• Robert Gammon

How I Created a Legends Simulation on Football Manager

Gone are the days of geek purity.

Football, and sports in general, are well established in the gaming world. Many a gamer is as comfortable with talking Super Mario as they are the perils of VAR. The nerdiest of these two subcultures overlap at management sims. Games that generate and scout players from thousands of leagues around the world and even their backroom staff, in an attempt to generate a truly genuine experience of being a football manager.

The Simulation Spirit

I can’t get enough of these games. Despite supporting a fairly average team, that is going through more than its fair share of struggles, I still love the beautiful game. Football Manager feeds that addiction to know every inch of what is going on in the background, what formations we should be playing and why every trip to The Valley ends in despair.

The need to fuel this footballing addiction grew worse when the EFL suspended all matches for over a month due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it also seemed obvious that the touted return date was far too early to return to normality. I returned to Football Manager once more to get my fix.

However, I decided instead of playing the same seasons out, over and over again (before undoubtedly rage-quitting and starting again) that I would answer the big questions that had never been answered before.

Questions that asked of which iconic historical teams would win over 90 minutes.

This seemed like an easy prospect to begin with. Simply creating a classic team in the Football Manager editor and bish, bash, bosh. Done! Well it wasn’t that easy. Though if you want to watch the finished product you can here!

Setting Out The Experiment

First of all each player has like a billion stats to fill in. This task was going to take time. And I couldn’t just make up the stats for each individual player. Firstly, I am no scout and have highly rated some duds in my time. Secondly, I didn’t want my personal influences reflecting this pseudo-scientific experiment. I needed help.

My test run would be between two teams that I love equally, thus eliminating any bias I would have in the result. I chose to pit the victors of the 1998 Division One Play-Off Final against the winners of the 2019 League One Play Off Final. Charlton 98 verses Charlton 19.

Getting the stats for Charlton ‘19 was easy. They were already there in Football Manager 19, the game I would be using. However, ‘98 wouldn’t be so easy. Despite management sims being popular since at least the early nineties, there was no easy way to access the databases of the old games. There were all sorts of screenshots of players and their stats but what I was looking for was not exactly common, I was looking for Charlton Athletic.

Championship manager seemed the most popular and most thorough game that followed that season and so I decided early on I would be taking the attributes from that game and recreating them in Football Manager 19. But accessing these 22 year old stats was going to be more difficult than imagined.

Setting Out the Stats

It is quite simple to download a copy of Championship Manager 97/98. It is readily available online. There is one major caveat, it runs on MsDos. Now I am not terrible at computers, I have worked in radio and have picked up a bit or two on how to get things up and running. One thing I don’t know is MsDos. Trying to get this game to run using several emulators was a nightmare. I spent hours looking at tutorial after tutorial to get it working but it just wasn’t having it. I called friends who work in coding, who went on to tell me that major companies don’t tend to use MsDos anymore. I even asked my partner, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory who did part of her masters with the European Space Agency to look at it. She refused.

I managed to get other games working but somehow Championship Manager just didn’t like it. I decided to plug on with plan B, run it in browser. There is a website that allows you to run Dos games in browser but honestly tells you that you’d be better off downloading it, especially a notoriously big game like Championship Manager. I plodded along anyway.

It honestly took over three hours for the game to set up a season, this is before I could even look at the players. The first time I tried I left it on in the background while playing other games, (I have been really getting into Elder Scrolls: Legends), when it finally loaded I pressed done to select my team to manage and… it crashed.

Attempt two worked (this time I played Elder Scrolls: Legends on my phone) and after another three hours I was looking at the Charlton squad of 1998. The cursor moved a single pixel every few seconds but it was working. I loaded up the Football Manager 19 editor and set to work recreating the greats of Saša Ilić, Mark Kinsella and Clive Mendonca. Then I hit another host of issues.

Firstly Championship Manager was running so slowly that it took forever to switch players, especially as I kept tabbing out to look up other information such as their height and place of birth (these sims are really in-depth). I overcame this by screenshotting the players in the brief time that the game ran smoothly. I would like to tell you that I came up with that idea early on, but that would be a lie.

The next problem was that if I entered each player's actual age then I would have a bunch of retirement aged players against a far more fresh team. The obvious solution to this was to set their birth dates 21 years into the future, so that the 98 team would be the same age as they were when they won what is widely called the best playoff final of all time.

Annoying Attributes

The last, most complicated problem was that the stats that Championship Manager used were not the same as Football Manager 19.

Football management sims haven’t changed dramatically, mainly because football is still 22 men on a pitch trying to get a ball in a goal, but they have got more sophisticated. There are a ton more stats that each player has and everything is that little bit more complicated. Luckily for me though, each stat is still ranked out of 20, this has become the norm and it still hasn’t changed after two decades. What also played to my advantage was that some attributes were still there. Passing and tackling were obviously important back then but they also had less evident attributes like adaptability and determination. Other attributes were just differently named, such as shooting now being called finishing in later games. Despite all of this though there were still a couple of dozen or so stats missing.

I had to get clever. Attributes like marking were taken from an average of other comparable or linked skills. In the example of marking I used their stats such as positioning, pace and tackling. I had to do this for many other traits. There were some that were beyond any sort of comprehension, my solution to this? I put 10 or made it up.

Okay that may not be the most adequate solution or the most satisfying ending to creating these people but this project had already lasted another 24 hours and I was getting bored of inputting data. These attributes were also for things that seemed less important for a singular game and more impactful over a season or even a career.

Now you may think that was that. All I had to do was open this edited file in the game and watch the match unfold, but that would be far too easy.

Competition Complexities

Instead, the next step was to create a competition that these players could play in. I thought that this would be a piece of cake. Simply make a tournament, two teams, set basic rules and done. This was not the case. Football Manager has an odd way of handling competitions that relies on each competition establishing its place and importance in its national structure. I.e., you can’t just set up a one off competition in England unless it is a friendly and a friendly wasn’t good enough for this experiment.

I had to go into a deepdive of database management, setting up competitions and working out rules for these competitions. It took several hours of fiddling around for what seemed like a basic task but I had learnt what I had to do. I had to go to the rules tab and set up my own national set of rules. Then create a cup that took teams from my custom competition that only contained the two custom teams I had made.

From there I had to work through several problems and verify that the competitions ran well. I will spare you some of the most excruciating detail but finally I had the editor file ready to test.

The first test went badly. I missed the game completely. I had forgotten to ‘attend’ that match and missed the whole bloody thing. Take two went a bit better with the game starting up well before I realised that half of the 2019 team were on loan to the ‘real’ Charlton. After I fixed that I started watching the next attempt before I realised both teams had signed players to bolster their squads, I had to put them both under a transfer embargo. But that was the last major problem, the last obstacle to my pursuit of watching these two legendary teams play one another in the playoff winners playoff.

It was glorious and I would do it all again in a heartbeat, in fact I probably will but with more universally appealing teams. I’m wondering how this year's Liverpool team would fare against the United treble winning team of 99?

One last thing before I finish this article, I named the cup #stayhomeforseb in honour of Seb Lewis, a Charlton fan who sadly passed due to Covid-19 related illness. He was a tremendously unique, funny and nice guy that you would always look out for at home and away games. Please remember to stay home when possible so that others may stay safe.

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