Sega and Sports Interactive attempt to improve on last year’s celebrated iteration of Football Manager, but how have they managed for 2020?
This time last year we, like many others, declared Football Manager 2019 one of the best instalments in the long-running series. Big strides were taken, particularly in areas that had been neglected for too long, and the game felt as welcoming to new players as it was nourishing for those that have played the series for nigh-on two decades.
Getting a game so right brings with it challenges though. The brains at Sports Interactive have always strived to listen to community feedback and many of the annual improvements come directly from the back-and-forth with veteran members of their forums. It’s a dynamic that has worked well for years and ensures the game is rigorously tested by people who hold a deep passion for the series.
Critics routinely ask why the community are the ones charged with testing Football Manager whilst it’s in its beta state, but it’s understandable given the complexity of the game.
Football Manager 2020 is not an easy game to pick up and whizz through – at least not if you’re a micromanagement type who likes their fingerprints to be felt all over their club. If you’re after something more akin to the old Championship Managers then Football Manager Touch – which is also available for smartphones and Switch – will be more to your taste.
We, however, prefer to leave no stone unturned and that’s the reason that just getting through the first few days of a season can take hours. So what’s impressed us so far?
The Development Centre is the feature that will stand out most to players of the series – finally a tab housing everything you could possibly want to know about your young players. Youth development has always been at the core of the series and the thrill of being told you’ve been lucky enough to usher in a ‘golden generation’ never gets old.
It’s a smart move then, that Sports Interactive have introduced a news item giving you a vague appraisal of the youth team players heading into the club, without telling you their names or attributes. It makes the annual youth intake feel even more exciting than it already is. Smarter still is the dynamic date of the youth intake. Where once it was a fixed day for the entire nation, and truly a one-day-in-the-year event, now it moves and shifts. It not only makes the identity of your club feel more true to life, it means exploitative managers used to hoovering up the best talent on the same day every year may struggle to do so.
Beyond that, the Development Centre is a great place to keep tabs on everyone at the club not currently in your first team and from training to their individual development it’s easier than ever to give that five-star prospect the guidance they need.
We’re also big fans of the overview report which shows you the strength of your B and youth teams, highlighting the top performers, as well as the more detailed view of players your head of youth development believes can push into the first-team squad. It’s a simple yet effective way of keeping a keen eye on the progress being made in the academy, and the advice offered is usually on the money.
On top of that, the introduction of pathways in contract negotiations is a big step forward and again feels more true to life for a real football club. Now, when you sign a prospect, you can agree their squad status throughout the duration of their contract, year-by-year. This adds depth, which can of course be time-consuming, but if you value this approach to squad-building, you’ll be delighted with it.
And that leads us on to scouting, arguably the most important part of a football manager’s job, aside from results on the pitch. With a comprehensive scouting team you’ll be pushing your club in the right direction and unearthing hidden gems in no time, but there are a number of small changes that make scouting that bit more professional.
The ability to assign a scout to multiple regions or competitions at once is one of those changes that leaves you wondering why it took so long to implement, whilst little titbits in the inbox suggesting scouting a player again because their last report is getting old are really valuable changes. We’re also big fans of being told when a player has moved club, thus giving you the option to end your scouting assignment.
Club Vision is another addition to the franchise we have to highlight and one we immediately fell in love with. If, like us, you love a long-term save, this is an excellent way to tell your new board how you see the next five years going, whilst setting out the culture you want to instil during your time in charge. If you like to bring youth team players in from the academy, this is where you set out that particular aim.
Once that’s in place we found our own management style change somewhat. Every decision from day one was made with the club vision hanging over us. Sure, you can ignore it and go maverick but we felt closer ties to the board (a relationship that has never really been developed in the game) and more of an affinity with the club from the off. The importance of that cannot be underestimated either, particularly as the depth of the game swells and a proper pre-season begins to touch three or four hours of play. That’s a lot, and so anything to help bond you to your new club is a welcome move.
A lot of the above does draw into focus player interactions and this is something we’ve had a mixed experience with so far. We’re sure there are a complex set of rules that decides how players respond to your comments but it has felt a touch more random than past games. Why, for example, is a player pushing to start for our first team getting annoyed when we praise him for 10/10 week in training? Is it our managerial reputation? The fact we don’t speak the same language? Is he just a fool? It’s hard to discern sometimes but part of the experience of playing Football Manager is figuring this out as you go.
An overall theme this year has been the attempts to streamline the most tedious tasks. Whilst we’ve had the option to palm things off to the assistant manager in the past, with areas like press conferences and tunnel interviews, it never felt authentic enough. Whilst that’s still the case in that particular area, introducing technical directors and loan managers feels like a satisfying step in the right direction.
