I’ve Made My Peace With Championship Manager (short essay)

I remember two particular images from my footballing education. The first is of Nigel Clough sitting pensively on the Nottingham Forest bench. The second is of a cross into the box from a Sheffield Wednesday player (Petter Rudi? Niclas Alexandersson?), with the ball rising and falling in a graceful curve. These two uninspiring images are my first memories of English football.

Both images came from the hour-long Premier League highlights packaged program that was beamed to Australian free-to-air TV in the late nineties. My father semi-regularly watched the program, his passion for Newcastle United still existent then. By the time I’d started watching it with him, I’d been too late to make my mark on the game. I’d never been good with the round ball at my feet, and I felt like I’d also been too late to pick up on that innate hum and flow of the game itself. “Kick it to him!” I would say, “Can’t you see him on the right?” I’d missed out on learning the footballing language, and as pithy as it sounds, anything worth doing well is worth starting when you are young.

Better late than never, then. The 1998-99 season kicked it all off. Football was on my brain, and the green shoots rose up to the red sun of Forest and the blue sky of Wednesday. Back then I didn’t know any better. I came to know much better—more than I perhaps should have.

I was a quiet kid who played Theme Hospital and Age of Empires on the computer. I didn’t have the stomach for shooters, or the quick fingers for sports games. Outside of the aforementioned two games, I rarely played games to completion—rather tipping in and out of demos that game from the latest issue of PC Powerplay magazine. In other words, the tender was open to impress upon a 14-year-old student the delights and continually-expanding horizons of the digital gaming world.

The demos were limited plays but forever free. Some of these demos passed muster, while others were forgotten, put in the limbo of the computer desk’s second shelf where nothing came out remembered. Each demo was the crumbs of a pie—just enough to whet the appetite for more. And after I’d scoffed down most of the demo offerings from one particular issue of PC Powerplay, I finally landed on the game that I hadn’t tried out yet, a game with the unimaginative title of Championship Manager 1998-99.

I loaded it up, and immediately saw the strangely kerned typeface laid out in slightly opaque textboxes. A few unsure clicks brought me to the option that millions before me had, and have since, held their breath at as they pondered the possibilities beyond it. An option that struck right to what I wanted at 14 years of age: to ‘Take Control’.

The game made sense to me from the get go. A football simulation devoid of any in-play action outside of the rolling text updates. There were no faces to match the players, and no textures and ripples to hold on to. Yet my imagination turned the unending reams of simulation data into a fully-fleshed out world of my making. The data kneaded my malleable brain. Every click-through of a player profile backfilled the huge gorge that represented everything that came before Nigel Clough and Sheffield Wednesday on the TV. I had no business scoring this knowledge into my memory—yet I simply had a huge appetite for it. To this day, the Tetris pieces of data still fit snugly in grey matter and synapse. It’s all well remembering that:

went up front with:

but perhaps it is a sign of a misspent youth that I can also remember that:

a 16-year old up front for Brentford, once scored against me in one of my early forays in ‘management’. Enamoured with the sifting-through of all this information, I called to my father from the back room to get in on the CM thrill too, and appealed at him to get impressed quick at the impossibly juked stats of someone named Edgar Davids. I said to him, “Look at all those red twenties!” I found grace in the numbers—maybe I’d been wedded to a form guide in a previous life.

I logged countless hours into the demo, and begged my parents to buy me the next iteration of the game, Championship Manager: Season 99/00 for Christmas. That was when computer games came in boxes seemingly made of teak. CM3 had broken me in well. The slicker interface of 99/00 led me to double-down on my addiction. The world within the game spilled into the world outside the game. I challenged my school friends on the players and the teams. They had no interest in football, so how could they have known the answers, let alone understood the answers? When a friend came over to my house one weekend, he saw my CM-style, top-down and hand-written AC Milan team list on A3 paper blu-tacked to my bedroom wall (Ba, I AM R and Ganz, M SC, anyone?). “What the hell is this?” he said. “It’s AC Milan,” I said, “from the game.” ‘What the hell’ indeed. I continued down that path of investigation, exploring the limits of the game and of my management abilities; my friend never did.

