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Football Manager 2021: FM director Miles Jacobson on pandemics, politics – and which players to sign

Football Manager
(Image credit: Sports Interactive)

It’s Miles who asks the first question in our chat. “How’s home prison life treating you?” he asks FourFourTwo, as we're introducing ourselves.

“Can’t complain, how about you, Miles?” It’s then that FFT starts feeling incredibly lazy, indeed. 

As the studio director of Sports Interactive - the team behind the Football Manager series - Miles Jacobson OBE tells us how this year has been the most frantic yet for the game. They’ve increased the studio team by 20%, hiring 40 more people - 37 of which Miles hasn’t met yet. 

The team were changing the feature set up until August this year and FM21 features an array of new features such as recruitment meetings, gestures, quick chats and an improved matchday engine to stop players looking like they’re skating. All this, plus the game is only coming out two weeks later than usual - oh, and Miles has lost two stone over lockdown too, with an under-desk cycle that he uses while he’s working. He’s cycling while he’s talking to us.  

“Making games during a pandemic isn’t easy - that’s the thing that I’ve learned,” he assesses. “I think we’ve had that British bulldog spirit of nothing is going to stop us.”

FFT: So how much of COVID-19 is in the game?

Miles Jacobson: We started with COVID in the game and no one in the stadium. We then started looking at the data and saw our playtimes were going up. And then we started seeing messages from people saying that the game was helping them cope. I declared very early on in the pandemic that the biggest fear that I had was for people’s mental health. We are not used to being caged, as humans. 

Then we looked at what we were doing and thought, ‘Well if everyone wants this to be an escape, there are some things we have to do.’ The first thing we did was gave over our in-game advertising to mental health charities, so we have served over 100,000 adverts for mental health charities in the game so people are one click away from being able to get help. Football clubs do not have the money that they did; the transfer market has changed - so we had to rewrite the transfer system in the game to reflect that. So the decisions that we made were based on the areas that would be remiss if you weren’t fully realistic with them. 

I’m very hopeful that during the time that this game is out, we will have a vaccine and there will be enough vaccines for people. So by the end of this game’s selling period - which is this time next year - we might be in a different situation anyway. We’ve got to have hope, haven’t we?

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FFT: And then, of course, Brexit features in the game too… 

MJ: Ooh, yes [laughs]. This is a horrible vision for anyone - I sat on my sofa in my pants on weekend (after the referendum vote in 2016), trying to work out all the different parameters for football, for what could happen. I’d written a blog about it during the campaign on LinkedIn with some minor thoughts about what would happen if the same work permit system was being used for European players as was being used for Brazilian players. 

As a Watford fan, I was seeing that a bunch of our first team weren’t able to get work permits. N’Golo Kante wouldn’t have been able to get a work permit either. Riyad Mahrez as well. 

The list kept growing, of players, who qualified from their European passports but wouldn’t have got one otherwise. And I came up with a bunch of different scenarios - rather than trying to work out which one was going to happen, I spoke to a bunch of academics and I spoke to a few politicians as well. And what was clear was that was no consensus. So we put them all in the game! With different percentage chances of each happening.

Each year, we have changed the percentage chances. This year, thanks to leaks and thanks to a few people that we speak to in football regularly, we now know the basics of what’s going to be there. So the initial version of the game has those basics in.

I didn’t see a lot of planning (for post-Brexit regulations) going on in the last transfer window, though. There were a couple of clubs - Wolves are a good example, and Brighton - where they’ve gone off and bought some players who aren’t first team ready yet but who they wouldn’t have been able to buy if what we think is going to happen, ends up happening. That was incredibly smart of them. There were some other clubs - much bigger clubs - who you thought would’ve been doing that planning as well that haven’t. 

It’s quite fascinating how it’s going to change things and it’s definitely the case that there are some absolutely fantastic players who have come into the Premier League who wouldn’t qualify under the new system.

N'Golo Kante

(Image credit: PA Images)

FFT: Politics and pandemics aside, what’s your favourite new feature?

MJ: It’s actually impossible to pick one. And the reason for that - and it’s not just me being an arsehole! - is the game is actually more than a sum of all of its parts. 

So when we’re making Football Manager, as the director, my job is that I’ve got all this jigsaw puzzle pieces and I’ve got to put them all together. There are a bunch of features in there - I love the gestures system for the extra personality it gives the game. I love the new matchday stuff. Finally, we’ve got a version of xG that I don’t think is shit - so we’re able to use that, which is great. 

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And then you’ve got the agent availability stuff, where you can ask an agent where the player is interested in joining you or not. And the recruitment meetings! Individually those features don’t work unless all the other parts of it are there. The only thing really that really works by itself is the animation engine. But because the game is more than just a sum of its parts, my favourite thing for FM21 is how it all fits together. 

FFT: We’ve been loving the recruitment meetings at FourFourTwo - we’ve also got a physical notebook of transfer targets that we’ve taken to the virtual meetings… 

Miles: So you’ve got a notepad for that - whereas I have a notepad for what I want to see in Version 2 of the recruitment meetings! I agree with you that recruitment meetings are really good but there is so much more we can do in that area that we didn’t think of when we were first adding them in. 

We will be doing a lot more work on recruitment meetings in the future and making them an absolutely pivotal part of the game. At the moment, it’s something that you find useful, I find useful, some people will ignore them - I want to get those to a stage where they’re absolutely vital. I always want more. We as a studio always want to make the games better. The game developer’s dilemma is that we’re never ever happy with our work - the day that we are, that means we have no more ideas and should quit. 

