FIFA 16: The Joy and Despair of Virtual Football Management

FIFA 16
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My name’s Dan and I’m addicted to computerised football.

No, really, I am. I’ve been playing video games for most of my life but I doubt I’d have spent half as much time playing them had somebody never had the bright idea of combining them with the sport I love more than any other.

If it was possible to tot up how many hours of my life I’ve wasted sleeping or sitting on the toilet, or how many cigarettes I’ve smoked, beers I’ve consumed or chips I’ve eaten during my lifetime, I doubt I’d be anywhere near as horrified as I would if I found out how many games of computerised football I’ve played.

And if there’s one game I fiend for more than any other, it’s the FIFA series. Sure, I’ve dabbled with Pro Evolution Soccer and other long since defunct titles, and I had to wean myself off Football Manager after it stole an entire school summer holiday from me one year, but I’ve been playing FIFA every year since the mid-90s and I’m not about to stop any time soon.

I appreciate there’s a lot to dislike about the FIFA franchise. For starters, the governing body from which it takes its name and licenses is one of the most corrupt and morally bankrupt institutions in the world. Meanwhile Electronic Arts, the company which makes it, is thought of as a greedy behemoth in the world of game developing and was recently voted the “worst company in America” two years on the spin.

But even putting all that stuff to one side, I realise FIFA hasn’t always been the best football game on the market. For many years it was all gloss and no substance; a boring, formulaic game which had all the right team names, players and kits but was about as enjoyable to play as a Tony Pulis team is to watch. On the other hand, Pro Evolution Soccer was (and still is) full of teams called things like Merseyside Red and players called Ryan Griggs but what it lacked in authenticity it made up for with fun, realistic gameplay.

Women in FIFA 16

FIFA eventually got its act together around seven or eight years ago and, until this year, was producing the undisputed best football game around. However, reviews of FIFA 16, the latest iteration, were somewhat mixed and critics and gamers alike were quick to declare that the new and improved Pro Evolution Soccer had once again surpassed its rival in the quest for footy simulation supremacy, for one season at least.

So why exactly does FIFA keep me coming back for more year after year? More than anything, it’s the Career Mode.

Every football game has its own version of Career Mode but FIFA’s is, in my eyes at least, the best. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the most authentic virtual football experience you’re likely to find at the moment and I’ve spent more time playing Career Mode than anything else. In fact, a couple of years ago I had a single career that lasted over 20 seasons meaning by the end of it, nearly all of the players left in the database didn’t actually exist in real life. I realised at that point it was probably time to knock it on the head and go outside for a bit.

This year, I decided I was going to immerse myself in Career Mode more than I’ve ever done before. For once I wouldn’t go straight for Manchester City, the team I support in real life, because why the hell would they employ someone like me as their manager when they could have someone of the calibre of Pep Guardiola instead?

No, for the sake of realism (and I appreciate this is still massively farfetched) I would begin my career as low as I possibly could in Football League 2 and would play on the highest possible difficulty level. It was going to be challenging, but I figured my team would improve at the same rate I would and it wouldn’t be long before I was working my way up the football pyramid.

My journey began at Portsmouth. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Pompey and sympathy for the financial meltdown which saw them plummet from being Premier League regulars and FA Cup winners to the fourth tier of English football. They’re also the lowest ranked team to have their real stadium in the game in honour of Simon Humber, the FIFA creative director and Portsmouth fan who sadly passed away last year.

Before I’d even got my feet under my imaginary new desk at Fratton Park I’d received an e-mail from the board advising me I’d be expected to gain automatic promotion from League 2 in my first season. A tough challenge, but one I was willing to accept.

FIFA 16

I didn’t make any new signings during my first transfer window, choosing instead to give every player in the initial squad an opportunity to prove their worth during my first few months in charge. I also decided to tinker with the game’s settings and increase the frequency of injuries for both my team and my opposition, which may seem like a crazy idea (especially as it often results in players being sidelined for up to seven months of the season) but I wanted it to be more realistic and to force me into being creative with my team selections.

As a byproduct of this decision, I was recently automatically awarded a 3-0 win over Morecambe because their squad was so decimated by injuries and suspensions they couldn’t even field 11 players and had to forfeit the match.

