Brexit is simulated in Football Manager 2017, and it's going to make the game harder than ever
Miles Jacobson is frank about what he is up against: “As far as I know this is the first time a computer game has tried to predict the future of a country.”
This would always have been a busy time of year for the man in charge of Sports Interactive, the makers of the phenomenally successful Football Manager series of videogames. A new instalment is released on 4 November, but the period leading up to the 2017 edition has been made particularly complicated by the biggest political decision taken in this country since the Second World War.
While the rest of the world waits to see how the government approaches the triggering of Article 50, Jacobson and his team have built a Brexit simulator into this year’s game, which models some of the consequences of the UK leaving Europe.
The world outside football is not something that had previously been incorporated into Football Manager, a game so comprehensive that some clubs are now using it as a resource to help scout players. But Brexit, says Jacobson, was too big to be left out: “We usually try and keep politics out of the game because nobody wants it rammed down their throat.
“But we were left with an interesting situation this year when the people of Britain voted to leave the EU and it wouldn’t have felt right to leave that out. It’s something we had to reflect in the game.
“So we sat down with the research guys and started to plan how we might put it in.” This was trickier job than expected. The consequences of leaving the EU for sport could be widespread and Jacobson has had to establish what exactly might happen.
“I always read the party manifestos before a general election,” he says. “Preparing for the Brexit aspect of the new game has taken a lot of research, too: a lot of reading, a lot of talking to politicians and people in football.”
It soon became obvious that the possible ramifications in football were almost endless, and also constantly changing.
“Of course, none of us know what will happen,” says Jacobson, “it changes on a daily basis.
“Six weeks ago I would have predicted a soft Brexit, but after the Conservative Party conference a hard Brexit is much more likely.
“We know Article 50 will be invoked before the end of March, but we don’t know how long negotiations are going to take. They could take two years but there could be a general election within that time. There are provisions that if a deal hasn’t been reached, negotiations could be extended or even scrapped.
“The first option for the game was to have just one scenario and that would be it, Brexit done, but it’s not possible to come out with one outcome and it won’t be until all the negotiations are done.
“As a result we’ve decided to go down another route, and have included every possible outcome in the game, using artificial intelligence and percentage chances to make every game different.”
In-game, players of Football Manager 2017 will be alerted at some point between two and 10 years in that trade negotiations have begun, and a year later a news bulletin will detail the extent of Brexit. There are three main scenarios:
- Soft Brexit - free movement of workers remains.
- Footballers are granted the same special exemptions that are currently given to ‘entertainers’. This means it is easier for them to obtain work permits than other people, and it will not have a huge impact on player movement from the EU.
- Hard Brexit: similar rules to those which currently apply to non-EU players are adopted for all non-UK players.
It is this third option that would see the biggest effect on gameplay.
“At the moment the rules for work permits for non-EU players uses a points system and we could see similar rules for all recruitment from outside the UK,” Jacobson says.
The points system makes it easier to obtain a work permit for a non-EU-based player if they are in the top 25 per cent of earners at a club or in a league, if they have a large transfer fee or if they play for a major international team. But applying hard Brexit-like rules would have serious implications on who would be eligible for a move into the Premier League.
“If we already had these rules in place, players such as N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet would not have been able to gain work permits to move to the Premier League,” says Jacobson. “That’s two of last season’s three best players.
“There is also the option that sees us adopt a system like Italy’s, where there is a limit on the number of non-EU players in each squad. The limit of non-UK players that British clubs are allowed could range from anything as high as 17 to as low as four.
“If you only had four non-UK players per squad, that’s going to make things difficult. All of a sudden Championship-quality players are moving into the Premier League to fill up slots. That could mean the overall quality drops, and that means the TV money goes down.
“Meanwhile, transfer fees go up: foreign players are worth more to British clubs because you need to make sure you make the most of those four slots, and the best British players become more valuable, and so more expensive, too.
“Footballers could decide against playing for their home nation because doing so could reduce their chances of ever making it to the Premier League. Newer nations such as Kosovo could suffer, with players holding out to become naturalised and play for a higher ranked country.
“There is even the outside chance that non-UK players could end up having to apply for work permits to remain in the UK the day after Brexit. It’s a tiny chance but it could happen in your game.”
Jacobson goes on to highlight further potential scenarios: referendums on independence could mean players from Scotland or Northern Ireland need a work permit to move to the UK and the Bosman ruling, which allows players to move for free at the end of their contracts, could be scrapped in the UK. Jacobson is keen to stress that these really are all possible within the new game.
Such depth is a far cry from the earlier incarnations of Football Manager. Sports Interactive was founded in 1994 by brothers Paul and Oliver Collyer, after the game was conceived and created in their bedroom “before they discovered girls in their teenage years”.
Jacobson got involved early, moving from a job in the music industry to the world of video games by swapping two Blur tickets for the chance to be a tester on one of the early games.
It has since developed into a phenomenon among fans who escape to a parallel universe where they can test their skills as a football manager. Jacobson describes it as “incredibly time-intensive”: the average player spends an astonishing 240 hours on the game every year.
The level of detail in the newer games is mind-boggling. Players are in control of all aspects of running a club, from conducting training sessions and negotiating staff contracts to signing players and attending press conferences.
It’s all underpinned by an unparalleled database of players, each with accurate ratings in more than 30 categories, from corner taking to agility. The game’s scouting network stretches to 1,300 people across 50 countries.
This level of realism has resulted in an extremely challenging game, which will be even harder this year once the simulated Brexit takes place. How does Jacobson feel about the potentially huge changes leaving the EU will have?
“I love the Premier League as it is,” he says. “I love seeing the best players in the world on a weekly basis.”
“If there is a limit on non-UK players in England, then that isn’t going to help the Premier League. English players are not of the same quality as top foreign players.”
Is there anything positive that could come out of this?
“From a British point of view it could be a positive. From a national team point of view it could be a positive. But from an overall perspective, it’s not a good thing for football in this country,” Jacobson says.
“If people think the outcome is bleak,” he shrugs, “this is what I believe could happen.”