Chris Taylor sifts through the fantasy and the reality to explain the compulsive appeal of the Championship Manager computer game
When all but two of an Economics A-level class fail the subject there are going to be inquiries. We all had the same teachers, the same opportunities to learn, the same text books, but not all of us had Championship Manager. So, in turn, not all of us spent the night before our exam trying to take Bury to Premier League glory. And while I ended up only with the UEFA Cup and an E grade in microeconomics, I feel satisfied that the right choice was made.
For those not in the know, though I find it difficult to believe that such people exist, Championship Manager, or Champo to the real hardcore, is a computer game. There have been countless dozens of football management games that haven’t enjoyed the success of Champo – Premier Manager, Ultimate Soccer Manager, Alex Ferguson Manager, the list is almost endless. But whereas most games fail to make even a small dent in the market, Championship Manager has been going strong since 1992. This month sees the release of Championship Manager 4. On pre-sales alone, it’s set to shatter the record for the quickest selling PC game ever. The record was set, incidentally, by Championship Manager 2001-02.
In a bid to maintain its position at the top of the football management simulation tree, the game’s developers are always looking for improvements. So as you’d probably expect there is now a much bigger emphasis on dealing with the media and players’ agents. Never before has it been so important to soothe the egos of these highly paid temperamental virtual stars. But the biggest change is a new 2D match view so you can see exactly where your players are meant to be. The joy of seeing Mikael Silvestre tear down the left flank to support the attack is tempered only by seeing the huge gap he invariably leaves when the opposition is counter attacking.
Though Championship Manager first appeared in 1992, it wasn’t until the release of its sequel, CM2, three years later that it became a truly worldwide game. Certainly there was a loyal following for the original, some may even call it a cult following, but both of those are just euphemisms for small. The game was flawed and too easy to master – you could win every game in a season by playing one defender and five attackers. And Don Hutchinson was the best player in the world. For a realism junkie like myself, this was hard to come to terms with.
Championship Manager’s success in a genre where so many have failed is down to a simplicity that doesn’t jeopardise reality. What you don’t want when you buy a football game is to get it home and find out it’s nothing more than a teach yourself accountancy program. While so many other games bog you down in the financial aspects of the running of a club, such as organising advertising boards, setting the price of pies and buying new floodlights, Champo lets you concentrate on the important things, namely players and tactics. Getting overrun in midfield? Then drop a forward back to help out. Looking to preserve a late lead? Then play balls in to the corner and instruct your wingers to hold the ball there.
A huge community has emerged since the release of CM2, particularly over the internet. As each version of the game has been released, this community has grown and spread. The fans of the game also benefit from the global network. Tactics are shared and good signings are made known. Through this word of mouth system, Championship Manager legends are born. The disappointment when Ibrahima Bakayoko flopped at Everton was tangible. As a player for Marseille in Champo, he was the best in the world. A guaranteed 40 goals a season striker, a heady cocktail of Pelé, Cruyff and Best. Apart from a two goal, match-winning performance at Ewood Park (I travelled to Blackburn to pay homage to my hero), Bakayoko showed little of his in-game talent and Champo fans across the globe were faced with the horrible realisation that Championship Manager wasn’t real life after all.
Due to the scouting system employed by Sports Interactive, a collection of fans from around the globe, the real-life ability of players can vary wildly from their in-game ability. And while occasionally they get it right – Javier Saviola was a must buy for any manager as far as three years back – on the whole, promising young players in Championship Manager are never heard of outside of their club in the real world. Andri Sigporsson, the Icelandic international striker, could usually be picked up for a couple of hundred grand from his club FC Reykjavik and would outscore more household names within a season or two. Within the CM community word spread fast about this particular player’s ability, through online message boards and good player guides, and people started worshipping him more than is healthy for a piece of computer programming code. It went so far as a website shrine being developed for him. Sigporsson is now playing for Molde, in Norway, not for Real Madrid as seemed his destiny.
Another who achieved legend status was Portuguese lower division player Tó Madeira. He was a young striker with immense potential. Strong in the air, quick feet, an extra ten yards’ pace in his head, and whatever other footballing cliches you’d care to throw at him. The problem was, he didn’t exist. The Portuguese researcher made him up. It’s hard to put across in words the scandal this caused. Any manager found out to be using Madeira instantly lost any credibility he may have had.
With accusations of cheating being levelled at all and sundry, several people were banned from the Sports Interactive message board. The board works on a series of warnings. You can receive warnings for personal abuse, spamming (constant reposting of information) and for chatting off topic. Get a second warning before your first one expires and you can find yourself suspended from the forums.
With Championship Manager fever at an all-time high, a new magazine dedicated solely to the game and Xbox console conversions available, it is expected that Championship Manager 4 will attract a whole new legion of fans. The essence of the game was summed up best by one fan who claimed: “I’m tempted to buy it, but I don’t think my girlfriend would speak to me if I did.”
How to play Championship Manager
First choose your name and your nationality, the league you want to play (there are 39), and the club you want to manage. Next you’re given the club’s latest squad and a statement of the board’s expectations for the season ahead.
The finances of the club in question are pretty realistic, for example Chelsea won’t have much spare cash, Sheffield Wednesday can fall into administration where you can’t refuse reasonable transfer requests, Liverpool have a huge squad. Finances rise and fall during the season depending on the wage bill, gate receipts, transfer fees received and so on. Clubs will also have a limit on the amount in weekly wages you can offer, and transfer funds. Before you play a competitive fixture you have to choose your tactics, who takes your set pieces, your playmaker, and almost everything up to who makes the tea at half time.
The old version of CM had a textual commentary (“Berger finds Murphy in space”), the new one has a bird’s eye view of a pitch with dots replicating the players. In the old game you had to run the entire match, though you could choose the speed of the textual commentary. In the new version, you can choose just to watch the highlights.
You can be hounded by the press – a typical question might be “a national newspaper has questioned your continued faith in Peter Crouch”, to which you have three choices of response: “Defend him”, “Criticise him”, or “Ignore it”. If you criticise the player, he might be unhappy; if you defend him, the Chairman can question your judgment.
Once the season starts, you can be sacked at any time, so you have to duck and dive, change tactics, wheel and deal. Before you know it, you’ll be conducting impromptu press conferences in the toilet to explain your recent bad run of form to no one but yourself. Gary Rolin
From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month