The biggest new feature in Football Manager 2020 is a challenge mode tougher than any that have gone before it. It’s something so devious, and so punishing, that only the dedicated, experienced soccer boss (for my US droogs) has any right to take it on. It’s an iron-man game mode that developer, Sports Interactive, had no choice but to include. And the name of the beast is Bolton Wanderers.
It’s because of this I’ve been itching to get my hands on Football Manager 2020 since well before the start of the football season this year. That’s actually a bit of a rarity – I am an obsessive FM player, but it’s normally not until around October that I start losing interest in the career I’ve invested the previous year of my life playing and start looking to the next instalment.
The 1,107 hours of FM2019 – my beloved 20-year old regen wonderkid set to light up the 2036 European Championships for England, the Iranian brothers propping up the heart of my defence – all now like tears in the rain. Time to die. Because FM2020 is here and I need to rescue my beloved Bolton Wanderers from the depths of League One. It’s going to be a hell of a task.
By a weird twist of fate, this unintended Bolton challenge mode plays perfectly into the main theme of the latest version of Sports Interactive’s management juggernaut: player development. Football Manager 2020 is about molding the future talent of your football club; breeding golden generations of wonderkids using the tools and staff at your disposal, and not just trawling our list of FM20 Wonderkids for potential bargains in the transfer market.
For those not in the know, or who for some reason don’t care about the plight of third-tier British football, the real-world Bolton Wanderers football club went into administration last season. That meant it started off this season with a near-empty player list featuring only a geriatric groundsmen with a limp, an asthmatic greyhound called Will, and the acne-ridden youth development squad to pick a team from.
So it’s just as well for me that FM20 has such a focus on helping you make the most of the kids at your disposal. The new Development Centre feature is where your Head of Youth Development can guide you through which of the players in your under-23 and under-18 squads have the potential for greatness, or are maybe even ready to start being included in the first team. This is also where it will highlight those players you’ve previously had high hopes for, but maybe need just a little more attention to get the most out of them.
It builds on the work SI put in last season to better surface the advice of your backroom staff, and this time it makes your Head of Youth Development a more pivotal NPC in FM’s broad footballing RPG – arguably for the first time. Better make sure you hire the right one…
It’s incredibly useful for the lower league manager working on a shoestring budget, and working to create first-teamers and saleable assets from their youth squad. In previous iterations of FM you wouldn’t really know how the youth squad was developing in any real detail without spending a heap of time digging through stats screens and match reports from development matches. And who wants to really do that much spreadsheet research?
Now you can immediately see who is ready to make that step up, with graphs and everything, and see which names you need to keep in the back of your mind for future opportunities. It opens up a fresh area of the game a lot of FM players probably either hadn’t spent a lot of time working through, or just relied on that yearly note about which of the fresh influx of youthies was worth keeping an eye on.
Speaking of which… that whole recruitment process has been updated and extended too. In the run up to recruitment day it now allows you to better see what players might be coming through the youth candidate process, and which positions you can expect to see filled when the new kids come through. And again, all via the new Development Centre screens.
Keeping your first team squad happier is now a little easier, too. You know how grumpy overpaid teenagers get when they don’t get what they think they deserve, and now you’re better able to manage expectations with the proposed playing time feature. When you first offer a contract to a player you can detail how much playing time they can expect over time, whether they’re going straight into the first team, or are a youngster that will need a season or two to bed in first.
This also extends to your existing squad, showing a pathway in their player profile detailing current playing time, what you’ve promised them (and the ability to quickly change that), as well as what their expectations are for the next five matches. It will tell you how happy they are about the current situation, too. In the past few iterations managing the expectations of a player’s status in the team often meant having to promise squad players game time no matter how detrimental that might be to your results, lest they get uppity and sow the seeds of discontent among the playing staff.
The playing time pathway now gives you a way to nip that in the bud and make it clear exactly how much an individual can expect to be playing… and see exactly how much they expect to be playing too.
Elsewhere, the touted new features actually feel pretty lightweight. Once more, SI is surfacing more advice from your backroom staff, with your assistant manager now offering a suggested squad ahead of each match, and the new Loan Manager role able to feed back into the development of players by suggesting potential loanees.
There are also now more reasons for your board to sack you, too. Great. The new Club Vision provides a multi-season look at what the expectations are from your club’s board in a far more granular way than ever before. But failure to match up to their expectations might be detrimental to your continued employment.
