wide’. It’s just like listening to the radio; it’s all in your head.”

Game publishers disagreed and many derided the game as something that should be advertised in the back of magazines, rather than a game that could achieve mass-market popularity. One of the games companies who didn’t reject the brothers completely out of hand, though, was a small UK-based publisher, Domark, who eventually published Championship Manager in 1992.

The game sold around 20 thousand copies, which was enough to prompt the release of a second more ambitious Championship Manager game three years later in 1995.

“When we were starting what would have been Championship Manager 2, we realised we needed some help with the research because as much as we would like to think we knew everything about all the players in the English League, we didn’t.” says Oliver.

“So we basically sent off a form to all the fanzines we could find in the UK, and said ‘can you help us?’ The response was absolutely fantastic. You got people who had maybe played the [original] game, and they loved being asked to rate their players. So it was a superb response, and when that came back we started putting it into the computer and that became the first database. We had all sorts of issues about people overrating their players.”

“I remember the Norwich sheet,” adds Paul. “It was full of 20s. It was like come on lads you’re Norwich.

“For the Italian teams we had to go into a football bookshop and someone, somewhere, for the love of football, had done these printouts of all the Italian league tables and squads for the season before all the way down to Serie C1 or something like that, so we just bought those and that’s how we got the squads because we didn’t have any Italian fanzines to write to, so we had to take that. We literally had to do it ourselves by hand.”

The game becomes “world class”

The Football Manager database has grown exponentially from that modest start and now features leagues from 51 different countries and around 300 thousand active players. The game also details up to 250 different attributes for each individual player, so players are rated on things like finishing, passing, tacking and dribbling. Players’ acceleration and speed are also listed, which has led to some funny stories of footballers racing one another in training to see whether the game is right about who is quickest.

While some professional clubs struggle to manage scouting departments, the Football Manager team maintains control over 1,300 researchers worldwide

While some professional clubs struggle to manage scouting departments, the Football Manager team maintains control over 1,300 researchers worldwide. There aren’t many people involved in football who don’t make it into the game, and even retired players will stay in the database, just in case they become managers or coaches, but the FM team are always looking to build on what are already fanatically accurate player profiles.

“You’re always looking to expand in the sense that if you have a club that doesn’t have a dedicated follower reporting back then if you can find somebody then that’s great,” says Oliver. “You want to aim for someone who is going to see the second team and the youth team and everything like that as well so that you get as much accuracy as you can about that club.”

In order to bring verisimilitude to the world of the football management simulation, FM’s match engine has also gone through something of a transformation in recent years, when after 16 years 3D animation was introduced into the game.

“That was something we resisted for years and years and years because we didn’t really feel we could do it well enough,” says Oliver. “I think in the end it became inevitable. You could see the quality of the FIFAs and the Pro Evos and you start to think we’re kind of running out of excuses not to do this.”

“It’s very new, and we’re still not there yet. We started [with 3D graphics] in 2008 and we’re now 8 years on and I still don’t think we’re there yet. I think it’s going to be another 8 years until we get to where we want to be,” says Paul.

“It needs to feel as natural and human as possible. I don’t think it needs to have any specific technical targets, but it needs to have a feel that you’re watching human beings. The guys in the graphics team are incredibly devoted to all the nice things like lighting and grass. That’s great, but I think the overall target is something that looks human, and that’s something that just comes with time.”

It’s FM or me

FM’s detailed replication of football management has inspired some pretty devoted fans. At the lighter end of the scale, there are stories of some players donning suits before their club takes part in the all important cup final. While at the more serious end, Football Manager has been linked to several divorce cases in the UK, as exasperated partners finally give up hope of shaking their spouses from their Football Manager created cocoons.

Oliver and Paul Collyer

Oliver and Paul Collyer

While highly plausible, Football Manager’s responsibility for divorces is apocryphal at this point, but it’s fair to say that FM has been the cause of some relationship strife. The comedian Tom Rosenthal, tells a story about a Football Manager-inspired bit he used to perform that dealt with the game’s negative impact on relationships. During one performance a girl sat in the front row started crying uncontrollably, when Rosenthal asked her what was wrong she responded ”it happened to me”.

There are numerous other stories of fanatical Football Manager fans, and from the very beginning the Collyer brothers were keen to cultivate a dedicated fanbase. Both Paul and Oliver have a presence on the game’s legendary forum, and fans still recognise the role they played in making Football Manager what it is today.

“I’ve had a couple of people who’ve found out my role in Football Manager. One guy wanted to meet me, and it was really embarrassing because he just completely didn’t say anything. He just sat there. I tried to get him to talk, but it was really, really embarrassing. I hated it and nobody could understand why,” says Oliver.

The beautiful game

The Collyers’ original creation has become one of the most popular video games ever and once spent a record breaking 31 weeks at the top of the PC games cart. But Football Manger has transcended video games and is now ingrained into football culture. The game development company set up by Paul and Oliver, Sports Interactive (SI), supports a number of football teams and has been AFC Wimbledon’s main shirt sponsor since the club’s inception in 2002.

What are we going to be making the rules next? It’s cool. It’s ridiculous, but it’s cool

Sport Interactive also has a partnership with a leading sports statistics provider, Prozone; in 2008 Everton signed a deal with SI which gave them access to the company’s legendary database and more recently the database has been made available to Sky Sports, which it uses to bring player details to a mass audience.

“It’s ridiculous to be honest. When Miles [Jacobson, Sports Interactive’s studio director) started saying that we’re doing these deals with clubs and what have you it was like it’s gone full circle. We were basically trying to get this information in for our game and now the real world is taking the information out of the game,” says Oliver. “What are we going to be making the rules next? It’s cool. It’s ridiculous, but it’s cool.”

As a result of the games success, the Collyer brothers have inevitably had to hire more and more people to meet demand, which has meant that they have had to give up some of their influence. So what started as a personal summer project has now become the responsibility of a team of programmers, researchers and marketers.

“We’d already handed the data over to somebody else,” says Paul. “You have to, the whole process has been that you have to hand things over to people otherwise you can’t grow it. It’s impossible. You either keep it as it is and never grow it or you share the responsibility, but there are certain elements that are difficult to hand over.”

The game has now moved far beyond what two teenagers envisaged in their bedroom in Shropshire, but the game’s ethos that first captivated their friends and then football fans the world over has remained.

What exactly it is that makes the game special is different for different people. For some it’s about finding a hidden gem like a Tonton Zola Moukoko or a Cherno Samba. For others, it’s about taking a team from obscurity to the heights of European football. But do the game’s creators, who built the game because they wanted experience what it was like to be a football manager, still get the same kick out of it?

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“I spend half of my work time staring at the match or fixing bugs in the match, so it’s very difficult to contemplate, in the evening, opening up the game,” says Paul. “It’s very difficult to play something when you are aware of every single current flaw in it, and very early on it became clear to me, that as soon as we got visuals, and went away from the 2D, that I wasn’t going to be able to play it anymore.

“I literally would play four games in pre-season and then I’d go ‘I can’t do this anymore I’m going to have to fix this, this, this and this.’ I’d make a list, like a tester, and I’d go away and spend five days fixing those things, never mind what else I was supposed to be doing; I’d just have to fix those things. It was a compulsive thing and then by the time I’d done that and come back to play it again I’d find another five.

“I had some epic games in it before we went to 2D, when we had text only. I had some massive careers, like 10 seasons, which is a lot for someone working on the game, but that all sadly died when I became aware of the flaws.”

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