2020 has been a strange year for everyone and even football, with all of its riches, hasn’t been able to escape feeling the impact of the upheaval. From interruptions to the season to a shortened inter-seasonal break and a delay to the start of the current season, it can be difficult for football fans to get a grasp on where exactly they are on the football calendar. Thankfully, Football Manager has returned in its traditional early winter release to add a sense of normalcy to proceedings, and while the majority of fans might not currently be able to go and watch their favorite team in person, Football Manager 2021 at least gives the chance to take on the role of virtual manage from the comfort of their own homes.
The Football Manager series and its prior label of Championship Manager rank among some of my most played games, despite the fact that the title that I’ve put easily the most time into is now almost twenty years old. I’ve dabbled with the franchise since then, but as my gaming tastes moved away from the PC and towards console, I’ve found that most of my Football Manager experiences have come from the handheld or mobile releases rather than the full-fat PC titles. Football Manager 2021, then, marked the first time that I’d fully dived into a Football Manager experience in a number of years and I was fully aware that it was touch-and-go as to whether I would surface again.
The Football Manager series has always been the kind of game where you don’t just play for an hour or two at a time. Football Manager takes over your life if you’re not careful, and you’ll find yourself on your commute to work thinking about how different tactics might bring out the best in your misfiring striker, or if getting to the next round of the cup might win you enough favor with the board to ask for that upgrade to the club’s youth facilities. Starting up a new game feels like slipping into a new skin, one where you’re on first name terms with some of your footballing heroes and where your actions can affect the weekends of tens of thousands of fans.
One of my prior hesitations to getting back into the Football Manager series is the fact that it can all feel incredibly overwhelming, especially at the start of a game. Everything outside of matches is presented in the form of text, graphs or numbers, and it can be tough to know where to go to find the information that you need, and what to do with this information once you’ve found it. It feels a lot like starting a new job, and Football Manager 2021 includes a form of onboarding that now makes this process a lot more digestible. At various points in the game, either at predetermined milestones or when you stumble upon a mechanic for the first time, a brief tutorial will show explaining the significance of a certain area or aspect, and what you can do to affect the outcomes. While it’s true that there’s still a huge amount of information for newcomers to absorb, this breaking down and contextualizing of the experience makes it much easier to get up and running at your new club.
It also helps that Football Manager 2021 tries its hardest to allow you to control even the most minute of details while in charge of your club, right down to your body language when interacting with players. This might sound like a minor addition, but the ability to reflect either a friendly or defensive stance can truly change how your messages are received, and when you’re talking to a group of superstars with fragile egos this can prove incredibly important. From a role-playing stance, it adds yet another layer of immersion on top of what is already an absorbing experience as it allows you to further envision yourself as your on-screen persona.
That’s always been the true beauty of the Football Manager series, and 2021 continues the trend. Within mere weeks of taking control of my club I had a local journalist who had developed a fierce dislike towards me, and this relationship felt tangible and real. Each member of your squad feels similarly real and the flow of managing their training and personal needs during the week through to seeing them play in a match never loses its appeal. The fact that your changes to their training regimes can be seen on match day is intoxicating and it always feels like you can never do enough tweaking to find the perfect formula.
However, if you don’t have the time or inclination to dive deeply into Football Manager 2021’s truly impressive detail of tactical breakdowns, statistics and training regimes, you’re given the choice to take more a backseat role. If you want to leave tactics and training to your coaches, you can do that. Similarly, your assistant will suggest line-ups prior to each match, and you can either ignore them completely, agree wholeheartedly or use their suggestions as a blueprint for your own final product. The same is true of transfers: if you only want to deal with signing players for the first team, you can leave youth signings to other members of staff. Football Manager 2021 allows and encourages you to get as hands-on as you would like or as your time allows, meaning that you can focus on one particular aspect of the game should you wish to get through a season quickly, or you can have a hand in the running of the entire club if you want to feel fully in control.
All of this leads to one point, though: Football Manager 2021 does require a certain level of commitment and doesn’t function quite as well when played as a pick-up-and-play experience. There is a reason why a lot of fans of the Football Manager series only play Football Manager, and while it’s partly because each title is lovingly and expertly crafted, it’s also because once Football Manager gets its hooks into you, there’s rarely enough time in the day left to play anything else. It’s an all-encompassing experience and while if the experience clicks with you, it really clicks, it’s certainly worth being aware of what you might be getting yourself into.
It’s been a little while since I’ve been fully invested in a Football Manager experience, either through self-preservation and the fear of losing my job, my partner and the roof over my head, or due to the fact that I’ve booted up a new game and become intimidated by either the sheer flood of information or the fact that I can’t see the results of my actions through the information being presented to me. While Football Manager 2021 perhaps doesn’t remove the first problem, it goes a long way towards solving the second. There’s more feedback here than ever before, either through statistical information and (virtual football) player feedback or through being able to see the results of your actions in the updated match-day packages. Football Manager has always succeeded by creating a sense of ownership and investment, and these changes add a lot to the sensation that this virtual world is not only tangible, but that your actions have real results upon it. There could be criticisms levelled at the experience involving the length of time that it takes to get anywhere or complete a month, let alone a season, but if you’re fully invested, you won’t even care. Football Manager 2021 is yet another step forward for this illustrious franchise, and fans and newcomers alike should be excited for what the new season will bring.