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How to build and rebuild a brand: Football Manager’s 20-year route to the top

Miles Jacobson, studio director of Sports Interactive (SI), oversaw one of the most challenging rebrands in gaming history when SI ceded the Championship Manager brand to Eidos and built spiritual successor Football Manager. He reflects on 17 years of shaping a brand out of the ashes of its predecessor, and on shaping football, too.

As video games go, Football Manager is a niche title. For the uninitiated, the game allows players to step into the tracksuit of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer or the waistcoat of Gareth Southgate, taking their team of choice to the top of the world’s most popular sport.

But it’s long enjoyed a dominant position in that niche – and in recent years, has occupied a position in the dugout of football fan culture. As such, there’s lessons for marketers, in its ascendance to category leader at the expense of a close rival, and in how established media properties can keep innovating and evolving while taking their fans with them.

The game had an inauspicious beginning. Its predecessor, Championship Manager, launched in 1992, the pet project of two brothers in a bedroom. Eager to get his hands on the sequel, Miles Jacobson traded Blur tickets for an advance copy. Later, he playtested his way into a job as an unofficial business advisor then managing director of Sports Interactive (SI), the company founded around it. As the team swelled, it became a more professional outfit, building an early online community through what Jacobson called “word of mouse“, and he eventually rose to become studio manager.

Then in the 2003/04 football season, one of “gaming’s most notorious splits“ occurred between SI and publishers Eidos. The resulting cataclysm threatened to kill the football management sim as we know it. In the divorce, publisher Eidos kept the Championship Manager name. SI kept the game-engine, the dev team and soon – the community. They just needed a new name.

“We were very surprised that Football Manager was available – it was our lawyer that first suggested it. We just assumed it wouldn‘t be available and went through hundreds of shit names,“ says Jacobson.

In the end, the firm secured the name for a couple of thousand pounds. “At the time it was the most expensive thing I‘ve ever bought, but it was definitely worth every single penny because as Ronseal names go, it does exactly what it says on the tin.“

Football Manager rose from the ashes and in competition with Championship Manager. Jacobson describes a war between two brands for a single audience.

“We did a lot of clever things, we retained the code and the database and the people who made the game. We’d been building our community since 1996. We were hiring our most hardcore fans.“

“Eidos agreed that we could use on an A4 poster ‘from the creators of Championship Manager in a 12 point type’.“

Font size is, of course, relative to the size of the poster, so SI blew the budget on “loads of“ 64-sheet billboards just to get that point across. Football Manager was still being sold on the Championship Manager brand even after the split.

“We let the internet do a lot of the job for us,“ but he recalls that on-side retailers also did their bit. HMV plastered every copy of the game with a sticker bearing the legend: ‘You know it‘s Champ Man‘.

These days, we tend to forget Eidos‘ attempts to recreate the magic of Championship Manager, and the FM series is now so long-lived that new audiences will never know what ferocious fixture was won in the first place.

The present season

Football is now a different beast than it was in 1992. For one, many playing the sport are gamers themselves, whether sports simulations such as Fifa, or management sims such as FM.

Jacobson says: “People who started using the internet as teens are different from those that grew up with mobiles. Audiences have now grown up with Spotify and Netflix; they see consumption as the norm, rather than ownership.“

Now, the ubiquity of Football Manager is assured. “We‘ve got 95% brand awareness in the UK among16 to 24-year-old males and 17 BAFTA games nominations,“ says Jacobson.

But its marketing efforts are skewing younger for the 2021 edition. In Fifa, young audiences are gravitating around spreadsheet-like screens to optimise ‘Ultimate Teams‘ built with its much-maligned loot box mechanics. Even the arcade-like representations of football are now training fans in management and tactics. Clearly there‘s an audience for FM beyond its core fans.

“Now we‘re marketing to people globally, and it‘s a global strategy. It used to be a country-by-country basis.“

Jacobson sees three audiences available to SI. There‘s the hardcore that will invest 400 hours into each edition and play with the deepest mechanics; they buy it every year and fill forums with highly technical complaints and fixes. Next, there‘s the mid-core who might notch up around 100 hours. They might pick up the title every two or three years. And then there are new users, who need all the basics explained to them.

Jacobson looks to deliver the right creative to the right audience. The proliferation of digital advertising has made this easier, regardless of where they are in the world. Footballers also want to be involved with the game themselves. Fifa‘s latest campaign is built around influencing, and Football Manager will have components of that – minus the budget.

“We don‘t tend to pay people to do content [although SI does work with influencer agency Goat, on occasion]. There are a lot of brands out there who spend a lot of money to get footballers to endorse the game – we give out free copies instead.“

Jacobson personally handles a VIP database. “The list started with about 20 footballers, now it has more than 2,500 footballers at every level from Ballon d‘Or nominees down to non-league youth players,“ he says.

There‘s one rule – players have to contact him using their real email addresses. From there, they‘re informed on how to get early copies, and if they want, they can use the official hashtag. It‘s an informal arrangement but it seems to be working.

At Swansea FC, it is the kitman who hooks players up. “We‘ve got a few other celebs on there, a few comedians, pop stars, NBA players and now grime artists,“ adds Jacobson.

When the players get involved, the content is formidable. As a case in point, consider this BBC News headline: ‘Antoine Griezmann takes charge of Arsenal on Football Manager – and sells Alexandre Lacazette to Huddersfield.‘

SI is about to take partnerships to the next level with a new ad campaign involving a player (who does get paid this time). You, the viewer, will be put in the shoes of a manager, and have to decide how to handle a hot young prospect.

“You won‘t find us doing is paying £100,000 to Kim Kardashian. It wouldn‘t sell us any extra games. We need things to be real. We need it to come from the heart.“

Game of stories

“Authenticity is absolutely imperative to everything that we do, we are an authentic football brand, we talk to people and clubs in football constantly,“ says Jacobson.

In his 20 years at the developer, he‘s become the master of the Football Manager universe. He has a lot of praise for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which he calls “a masterpiece” in storytelling and connectivity, and like the MCU, Football Manager is a story-telling platform. Jacobson expands: “It was living, breathing world that you can escape into. Now it is a living, breathing universe.

“We‘ve got 800,000 characters. They need to behave in some ways like their real-life counterparts. On top of that, we generate between 20,000 to 100,000 new people every year to go into that world. It has to be believable.“

The illusion holds all the way into its CRM platform where its marketing messages are distributed. Fans are invited to join FM FC, which even has a strip that fans can win.

With the game he‘s spent 20 years working on an anchor of football culture, it‘s worth considering how much the beautiful game has been altered by its simulated satellite.

“It‘s difficult for me to answer this question without sounding ridiculously arrogant,“ he says. “When [sports analytics firm] Opta first started, the founders said it was because Championship Manager wasn‘t commercializing its player data [now populated with around 1,300 scouts].

“There are lots of things that are part of football that started off in our game... but there are way more things that started off in football but have become part of our game.“

He argues that data science was always coming to football, but admits FM may have had a hand in accelerating its arrival – or at the very least, making it more accessible to fans. “Moneyball probably has more to answer for,“ he says.

As Football Manager approaches its 20th year, there’s a huge ambition to continue growing the audience. For Jacobson, that means the inclusion of woman’s football.

He’s looking for a brand to come in and help shoulder the development costs, which he puts at around £3m – this isn’t a “pony-tail reskin”. The sport needs to be effectively scouted, created (and now) animated.

He urges any brands that want to activate in woman’s football and video games to get in touch.

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