At the moment I’m not 100% sold on how useful a feature it is, especially seeing as in the current review code it doesn’t seem that reliable. In my Bolton career, for example, the media predicted we’d finish bottom of the league, yet in my first season we just missed out on the playoffs by a few points, and would have nailed automatic promotion were it not for the 12-point deduction the team started the season with – y’know, because administration. Yet, the board was still rating my performance poorly despite the aim of the season being solely to avoid a relegation battle.
Despite these new features the core game, inevitably, feels practically identical to the last. The engaging youth development stuff aside, so much is the same as FM 2019. That’s no bad thing as it quickly developed into one of the best versions of the sim in the franchise’s history – but as is often the way with a yearly updated game series, this does still make it feel like something more akin to a game patch rather than a full-blown sequel.
It’s a perennial problem for Sports Interactive. You don’t want to throw the squealing infant out with the dirty soggy stuff, because you need to make sure the game still feels familiar and has all the good bits that people loved from the previous iteration. But you also need to make it feel fresh enough that no-one feels short-changed by having spent dosh on a full-price game.
The sad thing is that the new features list is always the thing used to sell the game afresh each year, but those still-familiar, newly designed static screens aren’t where the real meat of the football is played. They’re not where you’ll start to develop a real affinity with your players, watching them grow and become world beaters. The match engine is arguably the most important part of the game and rarely gets a mention, and I think this year’s iteration is already pretty fantastic.
I just wish it was used more outside of just matchday. Being able to see how your players might operate in training, using the ME, would give you a better insight into squad selection. But training hasn’t been touched since last year, where it had its own overhaul, and I’m positive it could benefit from having some ME magic filtered into it. That could make it a mini-game all of its own.
All that said, normally at this point in an FM release the match engine a terrible, buggy mess, and we have to wait for the pre-Christmas patch to sort out all the horrible madness the ME has foisted on us. There will be some Beta players still decrying it as such, I’m sure, but I’m totally sold on the way the current one feels. There’s a greater solidity to both it and the players, where they feel like they’re really jostling for the ball rather than simply getting tackled and immediately giving up because the maths tells them to.
And – finally – wing play seems to be rewarded rather than punished. In the previous game players would run into the channels and try and cross no matter if there was someone blocking the way, and they would do it over and over again. Now the little computer people will try and make space for a cross, battling against the fullback, or simply lay the ball off, recycle, and try again. It feels more like actual football, and the games play out more realistically as a result.
The match engine also makes it feel like you can have a genuine impact. If things aren’t going your way, you can make a tweak, counter something the opposition is doing, and maybe turn the tide. Though also sometimes maybe not, of course, but the upshot is that at least you seem to have an impact, for ill or good. There have been times where a Football Manager game hasn’t felt like that, where it’s felt like nothing you do matters, and you may as well just be watching pre-canned animations.
To be fair, those animations have also improved, but the touted graphical enhancements don’t really add up to a game much prettier than that we’ve already had. The player models have seemingly been enhanced, but honestly don’t look that different, and the create-your-own-manager stuff is still pretty horrific. It’s even given me a bit of a complex about my own appearance. Really, that’s how you see me, computer? After all the time we’ve spent together…
SI has tried to improve the match lighting system too, but so far the pre-release game has these weird, ghostly player shadows dancing around up in the stands if you look too closely. Fingers crossed that gets patched out around release, then. There’s also a little pitch deformation too, though the ‘dynamic’ patches of mud and water that appear on the grass as the games go on tend to look less like something turfside and more like someone’s got busy with the MSPaint spraycan. It’s depressingly like when Sensible Software added pixelated skidmarks to Sensible Soccer on the Amiga.
But the core game this year still plays well, and a season or so in I’m already ultra-invested in my main career in the way that only FM at its best can really grab me. It’s my kind of RPG, an endless one where failure is still progress, and where there’s always a chance to redeem yourself, to turn things around, or even just start anew within the same continually changing world.
Football Manager has always been about the things you take in with you – it’s not about those ‘spreadsheets,’ as non-believers call them, it’s about how you invest yourself in it and about the stories you create from the history you’re making. But with FM 2020 it has now grown to a new state where, with the evolving backroom interaction and development, it’s providing ever more tendrils that burrow into your brain and keep you rooted in the gameworld, all while you whisper ‘just one more match…’
It looks as much of an iterative update as any FM game, but the added finesse of the new match engine, and the extra depth to the club staffing dynamics and development, make this the best version of the game yet. Get past the overly familiar visuals and you’ll find more reasons to keep on managing.