FFT: Miles… are you good at Football Manager? Or do you, like us, feel like throwing your laptop out of the window after a defeat?

Tom (from Sports Interactive, also on the call): Yeah, he’s very good!

MJ: Basically we were doing the live stream and I had to duck out for an hour because I had another meeting. I came back in and Tom and Dom had somehow ruined Watford, which is the club that I support. We were doing particularly badly at half-time in a game that we should absolutely not have been losing and I did the thing that bosses do and said “I’m taking control of this team,” at half-time. Was it 3-1, we won, Tom?

Tom: Yeah, it was three goals in seven second-half minutes. I’ve had to go back to the drawing board for my own tactics!

MJ: If it had been any other team, I wouldn’t have got involved! 

FFT: You must have played more of the game than anyone else in the world.

MJ: I’ve worked on the game for 26 years - I kind of know how most of it works so I have a bit of an advantage! I don’t join in with network games. It’s kind of unfair if I do on one side but on the other, there are definitely people out there who are better at the game than me and I would be really embarrassed if I didn’t beat them. But I spend a lot of time playing the game. If I didn’t, I shouldn’t be making it anymore.

FFT: What’s your current save looking like?

MJ: So I’ve got my Watford career game and in my second season with Watford, we are seventh in the Premier League. And I’m on later code. I see it as a marathon, not a sprint - I’ve already got three players who, post-Brexit, can’t join me as they’re under 18. But once they’re 18, they’ll join and they’re three players who I hope will become the backbone for a Champions League-qualifying Watford team in two or three years’ time.

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FFT: Are you always Watford?

MJ: My career games are always Watford. 

Different people play the game in different ways. Some people like to take a club they don’t know anything about, build them up and have those full journeyman saves. I really enjoy playing as Watford. 

During the testing phase, I play as lots of different teams. I don’t get a build until a couple of months before release. During other test phases, I’ll be trying out all kinds of different leagues. I’ll also do a test where I don’t play the game - I just go five years, 10 years into the future, look at transfer figures, where the financial model is, looking for where the anomalies are. I shouldn’t still be doing that because we have a team to help do that - but I like looking at that for myself. 

Miles Jacobson

Miles (left) at The Football League Awards 2013 (Image credit: PA)

FFT: Do real-life managers ever ask you for tips?

MJ: Tips on the game? Or tips in real life?

FFT: …both? 

MJ: Managers, no, directors of football, yes. Directors of football will regularly ask us for data and I’m in touch with lots of them on a personal level. The access that we have to football clubs is pretty unrivalled. There are half a dozen clubs in Europe that if I phone them up on a Tuesday night and say, “Can I be at training tomorrow?” The answer will be yes. The team meeting feature in-game came about because I was able to go to a series of team meetings a club over a period of a few months. 

We have a series of talks in the studio too, where we bring people in and I interview them with some general questions and some questions about the features that are going to be in the game this year and next year. We’ve had Sean Dyche, Hungary’s assistant manager - who’s a really interesting guy - Giovanni Costantino. We’ve had Gretar Steinsson, who is Everton’s chief scout. So good, good names from the world of football. 

People in football want the game to be as accurate as possible because it helps them. And any football club that isn’t using our data, frankly, is stupid! Because you should be looking at data from as many sources as possible. I don’t think any club should be signing players just off the back of our data - they need to go and look at those players and look at other sources - but our research team have a 99% strike rate. So people would be crazy not to and that’s really where the consultation comes in. 

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Sean Dyche

(Image credit: PA Images)

FFT: We’ve all tweeted our clubs to tell them to sign someone - just because we signed them on FM… 

MJ: Yeah, which some managers like and some really don’t! There are some that have laughingly said, “Well we didn’t just sign him because he’s good in Football Manager!”

FFT: So finally, Miles, the most important question of all. We’re about to start a new save on FM21… who’s the one player we should sign this year?

MJ: It depends on the style of football you want to play, it depends on the level your club is at… the obvious answer if you’re a big club, is go and sign [Erling] Haaland and I could have told you that for the last four years. He is one that we were watching from a very early stage and our research has got him spot on. Haaland is going to score you a lot of goals, that’s not a surprise, right? 

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But there a few mistakes that people make when they play Football Manager. One is that they try to set up their favourite tactic even if they don’t have the players to fit it. And you should fit your tactics to the players that you’ve got - and over time, look to bring in players that fit your ideal tactic that you can then move across to.

Another thing that people don’t do is opposition instructions - and I caught Tom not doing this… setting up opposition instructions is really, really important. The third is that when you’re playing the game, this isn’t FIFA, this isn’t PES - they’re both great games - Football Manager is a marathon, not a sprint. The first player that you should sign in Football Manager is a player for the role that is weakest in your squad. It’s not Ultimate Team! You can’t adapt it in that way.

I think the player that most people are going to buy this year - for any team that isn’t in the top flight - is Jack Wilshere because he’s available on a free. We’re seeing that already. I was kind of hoping that he was going to get signed by a club before the game came out. So that we didn’t have the Wilshere scramble - but then I’m a hypocrite to criticise anyone for that because he was a pivotal part of my Watford team that got promoted in the first season! Mario Balotelli turned me down but Jack Wilshere said yes.

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