As the latest time-sucking edition of dugout simulator Football Manager is released, its long-serving gaffer Miles Jacobson is in a reflective mood.
It has been 18 months since his team, Sports Interactive, upped sticks from London’s Old Street and found a new home in the nascent complex of Here East in Stratford’s Olympic Park. Jacobson’s corner office - adorned with game consoles, football paraphernalia and a chair hewn of the shirt of Watford’s Troy Deeney - looks out over the greenery of the Queen Elizabeth Park. The Olympic stadium, now home to West Ham United, is just around the corner.
As any football team switching stadiums might tell you, a move to a new home can be fraught with danger, but this one has worked out better than Sports Interactive expected. Albeit with a certain caveat.
“It’s brilliant, but we’ve run out of space,” says Jacobson. “We’ve grown a lot quicker than we expected, so we are currently looking for more space in the same building. But it’s completely changed the way we work.
“I was still running the studio as though there were 30 of us, and we were a hundred. That's just not sustainable. And now we’re 160, so we’ve hired a lot of people in the past year.”
The Here East complex has been attracting more than just developers for Football Manager, however, with the old Olympic broadcast centre home to BT Sport, Bidstack and Ford. Staffordshire University has opened its digital institute, with a fully functional esports arena, in the building.
At Sports Interactive, it has allowed the team to grow and restructure, with COO Matt Carroll joining from Disney and a clutch of promotions within the studio to organise specific aspects of the game.
“We needed a different creative vibe,” says Jacobson. “And I know it sounds weird, but I don’t think any of this stuff would have happened if we hadn’t moved to this office.”
This expansion of the office has allowed the team to expand on its game. Football Manager, like many annual sporting video games, often comes under fire for only incremental updates. Jacobson says the team is now getting "more ambitious", reflected in a successful "soft reboot" in the form of Football Manager 2019.
With a relatively significant rework last year, in times past it would mean a year of consolidation for the game. But Football Manager 2020 has its own notable additions, the game bolstered for long-term players that get sucked into their alternate football reality. New "club vision" and expanded youth development means that, much like in the modern game, success isn’t just based on results on the pitch, but on philosophy and improvement.
Play as Arsenal and you will, of course, be expected to aim for Champions League football. Choose Watford and you will be judged just as much on signing and developing young talent before selling them on for a profit… all while competing to be "best of the rest" in the Premier League. Overachieve, however, and your goals may change in order to keep things interesting.
“In one of the test games I've had I did incredibly well in my first season with Watford and I thought: this is brilliant,” Jacobson says. “I was meant to finish top half, and I've made the Champions League spots. The next year my club vision, it changed, I'm expected to get in the Champions League every season. And you're like: 'Oh, crap, I should have finished fifth and got in the Europa, then it would have been easier.' And then Brexit came along and stomped all over me.”
Indeed, Football Manager made headlines in 2016 when it became the first video game to "simulate" Brexit. In the game’s universe, a host of different Brexit scenarios were conjured which would affect the footballing world in different ways.
But whether it was strict work permits for all foreign players or a more lenient system, in almost every case the process was dealt with far more swiftly, and with apparently more competence, than in reality. A fact that continues to trouble both the football and business world.
“I know you're not allowed to say you just want Brexit done,” says Jacobson. “But I just want it done. It is difficult for businesses to be able to plan when they don't know what is going on. And in a football sense, until it's definitely happening, it's going to be difficult to get some kind of agreement between the different people in football of what is going to happen post-Brexit.
“The football industry will go to the Home Office and the Treasury and go: 'This is what we need post-Brexit.' And they will come back and say: 'This is what you can have post-Brexit.' That's the way these things work. And no-one will get everything that they're asking for; it's just not going to happen.”
He pauses, before adding with a smile: “And it would be nice to get it sorted so I didn't keep getting asked questions about how Brexit works in game.”
For now, though, even with the uncertainty hanging over British business, Sports Interactive are looking in full fitness.
In July, Jacobson revealed that Football Manager 2019 had cleared sales of 2 million units; the first time that an annual release had done so on its own. And the company continues to leverage its vast scouting network and database, selling data on to football clubs and betting companies.
But the game remains the priority, with a new home and formation adding to a rich vein of form.
“It's definitely helping the game,” says Jacobson. “I've been making it for 25 years now. Like most legacy rock acts, we could just be releasing any old rubbish just to be able to go on tour again. But we can’t go on tour.
"We have to make sure that every game is great and better than the last one.”
- Football Manager 2020 is out now for PC, iOS and Google Stadia