Simulated reality: How Football Manager developed one of MLS' foremost rules experts

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The Pirlo problem was a mere speed bump in a road filled with gaping potholes that Clark has to navigate each year.

Because Football Manager prides itself on its realism and commitment to authenticity, each new rule MLS adds means that not only does Clark have to learn the ins and outs of the mechanism, but someone at Sports Interactive needs to write the code to make it work. And because there are countless leagues that operate differently – and often more straightforward – than MLS, the league needs more work than any other.

You're not supposed to be here. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

You're not supposed to be here. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Clark follows every development in Major League Soccer’s evolution. He has to make sure that every roster fits together, that every MLS team stays under the salary cap and that every player’s salary matches up reasonably to what their real-life cap hit represents.

“We’re one of the only leagues where we have to be roster-compliant,” he said. “I spend almost as much time assuring the roster makes the cap as I do on the rest of the data. It’s something nobody else has to do.”

And that part of Clark’s incredibly detailed efforts is its most important. Rather than automatically adjusting or overlooking incongruous information, Football Manager will simply start dumping players from a team’s roster if it thinks it doesn’t fit. It’s just one symptom of the many ways MLS differs from more straightforward leagues.

“If they’re not compliant, the first thing everybody does is complain that they can’t proceed with the actual players who are on the real roster, which is a valid complaint,” Clark said. “It’s very much a square peg of knowing who’s on the roster and the round hole of that money not adding up to those guys being on the roster.”

Recent challenges for Clark include trying to make Football Manager understand that Canadian players count as domestics for Canadian MLS teams, and this year, the introduction of loanees as Designated Players threw a wrench into the whole system. Players like Houston’s Alberth Elis made no sense to the engine.

“We’ve explained the concept of Designated Players to the game – it has to be this much salary or this much transfer fee or a combination or whatever,” Clark said. “Then we say, ‘But this guy is a loan,’ and everything else just doesn’t work. It doesn’t know what salary it’s charging. … It just can’t accommodate it.”

Clark’s dedication to keeping the game accurate often translates into difficult work for the people who have to turn his enthusiasm into a functioning video game. Clark’s MLS knowledge dwarfs his knowledge of coding and video-game production, so he has to send his archives of information and meticulous notes to Sports Interactive’s coding team, who are tasked with implementing what he’s identified in a game that’s meant for an entirely different system.

“Everything I like about MLS that makes it unique and quirky and fun is what makes it hard to code,” he said. “A lot of the stuff just literally will not fit into the overall game code. There’s a lot of stuff we have to write line-by-line as exceptions, and I know literally nothing about code.”

"Players like Houston’s Alberth Elis made no sense to the engine." (John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports)

"Players like Houston’s Alberth Elis made no sense to the engine." (John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports)

And player additions like Pirlo or Henry aren’t the only times when coding becomes difficult. Sometimes a league mechanism or dollar amount simply won’t make sense to the engine, and the team either has to work around it or disregard it. Clark says he just has to pick his battles.

“There are sometimes when you just look at it and say, ‘This just doesn’t fit,’” he said.

Thanks to some new MLS transparency, Clark has some hope that MLS might be helping to make his job a bit easier.

When the league announced in January that it would begin disclosing amounts of targeted and general allocation money in trades between teams, Clark was thrilled.

“Disclosing GAM and TAM in transactions now is extremely helpful,” he said. “It’s made a big difference in giving us benchmarks for what are appropriate amounts to exchange hands between teams for a deal or exchanging players. And it’s helped me better track information for the starting finances of the teams and how much GAM and TAM they start with.”

But Clark isn’t holding his breath for any major changes to the league structure in his lifetime. And he knows that when he talks to other scouts around the world, they’ll still be laughing at the amount of work he has to do in comparison.

“It is, was and will always be harder than the other leagues,” he said.

Ultimately, for Clark, problems like loaned DPs or Canadian homegrowns aren’t really problems. While even Clark will admit it doesn’t make sense, he simply can’t avoid the fact that he really enjoys digging through the endless piles of MLS red tape to uncover how the whole process works.

“The whole thing is a labor of love – it really is,” he said. “I guess I have the right personality for it. I just can’t let it go.”

Though Clark dumps hundreds of hours into research each year, he still considers the gig “a paid hobby.” He still gets excited when he sees the beta version of each year’s edition, and he still watches Youtube channels of Football Manager players who post interesting long-term saves. He calls it a “guilty pleasure.”

“I’ve had so little time to play myself, I get my fix by watching other people play, which is all kinds of wrong,” he said.

But he’ll never approach his duties as just a fan or a hobbyist. Clark is fierce about his work, and he is unwilling to cut corners in his meticulous approach to his work. And for him, that’s simply what MLS deserves.

“I’m pretty demanding,” he said. “But I think it takes somebody who’s pretty demanding to fight in MLS’ corner.”

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