Despite meekly exiting all three of the domestic cup competitions I was involved in, my first half-season went reasonably well and when the January transfer window opened I was firmly entrenched in the play-off places. I’d been alternating between a 4-5-1 and a 4-4-2 formation depending on the opposition and though my counter-attacking style wasn’t producing a huge number of goals, I was defending well and picking up lots of 1-0 wins.

I’d managed to bring in the 28-year-old Bulgarian free agent Ivan Bandalovski (a right back who could also fill in at left back when required) outside of the transfer window (which you’re able to do for the very first time on FIFA 16) and when it opened again I decided further reinforcements were necessary.

One of the toughest things about managing a lower league team on FIFA is your transfer budget, or lack of. The board allocates an amount of money to you at the beginning of the season (£300,000 in my case) which covers both the transfer fee for an incoming player and their weekly wage (you’re allowed to make requests for more money but I’m yet to have even the most reasonable ones granted). If any of your current players ask for an improved contract during the season (many of them do and they really don’t like it when you ignore them) their wage increase and signing on fee must also be factored into your budget.

The game allows you to alter the ratio of how much of your budget is allocated to transfer fees and how much is for wages at any time but £300,000 is only really enough to buy one not-very-good player so if that’s all you’ve got to play with you’re better off scouring the list of free agents or taking young players on loan from bigger clubs. This is exactly what I did in my first proper transfer window, bringing in the talented Cameroonian striker Clinton N’Jie on a three-month loan from Tottenham Hotspur.

N’Jie’s raw pace and goal-scoring ability would be invaluable tools in my promotion push but some iffy results towards the end of the season resulted in me finishing 5th – outside the automatic promotion places but still in with a chance of going up via the play-offs.

I beat Luton Town over two-legs in the play-off semi-final and was on my way to Wembley to take on Notts County in the final. The game got off the worst possible start with Notts County taking an early lead but by half-time I was level thanks to a 25-yard Bandalovski screamer into the top corner.

Portsmouth FIFA 16

The rest of the match was a tense stalemate until, in injury time of extra time with a penalty shoot-out looming, Notts County scored and broke my heart. The season was over, I had failed to meet my promotion target and to make matters worse, my contract at Portsmouth was terminated with immediate effect.

Thankfully, several other League 2 clubs expressed an interest in my services and I plumped for Barnet. They’re a nice club in a nice part of London with a snazzy orange and black strip which Edgar Davids once wore. In addition to that, the board only expected a mid-table finish from me in my first season so it seemed like a nice place to quietly rebuild my reputation while hopefully proving that Portsmouth had been wrong to let me slip away.

Thanks to some clever wheeling and dealing in the transfer market (more loans and free transfers – I’m now in the third season of my career and I’m yet to pay a single fee for a player) and a high-pressing, attacking style of play, my first season with The Bees exceeded all expectations and I again finished 5th. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it as far as the play-off final this time around (and Portsmouth proved they were right to sack me by winning the league title) but the board still congratulated me on an “amazing” season and said they were looking forward to seeing what I could bring the following year.

But when targets were set for my second season, it was clear I’d become a victim of my own success. A couple of my key players from the previous season had retired and I’d been allocated an even smaller transfer budget than in my first season but the board expected me to go one step further this time around and gain automatic promotion. It was huge ask which I wasn’t sure I’d be able to answer.

On the Legendary difficulty setting the game can be extremely unforgiving at times and it sometimes feels as if the results are pre-determined before you’ve even kicked off (I’m pretty sure they aren’t, though). But for every match in which you batter the opposition for 90 minutes only for them to go down the other end and grab a jammy injury time winner from a corner, there’s another one where you win without even trying. I recently won a match 4-0 despite only registering one shot on target. Work that one out.

At the time of writing, things aren’t exactly going to plan. I had decent runs in both the Capital One and FA Cups before being knocked out by Premier League opposition and I’m through to the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy but I’ve had a lot of injuries to deal with and my league form has suffered. I’m at the exact half-way point in the season and I’m languishing in 12th place, eight points off the promotion spots.

It seems unlikely I’ll meet my promotion target and if history has taught me anything, that means I’ll probably be sacked at the end of the season. I’ll then probably have to start all over again at another League 2 club and the dream of being given the keys to the Etihad Stadium on merit slips further and further away.

Who’d be a manager?