Each press of the ‘Continue Game’ button was a micro-shot of dopamine. A return from the grey-limbo of the loading screen added further lashings of unreality to my in-game world. Each new layer of data gave me more time in the time-suck. Virtual years’ worth of transfer activity rolled into the fantastical—avatars of real-life players retired and were regenerated into young tyros with questionable names. Witnessing the random assignation of a digital entity (under the guise of a ‘youth player’ to my team following the pre-season ‘big load’ brought about that warm and fuzzy feeling that this youngster existed in a virtual world that was mine alone. I felt proud.

But at the time, I never knew why I felt like that. In hindsight, I can perhaps say that everyone likes the home-grown player from the small-town club. That player you can empathise with and identify with. An approximation of yourself is put into that player, containing all your expectations. I was proud of my players, yet intensely guarding over their ultimate fates—therefore I couldn’t let up with the game. I had to nurse them into digital retirement.

Yet the time dragged with each load. The numerical values 1-20, the sum of a player, revealed nothing new to me. So, thoughts turned to beyond what I saw on that autopsy table, the values and attributes that couldn’t be seen. Anyone straying into the long grass of CM’s boundaries downloaded the ‘all-seeing eye’ program aptly named CM Scout. The program’s advanced filters allowed users to judge a player’s ability and future potential through normally hidden, pre-determined values. This removed any challenge left in the game. Then there was the last refuge of scoundrels, cheaters, and rage-quitters—the save-game editor that changed player values and came with the warning that it might just swallow up your carefully cultivated in-game world and spit it out in the form of a corrupted save file. Regenerated heroes forever locked into a last formation on the eve of a second-leg cup tie. Yep, I went through all this.

I think this is when my passion for CM started to wane. The veil had been lifted on the show. I knew the magician’s tricks and the shortcuts to jerry-rig a bit of cheeky European success to a Third Division team. The third-party programs, infallible tactics packs, and endless lists of ‘recommended players’ written by the user community made the gaming experience a bit pointless. The editing continued—during one hot Australian summer, I clocked in several weeks’ worth of pre-season editing as I tried to recreate the real-time transfers across major European leagues in advance of my next underdog campaign. Why I didn’t download the update patches is beyond me—maybe I just liked the control. Some days I called in sick at my part-time job to spend the afternoon hunchbacked toward the screen to make sure that, among many other moves, Junichi Inamoto moved virtually on loan to Fulham from Arsenal, and that Paul Ince’s transformation to Wolves midfield general was set in stone.

Yet I grew sick of it all. The hours, days, years of carpal-tunnel and dry-eye inducing game binges had taken its mental toll. I imagined a save game to be like a pack of cigarettes—once it was done, it didn’t take much to open up a new one. But I couldn’t do it anymore. Even then, the break from CM was gradual, and never clean. I envied those that wore their addictions proudly, especially those that would alt-tab from the game to a blank Word document to lay down a grand narrative generated by the generated world. I was too early for the in-game YouTube CM streams and the CM ‘challenges’ laid out by obsessives. I’ve never been an overly analytical person, which perhaps puts me at odds with a typical CM player. In the early versions of CM, I always settled for cookie-cutter players that I could set and let free in attacking formations. I eschewed most of the new features with every new CM iteration. So, what kept me playing the game?

I enjoyed playing the game, of course, but at addiction-level something feeds the desire—perhaps it was the need for control, or a coping mechanism from the bad things in my life. Maybe CM satisfied my need for order where order didn’t exist in my life. Whatever it was, CM massaged my insecurities and let me put off my responsibilities and fears for another hour or two.

