It is the stat-based game that has been blamed for countless divorces, but when Miles Jacobson hooked up with Paul and Oliver Collyer, the brothers behind the footy management sim Championship Manager, it was, most certainly, a marriage made in heaven. As a lifelong football fan, Jacobson seized the chance to work with the developers and, under his watch as managing director, he presided over rocketing sales figures and a fan base that would be the envy of football clubs the world over. He was there when Championship Manager 4 became the fastest- selling PC game of all time in the UK. He was also there when Sports Interactive broke away from Eidos, signed with Sega and started a new franchise called Football Manager. Here, he takes a look back over his career, and why he is confident SI will continue to produce top performances for years to come.
Bonkers. I was a little bloke from a dodgy part of Watford who found himself working at Food Records at the very start of Britpop and for most of the way through it as well. I worked with Blur, Jesus Jones, Dubstar, Shampoo, and The Bluetones so I was very much in the thick of it. And I was only a kid.
But you were also a massive football fan?
I started going to watch Watford when I was seven and then from the age of 11 I was a regular at the club. You were actually able to get a season ticket for £1 if you were a kid and went with an adult.
Were you passionate about games too?
Yeah. I’d grown up with three things in my life: music, computer games and football. I grew up playing Spectrum games. The one that I probably spent the most time playing was Kevin Toms’ original Football Manager, which was a fantastic game for the time. And a bit of Match Day as well – just to get John Ritman some recognition.
Did you play non-football games?
Yes. A game called Starquake, which was made by a guy called Stephen Crow, which is still a great game if you try and play it now, and also the Ultimate Play The Game games. I was a big gamer at a time when it certainly wasn’t cool to be a gamer. I was quite happy being a music geek, a football geek, a sports geek and a games geek. I was geeky about all of it.
Did you have much contact with the games industry?
When I was at Food Records, I met a lot of people from the games industry because most of them wanted to go and see Blur or Jesus Jones play gigs. I got to know them and I actually started writing some manuals. I did some very bad manuals for very bad games and I eventually met Oliver and Paul through someone at Domark who wanted to go and see Blur play.
Did you get on?
Oh yes. We are similar ages. We got on really well. Paul was in a band at the time as well so I used to try and help out a bit.
How did you get more involved with Championship Manager?
I used to play it on my Atari ST and I loved it. Then Oliver and Paul asked if I’d be a beta tester for Championship Manager 2. I got myself my first PC – a 386 DX PC – so that I could play it and it’s the only thing I’ve ever bought on credit because I don’t believe in it. The investment thankfully paid off in the long run but at the time it meant that I was eating pasta with ketchup on it for dinner for many a month.
You became Sports Interactive’s unofficial business advisor, didn’t you?
It wasn’t really unofficial – it was official in that they were telling people and that was the role that I was doing. I just wasn’t being paid for it because I had another job and, as I say, I was just helping my mates out.
Why did they ask you?
They really hated dealing with the non-programming side of things. They’re both incredibly passionate programmers and two of the best programmers that I’ve ever worked with, but they weren’t interested in the other side of things. I was determined to ensure they didn’t get ripped off because I really believed in what they were doing.
Was it a small team back then?
It was. I think I was number five to actually have a job title in the studio, but it was something that needed to be done because they were dealing with a very big publisher [who] was looking after their shareholders in the way that they thought was best.
After you started, the company grew massively, didn’t it?
Championship Manager 3 was really the first one that exploded. The second game was still very much a cult game and the data update did very well, but by Champ Man 3 they’d actually been accepted. If you go back and read the reviews of
the first couple of games I think Champ Man 1 might have got a 20% review from somewhere because it didn’t have any graphics. The game was pretty much slated apart from a few hardcore journalists who were into their football as well and didn’t just require games to have elves or fancy graphics.
What happened with Championship Manager 4?
There were about seven or eight people working on Champ Man 3 and they did a couple of updates for that, but some of the team broke off and worked on Champ Man 4. It took a long time to sort – it was six months late and it was a bit of a disaster. It was getting ten out of ten reviews because it had been massively hyped up, and the publisher’s marketing people were giving the game to journalists for review six weeks before release and saying, “don’t worry, everything that’s wrong with it at the moment is going to be fixed”. That wasn’t really the case until Champ Man 03/04, which was our final game with Eidos.
Sports Interactive split from Eidos and went its separate way with Football Manager. Was that split a difficult time for you?
