Championship Manager: Season 00/01
|a game by||Sports Interactive Limited|
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There are few games that divide opinion as fiercely as Championship Manager. It's a game you either totally ignore or hopelessly lose your life to. There is no middle ground. Those who lovingly embrace it appreciate the emphatic attention to detail, the intuitive interface and the believable universe that it creates. But those who fail to grasp its subtleties scoffingly dismiss it as a glorified spreadsheet. They are, of course, wrong. Championship Manager is the greatest single reason for owning a PC, and we are within touching distance of the latest update. In fact, we've been playing the beta version for weeks, or at least those of us in the know have. The rest have probably been chasing trolls around a dark cave.
The annual Champ Man update has now become a fixture in the football calendar rivalled only by the start of the actual season. In fact, for many football fans, it provides a welcome respite from the reality of watching their team's early-season hopes fall apart in the harsh reality of a bleak English winter. By the time CM 2000 is released in mid-November, many clubs' ambitions will have been shattered on the rock of ineptitude, and the game offers a unique opportunity to enact how it could have been so different.
And that really is the crux of the Champ Man phenomenon. In the opinionated world of football supporters, everyone is a self-appointed expert, and CM lets you prove just how much of an expert you actually are. One of the game's co-founders, the elder Collyer brother, Paul, concurs: "It is like a world of football. You know football fans like to read Teletext, page 302, or if they've got Sky, 413, Skysports.com, whatever. It's giving people a chance to do that, but to have control over what happens. People love transfer rumours and stuff like that, they love it, they want to pick the team and you have people phoning up Richard Littlejohn or David Mellor and saying: The England team should be like this.' We've basically tapped into that enthusiasm."
Enthusiasm is nothing without application, though, and fortunately Championship Manager is a miracle of programming and design. As the younger Collyer, Oliver, says: "With Championship Manager, we create the football world and then just put the user into it rather than the other games, which build the world around the user. You know that you're on a par with everybody else."
So you're just part of the machine? "Exactly. Without you it would just quite happily carry on, and you're almost insignificant. And that's like real football, isn't it? As a manager you're just part of the big jigsaw. But there's also other peripheral stuff such as the user interface. Even though people generally say it looks like a spreadsheet, it looks really dull and uninteresting, I don't think any of the other games' user interfaces have come near the intuitiveness."
As Paul says: "It's like the Internet, isn't it? You can click on something that interests you. No one says the Internet looks like a spreadsheet, it looks as much like a spreadsheet as CM."
The Data Day
So we've established that it's great, but let's not lose sight of the fact that in real terms this is simply another update. We happily rip into EA Sports for bringing out the same game every six months, so why should CM be reprieved? Admittedly, it's only an annual update, but it's an update nevertheless. The game has a vast online following and home-made data updates are freely available, not least on PC cover disc. So why bring this one out, Paul?
"You bastard! Why bring it out? Because it's going to be better. The first thing is that, if you just edited the players, you'd still be starting in 1999 and that's not much use because it would get messed up anyway. It's another year of adding little bits and making it as perfect as we can. And it's only 20 quid, so it's not like we're taking the piss like FIFA. Both us and Eidos appreciate the fans and realise how much they contribute to the game's success. Because if you piss the fans off, then there's no point.''
Oliver agrees: "It's more than just a data update, there are refinements and stuff. And the one big reason is that people actually want it. People are quite happy and tell us that they want to spend, like, 20 quid on this version."
The price is certainly a valid point. Working within the games industry, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that people actually pay good money for this stuff, and being able to buy the best game of the year for half the going rate can only be a good thing.
"We do have these long discussions with Eidos," explains Oliver. "And they're pretty receptive to it - where we say we can't price this more than 20 quid, for example - and that's what we've been pushing for. It's good because over the years we've managed to get more power and they do listen to us, and we sort of say to them, you know, charge more than this and you are taking the piss. But, 20 quid, you work out how much time they're going to spend playing it, generally, and that price is absolutely nothing - completely good value. But it also makes it easy for new people to get into a game if they can go and buy a standalone version for 20 quid, like the latest version of Championship Manager. It helps broaden the game to other people. As far as whether somebody should just update the data, there are more features in it."
