Miles Jacobson on 20 years of virtual management

Grilling the SI gaffer on the Football Manager phenomenon

2014 has been a banner year for Miles Jacobson, OBE. Sports Interactive's 'gaffer' recently celebrated two decades at the studio, during which time Football Manager has become one of the world's most popular simulations, selling 20 million copies worldwide. Recently, SI signed an unprecedented partnership with sports performance analysts Prozone, with the game's astonishingly detailed database of player information set to be incorporated into Prozone Recruiter, a global platform designed to be used by real-world professional football clubs to identify and recruit players. We caught up with Jacobson to discuss the deal, his time at SI, and what the future might hold for the best football management simulation around.

Firstly, congratulations on 20 years at Sports Interactive. Can you tell us a little bit about how your journey started?

At the time I was working in the music industry and two people at Domark wanted to go and see a band I was working with play live - so I swapped two tickets to the gig to be an alpha tester on Championship Manager 2, sending in bug reports via fax. From there I got to know Ov & Paul Collyer, and started doing some research for the game on top of testing. I also did some data updates that I used to publish online - before online was really a thing - and started helping out on the business side which Ov & Paul had no interest in. And over a very organic eight years, I ended up becoming MD - all whilst continuing to work in the music industry. Once I gave that up, I started getting more creative, so I now direct one of our games, and executive produce the others, as well as running the studio. Kind of like a showrunner would do on TV shows.

What would you say has been your proudest achievement during your time at SI?

Keeping the team together, especially when we stopped working on our previous brand and moved across to FM. There are lots of us who've been working together a very long time now and that consistency in the team has led to consistency in what we deliver.

"Overall, we make the game for us – it's made by football fans for football fans."

FM13 was the biggest-selling game in the series to date, while FM14 broke records for the most weeks at number one. A lot of long-running franchises run out of steam, but FM seems to go from strength to strength. How do you explain its continuing growth?

By keeping the team together and expanding our reach – FM13 & 14 both had an extra game mode in Classic which got more people into the game & some lapsed players back. FM Handheld is also doing really well – we've actually doubled our annual sales base since five years ago. But overall, we make the game for us – it's made by football fans for football fans. And there are a lot of those around. We hope to keep on delivering each year for the people who spend so much of their leisure time playing, mainly so that we don't have to go and get proper jobs.

Have you noticed any changes in the audience for the game over the years, any shifts in demographics?

With Football Manager Handheld it's got younger. With Classic, it's a bit older. But it's always been quite broad – I get lots of stories from people who are playing FM in their retirement! With [Football Manager Online] we aim to be one of the few Western developers to make a game that appeals to the Asian audience too – that's hopefully coming out later this year.

There have been some major changes in football in the past two decades. What would you say has been the most significant change, and which elements have been the most challenging for you to implement in FM?

The financial aspect has probably been both the biggest and most challenging – especially now Financial Fair Play has come in. Whether that be the transfer system, contracts or general finances – balancing that for 51 different countries, all with different models, is tough. Pretty much everything is a challenge – but we like challenges, so it's all good!

Football Manager has always striven for authenticity, but was there a specific point where you decided it needed to be as close to the real thing as possible, or has it been a more gradual process?

Ov & Paul's original concept was to create a football world. One where it was the same world for both humans and AI-controlled managers. Every manager in the game lives. That's still the concept now.

Naturally, you do get some players who complain that it's not quite as simple or accessible as it used to be. Has Classic mode managed to get those players back on board, or is there more work to be done in that regard? Would you consider making an even simpler version if demand was there?

Classic has definitely helped with that, as has Handheld, which is an even simpler version. They've also both opened up new audiences - and were deliberately made to do that. Lots of others have tried to go head-to-head with FM, but few have come along with a simpler offering, and they might have done better if they had tried that. Platforms are also important though – the games have to be right for the platforms they are being made on.

The Prozone Recruiter deal is a fantastic accomplishment. Does that, perhaps more than anything else, validate everything you've worked for over the past 20 years?

For the last few years we haven't really seen ourselves as just a "games" company. Our games are also football products. The Prozone deal is a validation of that, but it's not something that's been done overnight. We've been working with [match analysis service] Amisco and Prozone - they merged during the conversations - for a couple of years to get to this point. That people inside football want to work with us does show how far we've come – life imitating art, and all that.

You've got a wide network of scouts who keep you appraised of promising players at lesser-known clubs and the like. How are you able to gauge the quality of their recommendations?

We have 1,300+ scouts around the world. They work to stringent guidelines - around 250 pages' worth – and then their work is checked by our 50+ head researchers. This then goes into the main database, where we have lots of automated checks that spew out anything that might look strange – which are then discussed internally and amongst our head researchers. Then we test it all pretty thoroughly. It's rare nowadays that anything gets through that shouldn't.

Football Manager Online is a collaborative effort between SI and Korean internet portal company KTH Allstar. It will launch this December in Korea before expanding to other Asian markets.

Most FM managers remember a player or players who really did the business for them. Do you have a personal favourite FM player from any of the games?

My favourite players tend to be 'newgens' [randomly generated players that the game replaces retired footballers with]. There was a particular goalkeeper called Darren where I couldn't end the save until he decided to retire – he was my first team 'keeper from 19 years old till he retired at 38. And he got over 120 caps for England, too.

Finally, where do you see the future of Football Manager? Is it a case of forging even closer ties with the real sport? Or just continuing to be the most authentic simulation possible?

Both and more – with the four different flavours of FM we'll hopefully continue to be the most authentic simulation, but also have a different style of simulation in Football Manager Online. There will definitely be closer ties with the real sport both on a studio and personal level – we might be over 20 years old now as a company and I may have been here for 20 years, but we're only just beginning.