The Football Manager franchise returns with a 2017 edition, and brings us something quite different from the recent Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA releases.
The football manager genre is about as old a genre as you can find. I played a bunch of football manager games in the very early nineties, including the original Football Manager. Football Manager 2017, funnily enough, is actually a follow-up in a different series: Championship Manager, which I played religiously on my Atari ST back in the day. When a license dispute left the game’s creators without a name, they picked up the most classic name for the genre you can think of: Football Manager, now back for its 2017 edition.
Full disclosure – I haven’t spent more than an hour or so with any football management game since the earlier nineties, so Football Manager 2017 was quite the eye-opener to me. In more ways than one, because my first reaction was one of familiarity. Back on the old Atari, Championship Manager was very menu-heavy and loaded with tons of text and stats – and all of that is still here. This is a good thing, because no matter how flashy PES and FIFA look compared to games from 25 years ago, the main draw for any football manager came has always been to maximize your insights into how your team should be run – and I was happy to see that those elements have not been sacrificed in favor of a more console-friendly experience.
What also hasn’t changed is how intricate the simulation is. It’s not just about sending the right players into the field with the right formation. You also have to be responsible for transfers, bringing in the right players at the right time – and of course keeping them happy while they’re on your squad. If you manage to secure the means to attract 22 world class players, then you will have to find a way to keep a lot of them happy despite the fact that they won’t all get to play. Some will threaten to leave, some will make demands… and all of this is off-pitch behavior that you have to manage.
Of course, ultimately it’s all about what happens on the field, and this is where I saw the biggest changes. Playing Championship Manager back in 1992, I always felt somewhat powerless after a game had started – as if the luck of the draw had a lot to do with the outcome. If I was fielding a team with stronger players then my odds were pretty good, and ultimately I would find myself fast-forwarding through parts of the matches to save time. Things are very different when playing Football Manager 2017. Now, instead of feeling like a powerless onlooker screaming at your screen, you get to make choices that immediately impact the flow of the game.
You can substitute players to try and force something, but very often it’ll be a change of plan that’s needed. Ordering your team to pressure more and earlier can result in a lot more possession, but it might also wear them out and cause them to be overrun later in the game. Of course, this is where substitutions play a role as well. Another tactical change might be to make more use of the wings to try and find an opening by using more of the field and spreading out – but this will also widen the gaps for through passes. You’re constantly evaluating your own team and your opponent this way, finding the tactics that you think work best – whatever you choose, you’ll see a difference.
The sensation of having more control over your team and the outcome of matches is a major leap forward, but the same can be said for the game’s presentation. Back in the day, you’ll be looking at textual representations of what was going on – with a slider for possession as your most visual guide. In Football Manager 2017, you get clear 3D visuals of what’s going on, which helps immensely in making the right choices. If you see the other team tearing your defense apart with passes, then you can quickly adapt and tell them to close their ranks to disrupt the other team’s play and perhaps break away on the counter attack – and that’s just one of many possible nuances available to modern day digital Football Managers.
There are other modern touches as well, although for me the main appeal will always be the on-field elements and managing my players. Still, it’s nice to see a social media feed that shows feedback about your team and gives you input about sentiments and rumors floating around. You can also edit your own appearance in the game, but how important that is to you depends on personal preference. For me, I’ve never been able to create someone I thought looked like me, so the draw to spend a half hour on it is minimal for me. Nevertheless, it’s an extra feature, and thus definitely not a negative.
Whether Football Manager 2017 is worth the purchase if you already own the previous edition is something I can’t judge. Whether it’s an excellent game or not I can definitely say, and it is. It’s re-ignited a spark I haven’t felt in over 20 years, and I look forward to spending dozens of hours guiding my team to greatness once more. Most football/soccer fans feel they could do a better job than <insert any manager here>, and now’s your chance to prove it.