Popcorn Double Feature
There are certainly more features, and this seems as good a time as any to take a look at them. For starters, it will now be possible to play an astonishing 26 concurrent leagues, ten more than in the last version. As Oliver says: "We've added a whole load of new leagues, some sort of obscure and a bit contentious, others that were blatantly missing from the game." From the top, those new leagues comprise Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Poland, Croatia, Finland and Australia. The list in itself is impressive enough, but even more so when you consider the research that goes into each league. It's not just a case of having a flick through a foreign edition of Rothman's, there is a vast infrastructure of researchers in place. So how, for example, do they go about setting up a Croatian League?
'The first step is to talk to the research co-ordinator," says Oliver, "and he will then look on the database of people who've registered as being a potential researcher. He'll probably come up with about 20 people who have said they would be the Croatian researcher if we do that league. We then get in contact with those people and ask them to do some sample data to see how quickly they respond, and generally communicate with them over a few weeks. And if they're still up for it, then we choose the best one. We try and make sure they go to matches and that they're not just armchair fans, so we get people who are really into it. We've got about 50,000 people registered on our database and we know what teams they support, where they are, how many matches they go to, or claim to go to, what magazines they read and all this sort of stuff. So we can immediately identify a potential researcher from any country. We've got a team of nine or ten full-time researchers in every country we feature, which is now 26. We have a head researcher in each country and that person will be in touch with lots of sub-researchers. Ideally we try and get one for every team, so Immanuel in France will hopefully have contact with one person from each French club and then liaise with them. So it's a big structure." It certainly is, and one that has drawn interest from the real-life football community, something that the Collyers are currently keeping tight-lipped about.
More More More
Further improvements from last year include even more statistics, such as shots on target and pass completion ratios. For those either in the hunt for promotion, or haunted by relegation, a live league table can be viewed on match day, enabling you to plot your team's position as the goals fly in. Staff feedback has also been enhanced, and you can now request both coach and physio repons on individual players. Also, managers will be able to approach the Football Association to request the postponement of fixtures, and even to complain about the referee. A further area that was touched upon in the last version is the involvement of the all-pervasive media. This has been massively expanded upon, and as Oliver says: "It's an area of the game we wanted to simulate, the whole media involvement. And you will find that as you play it over time you build up a picture of some of your players, which you otherwise wouldn't have been able to work out. It's another feedback that you get."
Negotiations are also in place with actual journalists, and those who agree will have their names used in the game. By way of an example, Paul quips: "Harry Harris from The Minor says Gazza is past it."
He may well be, but Championship Manager certainly isn't. At the time of writing, the 99 version is still riding high in the charts, and it's a safe bet that this version will instantly replace it. If this doesn't go straight in at number one, then Gazza's not an overpaid pie-eater.
Download Championship Manager: Season 00/01
There have been scandalous suggestions within the pages of this rag that the sum total of my gaming achievements to date has been guiding Chester City to relegation in Championship Manager. Before starting this review, I would just like to refute this heinous rumour and expose its perpetrator as a liar. He's completely wrong, as I have in fact led them to glorious promotion. So eat it, Shoemaker. Besides, way before that I managed to complete Manic Miner five times in a row. And anyway, since when has gaming been about achievement? If anything, sitting in your smalls squinting at a monitor is the antithesis of achievement. Surely games are nothing more than an entertaining way of using up the hours of your life between doing proper stuff. Becoming a 50th level druid might make you feel like a man, but it's not really going to impress the girls, is it? So poke it, goblin boys, the Champ is back - and, amazingly, it's back early. Slippage is almost the norm in this haphazard business, and as such a game coming out on time is generally the exception rather than the rule. A game actually being released early is rarer than rocking horse shit. That's what's happened here, though, with this seasonal update being unleashed upon an unsuspecting public some two weeks ahead of schedule. It might not seem that big a deal in the greater scheme of things, but such is the fervour with which each incarnation is greeted that those two weeks will amount to thousands of lost hours, numerous petty arguments and a slew of lies and recriminations. Why? Because Championship Managers the most compulsive, addictive, debilitating game ever devised. Of course, devotees will already know this and won't be wasting precious minutes reading this superfluous review when there's a new version in the shops. Conversely, non-believers aren't going to be interested in hearing the truth and will probably have long since skimmed past this page in search of pictures of monsters. Which in theory leaves a grand total of no readers, offering scope for reams of garbled nonsense and undetected profanities.