Now, instead of painstakingly clicking on 30 out-of-contract staff members each summer, you can delegate to your technical director. The same goes for players you want to loan out. Hire a competent loan manager and let him do the work. Loan reports and feedback are also vastly improved this year. These aren’t giant changes, and it’s not as though this didn’t exist in a different guise in Football Managers past, but it’s a quality of life adjustment packaged realistically to make your time with the game more enjoyable.
We said it last year and we’ll say it again. Press conferences. They need attention, they need to be completely reworked and a solution needs to be found to give them some life. There are barely any new additions to the text options (except for questions about VAR that seem to repeat) and the process already feels incredibly tedious. You can assign this to your assistant manager but that feels like a cop-out when we’re looking at a feature that feels unloved and untouched.
On a similar note, match commentary feels almost the same as the previous year, with the additional lines around VAR the only real standout inclusions. It feels like this is another area that could be reworked, but it also isn’t a major problem requiring immediate attention.
The match engine is a different story, such is its importance. Admittedly at the time of writing, the game is still in beta and the match engine is on its 16th iteration since the release on 31 October, but there are notable issues that have been pointed out across forums and social media.
We’ve grown frustrated at seeing two-versus-one attacks spoiled by shots from ridiculous angles and the reluctance of just about any wide player to cross the ball has been infuriating. The overvalued nature of long shots has led to stunning goals but seeing more of those succeed than well-taken one-on-one chances is arresting.
The caveat of course is that by full release Sports Interactive almost always have the match engine operating at a high level. It’s just that throughout the beta there have been numerous problems that have cast a shadow over Football Manager 2020 up to this point. Putting that to one side, as we find ourselves doing when reviewing the beta, the match engine is certainly on the right path.
One of the most consistent complaints people have with the series is how overwhelming it can be for new players and though that definitely still feels the case even for a veteran of the series, Sports Interactive should be praised for making their inductions even more detailed. The problem is there are so many layers to every element of Football Manager that full inductions would take forever and just aren’t worth it. It remains a game you need to learn as you play but the inductions will certainly help ease new players into the life of a football manager.
Football Manager 2020 feels grown-up. It made sizeable gains last year but hundreds of hours later Football Manager 2019 did feel like it lacked polish. This year though, the rough edges have been smoothed off and the number of additions designed to improve the user experience and get you through the more tedious aspects of management are genuinely impressive.
It all comes back to Sports Interactive’s approach to building this enormously successful franchise. They listen and they work on changes that will benefit their fanbase. Rarely do you find anything that isn’t serving the consumer. Look at the youth intake change. Sure, the first news item is aesthetic-only but it makes a huge difference to your immersion and that’s what Football Manager has always excelled at. Once they’ve got you, that’s usually it.
Of course the match engine is the main concern. It’s not ideal but players rarely start their ‘proper’ saves with the beta, largely because of how quickly a tactic can be rendered useless by match engine refinements.
This year will be no different. At the time of writing, players cross the ball more, one-on-ones are scored and long shots have been toned down (all of which, compared to the first iteration, is a big deal). It’s all part of the process of getting the match engine to a well-balanced state for the full release. Sports Interactive believe they’ve made that with the latest update and our experience of the new engine certainly backs that up.
A dependable match engine is vital for any budding managers, of course. Without something you can effectively analyse how can you be expected to counter the computer with your tactical tweaks and innovations? We like the additions to tactical and training set-ups. You can now devise schedules looking at pressing from the front or building from the back, and although team and player instructions have hardly changed (not that they needed to) you again feel more in control over the identity of your team.
Football Manager 2019 paved the way with a slew of notable changes but after two weeks with Football Manager 2020 we feel like another giant stride has been taken in the franchise. We know Football Manager owns this genre but to revolutionise year after year and create genuinely useful features, knowing that in reality people will buy the game anyway, is a testament to Sports Interactive. The studio prides itself on its relationship with the community and in many ways it should be seen as a joint effort to push Football Manager to where it is now.
Football Manager 2020 review summary
In Short: A sizeable improvement on last year’s already excellent game, with major changes and minor tweaks that will delight veteran players and encourage newcomers.
Pros: The Development Centre is one of the biggest and best additions in years, with plenty of other welcome quality-of-life additions. Inductions go some way to help new players get to grips with such a layered simulation.
Cons: Press conferences are still incredibly dull and some features, such as general training, can be overwhelming at first. 3D match engine still looks substandard for this generation of gaming.
Formats: PC (reviewed) and Stadia
Developer: Sports Interactive
Release Date: 19th November 2019
Age Rating: 3
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