Pavel, 29, is a human rights activist on the front line in Brest, Belarus, a country ruled by the dictator Lukashenko since 1994. (Lukashenko last year won elections defined as "a farce" by opposition and the international community.) In an autocratic and isolated country, Pavel found in a video game the opportunity to be part of an international project and to interact with people from all over the world.
Pavel is one of the 1,300 volunteer researchers of Football Manager (FM), one of the best-selling management games in the world, where the player can manage every aspect of a football club and pursue a potentially endless career. The strength of FM is in its database: considering both players and staff (all existing people) there are almost 580,000 records. It's not just about names: each player has a profile with 14 technical, 14 mental and 8 physical values on a scale from 1 to 20; weight, height and career information with goals and appearances. In the game you can choose 118 leagues and each club is also accompanied by historical and financial information.
None of this would be possible without the work of Pavel and many other football fans around the world. Volunteers are agents, staff members of real football clubs, and sports journalists — but they're also employees, working professionals, and students. They follow one or multiple teams, attend games when they can, watch live matches, watch training sessions, read all the news about their clubs, study budgets, follow the players on social networks, and more before entering the game editor to update and fill in the data. For all this work, their only compensation is a copy of the game, which also contains their name in the credits. “I have to work two weeks in the summer and there’s a lot of work to do. During those hard work days you have to stay at home, don’t go anywhere, except for the urgent needs like exams at the university,” Pavel explains. But there’s always a bit of work to do, also during the rest of the year. During the winter transfer window, for example, there are many changes to do in the FM database. “In the other weeks of the year I live a normal life, but I always read football news, watch games and listen to podcasts,” Pavel adds.
A player profile on FM can also contain a “personal informations” tab. This is where a good researcher can be a real added-value: “If I read an interview where a player says he always liked Chelsea, for example, I add this information in his profile. It means that if in the game he receives many offers, including Chelsea, he would prefer to sign for them,” Pavel says.
The Football Manager database is so reliable that many football clubs, especially British ones (Sports Interactive, the manufacturer, is based in London) use it alongside their other tools to discover new talents. Researchers who've spent years entering data on the FM database have even been hired by real clubs. Olivier Zesiger now works for Lausanne and Jose Chieira for Sporting Club, the Portuguese club that launched Cristiano Ronaldo into professional football in the early 2000s.
FM researchers are addicted to the game with a love for precision that sometimes borders on fussiness. This is how some of them started to collaborate: reporting missing data, a wrong height, a 10 in "cross" that should have been at least 13. The developers in the studios from Sports Interactive and researchers in every corner of the world feel they have the same mission: to bring the game as close to reality as possible.
This is the way Pavel began his adventure in 2012. "I discovered FM the previous year, in which I was playing with a version translated by a fan because at the time there was not even a Russian translation. I attended a local forum of FM players and many, including me, complained about some inaccuracies. So the lead researcher asked us to lend a hand. I began to adjust the values of my local team, Dinamo Brest. My work was appreciated, so in the following season I was asked to follow 3-4 teams. In my country, it’s pretty easy to attend a match live because about half of the first division clubs are from Minsk or the Minsk region.”
But passion leads many to go beyond their tasks. Alberto Scotta, head researcher for Italy, is responsible for a database which, since the beginning of the Football Manager saga (the 1993-94 season when its name was Championship Manager) has accumulated nearly 120,000 records (the total figure exceeds one million). “Sports Interactive only asks us for data on professional clubs, which in Italy play in Serie A, B, and C. Here, however, some researchers have expanded the database with 4,000 more amateur teams. It is a monstrous job, coordinated by Massimo Todaro who I personally consider a hero. At that level it is much more difficult to collect information on a transfer or an expiring contract and personal contacts are very important. Sometimes it is the managers or the players themselves who help us fill in the forms," says Scotta. Although it is more sporadic, this can also happen with professional footballers: “I still remember that a few years ago Massimo Oddo and Fabio Grosso [Ed. note: two Italian world champions in 2006] phoned me to suggest some changes to their profile. At first I thought it was a joke, but it was really them and we also kept in touch," remembers Scotta.
In the lower leagues, researchers sometimes don't get anywhere; if there is no information, they leave the field empty so the software generates a random value in line with the level of the team and the league. Each head researcher establishes a cap, which cannot be overcome, to prevent, for example, that an enthusiastic researcher can insert an alter ego of Messi in the Indonesian database, or overstate the values of the Irish club Dundalk. In a low level league like Belarusian Vyšėjšaja Liha, for example, “you can’t set the finishing rating above 10 or 12 even if he’s the best striker who is able to score more than 15 goals in a season,” Pavel specifies.
Once the research work is finished at the end of September (the game is distributed at the end of November), the chief researchers do a general check and, if they see unrealistic peaks in values, make small corrections.
To get a better idea of the dedication of some FM fans: in the official version of the game, amateur leagues are not even available. To be able to play it you need to download special patches. It’s a tidbit for a selected niche of players.
“Researchers, especially in the lower leagues, often have an almost pathological passion for the team of their city. They know everything about the life of the club, they know every strength and weakness of the players,” says Matteo Zanini, Scotta's right arm. Zanini has direct experience of this "pathological passion" because he is also head researcher of San Marino, one of the smallest states in the world (33,000 inhabitants) within the Italian peninsula, whose national team has only won one game in its history against another microstate, Liechtenstein, in 2004. The San Marino championship is not present in the basic version of the game either.
Researchers also need to update the league rules since the COVID-19 crisis broke out. For example, the Champions League, many European leagues, and the American MLS allow 5 substitutions. This can be a real pain in the neck in the lower leagues, where failures and mergers between clubs can change play-off formulas and even the number of club contenders.
In addition to technical, mental and physical values, every FM footballer has two other hidden macro-parameters, known only to researchers and developers: current ability (a number that expresses how good the player is) and potential ability (the higher it is, the more likely the player is to get better in the future). Establishing the latter is a challenge for every researcher — like trying to read the future. “In this context it is very important to have contacts with the staff of the youth teams," explains Scotta, "who pass us invaluable information. For example: there is a 16-year-old boy who is considered an ace, but in the game he has a lower potential than other young players and a low value in ‘determination,’ because his coach confessed to us that he doesn't really want to train! If he’ll put his head straight, we will update the values in the next versions.”
The history of Football Manager is full of promising young players who become champs in the game but who, in real life, only made a mediocre career. But the game actually has anticipated reality many times. “It is the case of the defender Matthijs De Ligt: his Dutch colleagues had understood for years that he was very strong. If Juventus had bought him on the basis of the information already present in our database years before, perhaps they would have paid 5 million, not 75 to sign him!" Scotta jokes. The Brazilian database is one of the largest (48,000 records) and most crammed with young potential chaps. Although the game is not even sold in Brazil, the work is very intense. The head researcher, Paulo Freitas, coordinates 30 other researchers. When in Europe no one knew Neymar's name, the striker who now plays for PSG was already one of the first signings of any Football Manager player. “Recently the same happened with Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior, Locas Paquetá, Gabriel Jesus. A few years earlier our researchers had already identified Coutinho,” explains Freitas, who works as a journalist.
Pavel fights every day so that he and his country have a better future, with free elections and more freedom of opinion. He learned English mainly thanks to football and to Football Manager, because both the editor and the guidelines are only available in English. This is also why he is able to access the European and American media more easily than most of his compatriots, who mainly speak Russian and Belarusian as a second language.
“Even if the recent match-fixing scandals made me not want to follow Belarusian football anymore, working for Football Manager is still fun for me. And I hope my credit in the game will make my CV more interesting,” he concludes.