Over the last decade I’ve returned to CM a handful of times. I’ve only once strayed outside the ‘classic’ versions from the turn of the century. A brief sortie into Football Manager 13/14 only left me pining for the wholesome CM. I bought 13/14 through Steam, and there it remains to this day on the virtual shelf. 13/14 doesn’t loom large in my memory—it was just too counterintuitive and intensely in-depth for me. The brutal functionality of the CM series had been replaced by the fortune of choice. I finally understood what ‘too much control’ meant. The ersatz manager, with his ersatz team, doling out pinpricks of micromanagement. I didn’t give half that attention to family, friends, girlfriends. Despite this reflexive turn back to CM, every resulting foray in it is one of diminishing returns and diminishing joy. The desire to load up, buy up, move up (in the standings) degraded into an atomic half-life. As such, the addiction has faded like an old tattoo on leathered skin. In other words, it’ll never go away, but remain in bare vestige.

But the game has brought me great joy. Palpable joy. CM bridged the divide between footballing philistine and tragic obsessive. Also, years of playing CM in a closed environment taught me the social value of football. I’ve made many friends through football, but those friendships only deepened through the collective CM consciousness. I’m proud of that—the grind meant something off-screen. Many years ago, in a dive bar in Seoul, I surprised a British expat by invoking the name of Charlie Austin when he asked me, “Have you ever heard of Swindon Town?” The ‘knowledge’ got me a free beer—and even if this was the only tangible, concrete reward I got from the years of retina-scaling late nights on CM, I can still bask in the intangible joys that CM has brought me. CM is all about community and friendship—and, you know a like-minded CM tragic when you come across one.

I downloaded CM3 to write this post, and I spent two nights trying to figure out a workaround to play it on Windows 10. On the second night I found the patch that would allow me to do so—and it took all of five minutes to download and install. Even when I wasn’t in the game, CM3 still found a way to suck the time out of me.

Each in-game click revived the muscle memory. Each screen unrolled a wallpaper of names that seemed to have been bundled away into that old computer desk. But this time, they were coming out remembered. Ivan Tistimetanu at Bristol City! The Georgians at Man City who weren’t Georgi Kinkladze! Marlon Broomes in the England squad! It was like driving past a childhood home—pricks of recollection came thick and fast.

But as I went through the familiar screens, I didn’t feel any pangs of longing. The desire to play is now parched away, desiccated. It was a sad moment to reflect upon all the graft I’d put into CM, only now to leave the game behind me. It was a sad moment but also a proud moment, to actually know that I’d left CM behind. An image of a clean-water river appeared in my mind—a river that had previously been addled, plugged, and dammed with the flotsam kicked up from a storm. Perhaps this is what the kicking of an addiction feels like. Or maybe my addiction is a long sleep, dormant yet primed on a hair trigger.

An old hard drive sits on the top shelf of the spare room in my parent’s house. On that hard drive is my greatest ever save game, from CM00/01. A masterpiece thirty (virtual) years deep. Wolves levitating on the summit of European football. Unassailable. Ask me who plays up-front nowadays in the real world for Man City, Man Utd, or Liverpool week-to-week, and I’ll give you an answer after a skipped breath and a pained recollection; but ask me who played up front for Wolves circa 2030 and I’ll be able to tell you in a single breath– Àngel Hidalgo and Hernan Ruggeri, with tyro Jeff Griffiths off the bench (regens over reals!). Twenty-five goals apiece per season. That game will always stay with me, but on the top shelf. A relic. It’ll probably never be loaded again, and if it is, it will be an echo from my history.

Nigel Clough sitting pensively on the Nottingham Forest bench. A Sheffield Wednesday player crosses into the box. Still shots from the very beginning. Now forever joined by Fabrizio Ravanelli on the pitch for Marseille, Ole Gunnar Solskjær in mid-slide after scoring the winner in the Champions League final, and an empty, unknown stadium under a grey sky—all still shots from the iconic CM background screen. Precious memories, indelibly linked with the game. I am better for having had CM in my life, for it gave me football. I’ve made my peace with CM.