This Is The Modern World
However, just in case there's anyone who's been walking around with their head up their arse for the last few years, or is being forced to read these words at gunpoint, we'd better explain what all the fuss is about. Championship Manager is a comprehensive football management simulation that recreates the day-to-day experiences of a manager in extraordinary detail. However, unlike lesser games, that does not include setting the price of tickets, stocking the club shop with key fobs and deciding what brand of hot dog to serve at half time. It might seem an obvious strategy, but Championship Manager has always been about decisions that affect the performance on the pitch. Armed with a vast army of researchers and developers, Sports Interactive has squeezed an entire world of football on to a shiny compact disc. To call Championship Manager the benchmark title of its genre doesn't really do it justice. It's so far ahead of the competition that it's simply unfair. That it manages this without recourse to 3D graphics is testament to its accuracy, design and depth.
Of course, to the PlayStation generation, a game without graphics is a contradiction in terms and a heinous aberration that many will be simply incapable of getting their frazzled heads around. It's been said before and it'll be said again, but the easiest explanation is that the imagination is far more powerful than any graphics card. If a further analogy is needed, consider how many graphics there are in a book. None at all, unless you're some kind of moron, yet this pioneering form of handheld entertainment is still apparently quite popular.
Through the medium of words and numbers, Championship Manager manages to create a wholly believable universe that sucks you in and keeps you there. Beginning a game is undeniably a daunting challenge, faced with endless banks of names and statistics. However, things soon begin to take shape, players' talents become apparent, and in time a mental picture of each member of your squad is created. Consider that this latest version features 26 leagues comprising some 50,000 players, managers and coaches, each with their own unique attributes, and you'll believe us when we say this game has some depth.
It's always amusing to read press releases of inferior management games, dismissing 'boring on-screen stats' in favour of their 'stunning graphics for maximum realism,' ie meaningless, unwatchable match action. The developers of Championship Manager are often accused of being anal in their attention to detail, which is a basically dismissive way of saying that they do things properly. Championship Managers a game made by people who care. By way of example, let's look at the opposite end of the spectrum. There's an apocryphal story that involves then editor Jeremy Wells and writer Patrick McCarthy being given a demonstration of EA Sports' latest risible cash-in licenced affair. Wishing to check the stats of his beloved Spurs, McCarthy asked to be shown the Tottenham Hotspur squad, at which point the Canadian in charge asked: "Is that in Scot-Laaand?" Forget it.
To Update Or Not To Update...
