The game is difficult to talk about. It’s up for interpretation, whether the midfielder put in a good performance because he provided the match-winning assist or a pretty poor one because he kept giving the ball away in the first half. It’s sometimes hard to figure what formation a team is playing—as Jonathan Wilson, surely an expert, lamented in the foreword to his nearly 400-page book about the history of tactics: “how far behind the main striker does the second striker have to play for 4-4-2 to become 4-4-1-1? And how advanced do the wide midfielders have to be for that to become a 4-2-3-1?”—which complicates the discussions about what they’re trying to accomplish and how. There are way too many players in way too many leagues to have an informed opinion about all or even most of them. And everyone’s got their ideas about the shape of soccer and what the action should look like, the difference between solid defensive organization and parking the bus, the role of the fullbacks, who’s a “big club” and who isn’t.
All of these complications can contribute to wonderful discussions about the sport, but in the moments when you don’t want to get into a protracted dialogue about what your affection for the double pivot means in relation to your religious upbringing, you long for clarity, which isn’t easy to find. You want to simply accept as fact that something is.
This is part of the appeal of videogames like like FIFA, PES, and Football Manager. While the actual soccer world is vast, fraught, and fluid, these titles create the illusion of a more legible universe. Marco Asensio’s dribbling rating is 87 and you know Manchester City play a 4-3-3 because that’s what it says on the tactics screen. This is of course only a representation of reality and aspects of it are obviously wrong—wait, hasn’t Alexis Sanchez been washed up for a while now?—but what the games lack in fidelity they make up for with firm definition and logic. Every attribute of every player is quantified. Transfer market values are actual numbers rather than vague notions. Teams move as if operated by the godhand of an ethereal manager. You tell the forward to press higher and he presses; he doesn’t have his own ideas about what he should do.
Football Manager in particular is rich with this satisfying minutiae. It’s sourced from the insights of some 1,300 talent evaluators in 51 countries, which lends it impressive scope. Many of the obscure nobodies you scout in the lower levels of Argentine soccer aren’t randomly generated—they are actual players, whom almost no one outside of Buenos Aires has ever heard of—and as you browse the staff page of your favorite club you discover facsimiles of real life technical coaches and physios. The attention to detail is immense and the amount of information that’s available to the player makes it easy to lose several afternoons playing it, scanning the globe for a left winger with precisely the traits that suit the counterattacking system you want to institute. You can build your own little footy Marwencol, out of versions of players and coaches that don’t really exist, but look a lot like people who do.
It’s not a problem by itself that Football Manager (and to a lesser extent, its console cousins) present the people who enjoy them with realistic-seeming fantasies, but what is essentially fan fiction has a tendency to bleed into the corporeal realm. Fans garner opinions on teams they don’t watch and high hopes for talents who can’t vote yet. There’s an established term, “FM Legend,” for teenagers who, over the course of a playthrough, become their generation’s Neymars and Kakas. FM’s scouts actually have a pretty solid track record of identifying these types of players, but it is not a little bit ridiculous how much is expected of some Brazilian 19-year-old just because a simulation has told people that, over the next five years, he’s going to develop into a starter for Barcelona.
And all these games, no matter how sophisticated, in the end present a reductive vision of the sport itself. Because, as much as it would sometimes be convenient to be able to do so, you can’t put a number to this stuff. There is no such thing as having a 19 in vision or a 71 in finishing. These are imperfect ways—averages, generalizations—of describing players’ strengths and weaknesses, which are themselves not always consistent from match-to-match, moment-to-moment. By the same token, the 4-4-2 is not a prescription. It’s a starting point, a shape that teams generally try to keep, but in the middle of the action, the players have minds of their own, wander into peculiar spaces, and create jazzy configurations that wouldn’t make much sense on a whiteboard.
This is a human impulse: anything that we can’t understand completely, we try to wrestle to the ground. Soccer videogames are an involving time-killer, but they are also an attempt to satisfy this impulse. We like order, we like certainty. What we also like, and what sports provide in spades, is novelty and surprise—flagrant illogic. Upsets, lousy players doing amazing things, passes that begin to unspool their genius only halfway through their trajectories.
You can jam sports into a spreadsheet, or turn it into a dumbed down version of itself which grants you way more control than any one person could ever possess. You can have a good deal of fun with this, but when you do, you’re not really engaging with its fundamental appeal. And you’re not moving through the real world. You’re interacting with its shadow, the outline sharply animate against the bright wall. You think it’s smiling, and perhaps you’re right, but who can be sure? The shadow has no face.