Football Manager 2024’s Miles Jacobson talks past, present, and future of the football sim

By Phil Iwaniuk, Contributor
“I went to see Madonna live last week,” Sports Interactive studio director Miles Jacobson tells me in SI’s Stratford HQ.

“It was like watching a West End show. You see the different stages of her career because it's structured as a storyline all the way through. And you think how many times she's adapted, how many times she's changed to keep herself relevant.”

As a fan of Football Manager 2024, my mind doesn’t automatically draw parallels between the Queen of Pop and SI’s series, now in its fourth decade of peerless sports simulation. But over the course of our chat I understand that for both parties, the challenge has been clear: Adapt or die.

The untrained or unkind eye might not see Football Manager as a rapidly innovating shapeshifter. The premise and presentation carry a lot of DNA from the Championship Manager series, which debuted in 1992: You take control of a football club, sign players, arrange them into formations, and watch your decisions play out in simulated matches.

But in order to keep hitting a high bar with the same consistency as Ronaldinho in that legendary Nike ad, it’s the studio itself that’s had to adapt. The size and structure of SI, the processes and pipelines, that’s where you can see the Madge-like reinventions on the timeline. And with Football Manager 2025 promising a giant leap forward, in this annual release-wary world, FM24's impressive new features are a testament to how well SI has adapted. This is especially striking when you consider that in some corners of the community, FM23 represented a real dip in form.
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“There weren't enough features for the hardcore fans in 23,” says Jacobson. “We weren't pleasing all of the different personas”—SI has identified six distinct audiences who play FM— “and there was a reason for it. It was a cock-up, basically. There was some stuff that was planned, that didn't get actioned, didn't end up happening.

“That's on me. Anything that goes wrong is on me.”

It’s not a surprise to hear Jacobson take personal responsibility for any of SI’s failings and later praise the team for its successes. This is the studio that simulates every facet of football culture, after all, including those probing post-match interviews where the soft-spoken manager in a Stone Island jacket protects their players after a loss by admitting a tactical failure—then bigs them up a week later when they get the win.

FM23 is by no means a bad game. It's as compelling as they always are: an impossibly detailed simulation of the whole footballing ecosystem, with accurate depictions of youth academy players, soul-destroying negotiations with agents, and everything in-between, from box-to-box midfielders to Brexit. Its user reviews are mostly positive. But as Jacobson points out, 13% of them are negative.

“A lot of them were rightly unhappy, because we didn't deliver what they needed out of the game. So we made sure with 24 that we were really looking at all the persona stuff all the way through.

“We have a one pager for each feature when it first comes through. It has to state which of our personas are going to enjoy this feature. And it doesn't have to be that all six personas enjoy a feature. If you've got a feature that's right for three of the personas, and another feature that's right for the other three of the personas, that's great.”

Audience segmentation isn’t the only change that's taken place at SI in recent years. Like the broader games industry, the studio used to work with a waterfall development philosophy: One team builds their component of the game to completion and then hands it on to the next, all the way down the line, until you arrive at the finished product.

Studios started moving away from waterfall and towards agile development around the advent of live-service games. The idea here is that stakeholders from different teams all iterate on the big picture together, rather than leaving each other waiting. Teams collaborate on basic early builds and then expand on them. For some studios, that means letting the public in early and then constantly patching and expanding after the point of purchase, but that isn’t the way with Football Manager.
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Fans have always held the expectation that the game they get on day one is the final game. FM isn’t a live service offering. It’s got four decades of tradition as a single-player game to uphold, and for much of that it was distributed via physical media, in DVD cases or those fantastically useless giant boxes that PC games were once sold in. Early Access, monthly subscriptions—I suspect FM's fanbase views these concepts as contrary to what the franchise stands for.

But Jacobson and his team have been able to implement elements of agile development nonetheless, and they've arrived at a hybrid development pipeline that avoids the pitfalls of traditional waterfall-working.  

“We now have what we call a feature pod team, which uses a bit of agile, but also uses some of our own secret sauce as well. If it's a gameplay feature, as an example—and gameplay for us is transfers and finances and that side of things—you will have one or two gameplay programmers in a feature pod, [and] you will have one UI programmer in a feature pod.

“If it requires UI, you will have the designer of the feature in there, you might have a UI designer in there. You have a producer in there, and you have QA directly in the feature pods working completely together as a team in two-week sprints.”

The team figures out how many of these sprints it’ll take to get a feature done and adjusts the overarching development timeline accordingly. Wherever the balance lies in this hybrid approach, FM24 shows that it's working. The reaction from the community to its substantial list of new features, including revamped transfer battles, a set-piece builder, and player objectives, has been really positive.

That positivity—that pleasant surprise—has carried over into the pre-launch beta. Unlike the last entry, there’s no whiff of dissatisfaction this time. And that’s perhaps all the more surprising, given that SI’s planning a massive overhaul in FM25.

That’s not hyperbole, either. In a blog post detailing plans for both FM24 and 25, Jacobson describes this year’s game as “the last of its kind.”

After this year, Football Manager is moving to the Unity Engine. It’s a big move that shakes up a central component of the experience: the match engine view that shows the football playing out live in front of you. This has never been a series that melts graphics cards and renders every blade of grass to a fidelity level that might keep FIFA execs up at night. The 3D visuals have been functional. They’ve shown you the way your formations occupy the space, and they’ve captured the moments of brilliance by your best players and the defensive howlers by your worst. But it never looked close to reality, and there's definitely room for improvement.

That’s about to change. Jacobson wants FM25 and its successors to look “like the football you see on the TV," both in raw fidelity and in the quality of the animations.

This decision raises an interesting conceptual quandary for FM. One of its greatest strengths has always been the way it gets you to fill in the blanks with your mind. You build an image of a player from a spreadsheet of their stats. You imagine the body language of your players during your dressing room talks. You picture the walk through the trophy-lined corridors to your office. And in that way, you’re a much more active participant in FM’s football universe than you might be in FIFA career mode, which spoon-feeds you disjointed cutscenes instead. With all that in mind, is there a danger that FM25 might show us too much?
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“You’re still going to be an active participant in building that universe,” says Jacobson. “We are trying to improve our animations to a point that it's not jarring in people's imagination. The brain works in mysterious ways. But if the brain is going, ‘well, that looks wrong’, then that's taking you away from the game. There are some brilliant arcade football games out there, right? You know, FC24, the job that they do is great. eFootball, the job that they do is great. UFL looks interesting. But they're not real football. They're not football simulations. If you play a 90 minute game of FC24, you're going to get a ridiculous score. Whereas we're simulating football.

“The brief for my team is to try and make it look like if you have a camera angle that's at the back of a football stand, to not be able to tell the difference between real football and the game. But when you are watching a game of football, is your imagination still there? Can you still be thinking, ‘oh well, what if you had passed to that person? What if she had got a bit higher with that save?' That's what we want your imagination to be doing.

"It's trying to work out what could have been done better by your team, because you're the manager. That's what you should be trying to do. So the imagination is still going to be a really important part, but we're trying to get rid of those times when your imagination reminds you that it's not real.”

You can find Football Manager 24 on the Epic Games Store.