On the subject of EA, we gleefully mock them for hoodwinking the public by selling them the same game every six months, yet let's not forget that CM: Season 00/01 is actually a seasonal update, as the name might suggest. An unruly element has inevitably questioned why they should buy this when it's essentially the same game as last year. The simple answer is that they don't have to, they can simply sit at home counting their 20 quid over and over again. However, in not buying it, they would be missing out on a great deal. Because the game mirrors actual football so closely, it's essential to update it if a realistic representation of the modern game is to be maintained. These days, a week is a long time in football, so a year is almost harking back to a more innocent age. Transfer fees have continued to spiral, rule changes have been made and new competitions have been instigated, not to mention the thousands of changes in personnel. As well as covering all these eventualities, new gameplay elements have also been introduced, as despite their total dominance of the market, the Collyer brothers are showing no signs of complacency. Unlike EA's curious ploy of sometimes releasing worse versions of FIFA, the trend with Championship Manager is to continually improve it. As such, this stands accused of being the best version yet. Improvements include increased media involvement, with the intrusion of the press enabling you to build a better picture of players' abilities. Backroom staff can now also be consulted over a player's worth, helping you to decide whether to give him a new contract or show him the door. And in a further reflection of real-life antics, managers can approach the FA to request the postponement of fixtures and even complain about the referee. More functional stuff includes the advent of a live league table, enabling you to chart your team's position minute by minute, a vital aid in a relegation battle, as this reviewer knows only too well. And if you're not already satisfied with the incredible amount of statistics, player analysis can now be aided with information about shots on target and pass completion ratios.
And let's not forget that 20 quid is approximately half the going rate for a top of the range title. It seems odd to happily spend $300 on a new graphics card to add a bit of lens flare while you pounce around a futuristic world for 10 minutes, yet balk at shelling out $20 for a year's worth of entertainment. In fact, Champ Man is actually an investment that will save you money, given the number of evenings you'll spend in playing it rather than pissing it up the wall.
It's No Fun
Championship ManagervjlW always have its critics, though, and a recent poorly argued rant seemed to dismiss it because it wasn't fun'. That's hardly the most easily quantifiable constant although the dictionary describes it as 'pleasure, gaiety and merriment'. There's no doubting the pleasure at snaffling a late winner at some bleak northern outpost, although gaiety and merriment do tend to take a back seat. That said, judging by the haunted looks that proliferate Match Of The Day, being a football manager isn't necessarily a barrel of laughs, and it is this experience that the game recreates.
Ultimately, you get out of it what you put in, and every person's experience is different. Rather than playing as a generic character, you compete in the game as yourself, and must live or die by your decisions - even when you roll in pissed and blow your promotion. That a series of text messages can cause genuine panic and elation is testament to the game's colossal power. As is the fact that this review has been written in the midst of a glorious FA Cup run. Well, qualifying for the first round, anyway. How's that for an achievement?
There is probably no other series of games that has had as much input from its fevered players as I Championship Manager. It may be the Collyer brothers' baby, but thousands of people from around the world have had their say in the statistics, ensuring that the data is so accurate it's very near the real thing. As well as all die scouts, Sports Interactive is constantly soaking up the feedback and comments from fans and asking them what they would like to see in future versions. Cynics may bark at the incremental increases to what is essentially the same game, but they underestimate the impact all the small details have on the Champ Man experience. If you are anywhere near as fanatical about CM as we are, a quick look at the new features will make the 99/00 update you're playing at the moment seem like an empty school ground compared to the Maracana Stadium that November's version promises to be.
There are now no less than 26 leagues, all of which can run at the same time (provided you have enough memory, of course). The newcomers include: Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Poland, Croatia, Finland and Australia.
As well as full national sides you'll get the chance to coach B-teams and U-21s and, interestingly, you will be able to play a league using completely randomised fictional players. We don't really see the point of that ourselves, but we're sure many of you will.
The transfer system, interface and match engine will all be tweaked, and there will now be a live league table that changes during march day as goals are scored around the country.
One of the biggest improvements will be the media involvement, enhancing the feeling of being in a real alternate footballing universe. Newspapers will be more involved in spreading rumours and will approach you personally, so you'll have the chance to blame defeat on the ref. You can even take the matter further and complain to the FA about the officials. More importantly, the interaction with your own players will be much greater.
The game will ship with its own data editor and, although there's already a good one available on the Web, this should ensure that Sports Interactive doesn't delay the release date to keep up with the latest transfers. Of course, this is but the tip of the footballing iceberg and you can look forward to a full preview soon. As far as we're concerned, the sooner we can start playing this one the better.