What is it? The 30th edition of the monolithic football management sim that loves to eat up your time.
Expect to pay £45/$60
Developer Sports interactive
Judged by Windows 10, Ryzen 5 3600, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce3060 Ti; and 2021 Macbook Pro, Apple M1 chip, 16 GB RAM
Clutch Official site (opens in new tab)
Playing Football Manager makes me a better and more knowledgeable football fan. I don’t get to know the names and trajectories of rising prodigies anywhere else, and I sound cultured when I can tell my friends about a promising new player from the Austrian league. There’s a big wide world, beyond the Premier League, full of talent ripe for the pluck.
In Football Manager 2023, that’s never been truer, and if you’re a fan of playing around with virtual spreadsheets and trying to get your little hometown football club into the Champions League, then there’s nothing better.
I spent 18 years trying to do just that. Football Manager 2023’s ultra-realism allows me to unsubscribe from my work emails at 5pm and my fantasy emails at 6pm. An army of researchers is working to make the player database as lifelike as possible, so that learning the game translates directly into real football knowledge in a way no other sports simulator does. And, like all the other iterations that have come before, I’m totally hooked.
In Football Manager 2023 I am a manager, but I am also so much more than that. I’m the head coach, finance director, football director, an entire HR department and media relations. I think Jose Mourinho actually works less than I do in Football Manager. The micromanagement can be done your way: I can spend 25 hours on recruiting, scouting, tactical setup, and optimizing training schedules, or I can delegate most of that to the backroom staff and get through the first preseason smoothly by just the handle recruitment.
The problem with all this?
It’s really overwhelming and the experience feels almost identical to Football Manager 2022.
It also resembles FM22. I started with 2D on FM05 and the 3D engine has been bumping along since its introduction and looks like an iPhone game. FM fans don’t play FM for the graphics, but FIFA 23 isn’t. The sound is also something that has not progressed in my opinion. It’s very different from what a match day sounds like: the booming crowd is so inaccurate it’s unbearable. A slice of audio excitement arrives with the new UEFA-licensed Champions League song. Mute until eligible, unmute for one game, return to mute.
There is a term in the community: “you’ve been FM’d”. Whatever you do, the RNG will give you better stats in terms of performance, but will make you lose the game. But this often happens in real football too – take Leicester winning the Premier League for example. The anger caused by this will never go away. The biggest match engine overhaul this year is that the AI manager is smarter and will change his tactics during the game. Something that makes the game more difficult, and sometimes even more rage-inducing.
The match engine is a mature beast and while changes occur year after year, the limited number of animations in the 3D engine makes for very little variation from game to game. I get the same stupid red card when my midfielder hacks down an attacker with two feet from behind once or twice a season. It still feels like football though, and your players react from the sidelines to every change you make, for better or for worse.
Tactically, new defense systems have made blocking and form even smarter, especially when I’m playing with my favorite fullback with five defenders. New options have appeared for offside traps, aggressive transition play and defensive width on crosses. This is great for players like me who bring in five great new forwards each season and leave the defense worn out.
But set pieces still feel like a lottery, and I’ve always found that messing with things like corner routines leads to more misses than goals, so I leave them on default. To save me from downloading a broken corner routine from the Steam Workshop, I’d like to be able to hire a set-piece expert and have them draft what’s best for my team.
I signed for my club, Coventry City, where I have been desperately trying to keep our core of young talent together. I am basically preventing them from continuing their career and selfishly trying to get them to fire the club to the top. By the time I get to a really competitive game — you know, the bits that really test marriages — I’m a few hours into it and have several new players to parade in front of the media. Let’s face it, the 24-hour news culture around global football revolves around transfers – and it’s also my favorite part of FM23.
First I have to check out the new selection planner, but even that has its teething problems. I love a free transfer and trialists are missing from the latest analysis of the squad, so I don’t have a staff to tell me if these players are better than my current crop. I’ve done it myself, but putting four extra clicks into something I used to see in one view is frustrating. Where the team planner has helped recruiting is the experience matrix: a one-pager on the spread of age and skill level within my team. It’s useful to see where I have gaps in a few seasons when experienced players leave, with no development or up and coming players. It certainly saves panic buying expensive players at their peak.
Then, every transfer window, my chief scout calls me to recruitment meetings to tell me where I’m going right or wrong. Sports Interactive has changed these to better reflect what’s happening in the football world, but I feel like the extra ‘conversation’ and changes that come with recruiting focuses have made this an even longer process.
I’ll miss the FM22 meetings that went something like “Here, Alex, look at these great players in positions we’re short on. Please consider buying some.”
A new dynamic timeline is a seemingly minor integration, but it jolts memory when you’re years deep in long-term storage. The fun and addictiveness of Football Manager come with the stories you make up in your mind about cup finals won, sparklers unearthed and written legacies. To this day I remember the joy a new generation of Dutch central midfielder gave me as I raised him through the academy to become a treble-winning international (Niek Smith, I miss you).
Choose your own adventure
If you pick a club you know, it’s fairly easy to get in, but the exotic football manager takes an extensive database and dives into the unknown. The size of your database determines the depth of the game and how far you can go. Choose a size from small, medium or large, or select more leagues and players to import in the advanced database settings. A bigger database with more players equals more bargains to discover – don’t forget to load South America. Technically, the game is lightweight, so most PCs can easily run these thick advanced databases. I also play on my Macbook, because a transfer window in January is the best companion in trains and planes.
Over time, mods will come to introduce even more playable leagues into deeper parts of the football pyramid system. The Football Manager modding community usually has a fix for things like the real names, along with missing badges, kits and player faces on day one. These add a little extra immersion that’s missing with blank faces and generic badges, and are especially useful if you don’t know who the team you’re running is. There’s a slew of FM players who end up supporting the random foreign clubs they run during the game, buy shirts or even fly overseas to watch ‘their team’.
No other sports game offers a wider range of challenges that you can set for yourself, playing your own way using only your imagination. Play a rags to riches, knock one of the big boys off their bat or just try to dominate the league for a generation with your favorite team.
If you need to save scum to improve results and achieve a 100 match winning streak, you will. Should you sell your kneeless 36-year-old non-league striker to Real Madrid for £100 million? Secure. I have no problem with a member of the community having to do this to get their kicks. I did it when I was younger, but I don’t get the satisfaction from it anymore.
New fans get the ultimate football management/strategy/sim, but may find all the bells and whistles quite intimidating. Seasoned Football Manager executives won’t feel the revolution of the game they played last year, but they’ll play it anyway. See also: all sports games that appear annually.
There are introductions at the beginning of each save that try to make FM easier to use for beginners, but if you want to get the hang of the game you can try the Xbox edition, which returns to PC via Game Pass. Think of it as the Touch version of the game, which is now an Apple Arcade and Nintendo Switch exclusive. It’s a bit like the original Championship Manager 01/02: you have tactics, transfers and games at your fingertips. It serves as a great introduction to FM, before going into the ‘full’ version footballingly deep.
Despite the fact that the latest version of Football Manager has fueled my management addiction, I can’t help feeling that Football Manager 24 needs to add something a little more drastic to stay relevant. Years of technical debt and the bottleneck of an annual release prevent the Sports Interactive team from delivering another era of their bestseller, and it could threaten the game in the long run.
What form this revolution will come in is anyone’s guess, but since they’re working on women’s soccer in the background, they may have an ace up their sleeve that will ensure future installments kick off with a bang.