It was scary as anything. We’d spent ten years building up a brand and a fan base with Championship Manager and we were turning round and going, “right, that’s not our game any more, we’re making something else”. It was like The Beatles changing their name to The Turtles and someone else carrying on with The Beatles name. But we went into it with our eyes open. It was a mutual decision; we just didn’t want to work with each other anymore basically.
Why was that?
Eidos had firm views on the way that they wanted to go and we had firm views on the way that we wanted to go.
Football Manager ended up being known as the official continuation, though…
We were helped by a few things. We were allowed to say on the posters for the first year, “from the creators of the Championship Manager series” – we ended up doing 92-sheet billboards so that really hammered the point home. Retailers helped – I walked into HMV in Oxford Street the day that the game came out and there was a sticker on the front of it that said “you know it’s Champo”. That had just been done by people working in the stores. We’d also built a significant database over the years – we had more than 400,000 people that played our games on a database and we were allowed to send them emails. Word of mouth and mouse were fantastic.
Were you pleased with the sales?
First year expectations were certainly ahead of where we thought we were going to be in the first year. By the second release, we were selling more than we’d ever sold with Champ Man before. Lots of people in the industry came to me after FM 2006 was released and said, “we don’t really know how you’ve done that but well done, we thought it was going to fail”.
Obviously the split gave you more creative freedom as well, didn’t it?
Very much so, but Sega need to get a lot of credit as well. Sega actually went out and hired people that we wanted to work with on the production side of things and on the marketing side of things as well.
What are you like to work with?
I’m not the easiest person to work with. I have a vision that goes a certain way and I like people to follow that, but when you’re working with people for the first time that can be quite difficult for them, whereas when you’re working with people you’ve worked with for a while they learn the best ways to be making suggestions.
The last version of Championship Manager so far was released in 2010. Do you see Football Manager carrying on for quite a long time to come?
I hope so, otherwise I’ve got to go and get a proper job and I don’t really want oneof those! We have enough ideas at the moment that, if we never had another idea again, there will be another three Football Managers. We come up with more ideas a year than we have time to do in an annual version, which is why we’ve got the backlog.
So you’ve worked out the features for the next few releases?
The feature set for FM15 is nailed, the one for FM16 is probably 80 per cent nailed, and I’ve got some features down for FM17 and FM18. There’s a lot more we still want to do. As well as having a lot of fans you also have a lot of people getting involved… We’ve got the world’s largest scouting network. Back in the day it was about finding a bunch of mates who knew a lot about football and getting their mates involved and getting their mates involved and then someone had a pen pal in Italy and so on. The network keeps growing and growing and growing.
Did David Moyes ask to use the database when he was at Everton?
It was David Moyes’ scouting team but he wasn’t the first – it was Ray Houghton, Crystal Palace’s assistant manager. He used to phone up and say, “we’re looking for a left back and would you give me some stats,” and then I’d send him a list of players to go and look at. A couple of them got bought over the years.
If there’s an issue for Football Manager, it’s piracy. How does it affect you?
Pirates are going to pirate. I think FM13 didn’t get cracked for six months yet was still played by 13 million pirates, and when you’re selling around a million copies a year that’s quite a big multiple. We’ve had piracy problems for years.
Football Manager’s been blamed for a lot of divorces…
We were told we were blamed for 35 in one year. We still don’t know if that stat is true or not but most of us in the studio have split up with someone over the game. Like anything compelling, it can sometimes get a bit out of control, and if a partner doesn’t understand that then so be it. I’m not going to make our game less compelling, less fun, so that people play it less to save a couple of marriages, that’s not going to happen.
You’re also the founder of Games Aid and you’re also involved with War Child. Does that take up a lot of your time?
Six of us decided to found Games Aid out of the ashes the Entertainment Software Charity. I was a trustee of Games Aid for two years. With War Child I’m involved on both a personal and a work level; War Child get a donation for every game that we sell. So the people who buy the game have raised over £1m for War Child, just by doing nothing apart from playing the game, which I think is great. I’m a vice-president of Special Effect too. They do amazing work with people with disabilities playing games.
And you’ve been personally recognised: you received an OBE in 2011…
I met Prince Charles. It was a brilliant day out for my mum and my sister. My mum got a nice new dress out of it and a new hat and a pair of shoes and it was brilliant. I’ve got a medal, so I feel like Mutley from Wacky Racers would have felt like if Dick Dastardly had actually given him a proper medal. It’s such an honour.