Women’s football – coming soon to Football Manager

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As many of you may well be aware, Sports Interactive announced last week that they have begun work on introducing women’s football into Football Manager in the future.

Studio director Miles Jacobson has set out SI’s roadmap for incorporating women’s competitions into FM, explaining the sheer amount of detail that will go into making the experience as in-depth and realistic as possible.

This process will take time, and we’ve been told that women’s football WILL NOT be included on Football Manager 2022. The plan is for it to be introduced in a future FM, either on release or as free mid-season DLC – but not as a standalone game.

Women’s football is consistently one of the most requested new features FMers have asked for. The announcement of its future arrival was met with widespread praise… but also with some loud opposition.

I’ve had some time to take in this news and collect all my thoughts. So here’s what I have to say about these exciting new developments…


BACKGROUND

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Women’s football was introduced to the FIFA franchise in 2015.

Interest in women’s football has grown significantly since the first World Cup was held in 1991. That growth has been particularly noticeable here in Britain over the past decade.

In 2012, ahead of the release of Football Manager 2013, Jacobson was asked by journalist Iain Macintosh when the women’s game would be added to FM. His response was that SI would consider it once there were TEN women’s leagues with average attendances comparable to the men’s EFL Championship (where the average gate is around 18,000).

A decade ago, that milestone seemed miles away. The average attendance for the inaugural 2011 FA Women’s Super League season was just 584. By 2018/2019, that had almost doubled to 1,010, before trebling to 3,401 in the truncated 2019/2020 season. The 2019 Women’s World Cup attracted record TV audiences in Britain, with over 11 million tuning to BBC One to watch the Semi Final between England and the United States.

Off the pitch, the WSL signed a major sponsorship deal with Barclays in 2019, while TV broadcasting rights were sold to the BBC and Sky Sports earlier this year for £15million a season. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to what Sky pay for men’s Premier League football, but it’s hugely significant in terms of the women’s game.

While that Championship attendance target set by Jacobson has not been met, his target always seemed a bit arbitrary… and unrealistic. Even the most prestigious women’s league – the National Women’s Soccer League in the US – only drew average crowds of 7,389 in the 2019 season. Mind you, that’s still about 3,000 more than the NWSL’s mean attendance for its 2013 inaugural season.

But of course, attendances don’t mean everything in terms of whether a league should be included in Football Manager. For example, the Slovenian 2nd division attracted average crowds of just 213 in the 2018/2019 campaign, but it has been a playable league on FM for years.

Jacobson’s stance on including the women’s game has shifted since 2012. As he explained quite frankly last week, its inclusion is more about SI standing for greater gender equality than worrying about financial sustainability:

We also know that adding women’s football to Football Manager is going to cost millions and that the short-term return it delivers will be minimal. But that’s not the point.

There’s no hiding that there’s currently a glass ceiling for women’s football and we want to do what we can to help smash through it. We believe in equality for all and we want to be part of the solution. We want to be a part of the process that puts women’s football on an equal footing with the men’s game. We know that we’re not alone in this – the historic TV deal that Sky and the BBC recently agreed with WSL in England is proof of that – but we intend to do everything we can to get women’s football to where it deserves to be.

This change of approach will put SI – at the very least – in line with other major sports video game franchises who have tentatively started including female teams and players in recent years.

The FIFA series first delved into women’s football in 2015, with EA adding a dozen national teams to FIFA 16. They’ve barely improved on that in subsequent years, though, and there is no word on whether the top women’s club teams will be integrated any time soon.

More encouragingly, We Are Football – an independent game from the producers of EA’s long-defunct FIFA Manager series – gives you the option to manage a women’s team. While it has no official licenses, there is a huge fan-made mod that includes several real-life clubs and players.

As far as FM goes, however, women’s football fans currently have to make do with custom databases – like this FM20 database from @FMWomensDB, which I’ll be showing screenshots of here. But while the data seems reasonably accurate, these mods cannot accurately reflect the women’s game from a financial or gameplay perspective. An official and realistic game mode is the next – and most important – step.


WHAT DO WE KNOW?

Firstly, let’s discuss the match and graphics engines. While it wasn’t specificially mentioned in Jacobson’s roadmap, I suspect women’s football will run on the same ME as the men. I’m not sure why there would even need to be separate MEs, seeing as women and men play to virtually the same rules. That being said, SI might well make a few subtle tweaks to reflect certain nuances in the women’s game.

While SI already have tonnes of footballer animations using male players, applying these onto female bodies makes them “move like cowboys”. While some people might quite like a bizarre Red Dead Redemption sports spin-off, SI clearly strive for more realism. They have started recreating their animations from scratch specifically for female players, using motion capture sessions with professionals Rosie and Mollie Kmita.

More than 100,000 ‘strings’ of in-game text and dialog will have to be rewritten, specifically those involving players. These will then need to be translated into 19 languages – some of which (e.g. French) have very strict gender-specific grammar rules that will have to be considered.

And even when it comes to pronouns, it’s not just a simple case of changing “he/him/his” to “she/her/her”. SI will also need to accommodate those LGBTQ+ footballers who go by “they/them/their” pronouns, such as Canadian midfielder Quinn and Japanese striker Kumi Yokoyama.

The financial and transfer systems will have to be significantly changed too. Of course, women’s football gets nowhere near the same level of money that the men’s game does – and even the elite players still only have yearly salaries that are equivalent to what the top male pros can earn in a few days.

As a suggestion, though, I would like to see SI put some kind of ‘inflation’ model in place for the first 10-20 years of a save. The idea of a gradual increase in prize money, sponsorship, gate receipts etc – allowing more clubs to turn professional and pay higher wages – would reflect a sport that is constantly growing in popularity and prestige.

Will SI even add those aspects of women’s health and lives that the men don’t have to deal with? For example, can players (and staff) get pregnant, and if so, how would the various stages of pregnancy affect their careers?

And then we need to talk about the database itself, which of course is such an important part of Football Manager that it deserves its own dedicated section…


DATABASE & ATTRIBUTES

If FM is to include women’s football, SI have to give it as much care and attention as the men’s game – and they know it. Going down the EA route of “let’s just add some national teams and forget about the rest” is lazy and won’t win anybody over.

FM’s vast database of over 500,000 male footballers has taken nearly 30 years (and tonnes of research) to build. Adding in thousands of female players is also a lengthy process, but SI are building a dedicated team of researchers to cover as many countries as possible.

SI’s initial plan is to launch with 10 playable leagues, though obviously none of these have been confirmed. The American and English leagues will surely be included, and maybe the Australian W-League too, while the top leagues in France, Germany, Spain and Sweden would also have a good chance of featuring.

FMers will also be able to move from managing a men’s team to a women’s team within the same career, and vice versa. So if you want to go down the Phil Neville route of failing miserably with England’s Lionesses before failing even more miserably in Major League Soccer, you can do that!

Players are likely to be rated on a 1-20 scale, just like their male counterparts. But will women players be measured on the same scale as the men, or will they have their own dedicated rating system?

I’m in favour of the latter approach – giving women a separate 1-20 scale, where 20 is the best attribute score for a female professional footballer and 1 is the worst. This would give an elite player like the USA’s Alex Morgan comparable attributes to a top male striker like Robert Lewandowski…

…but that is not the point. You are not directly comparing Morgan with Lewandowski, and you cannot compare them. They play the same sport, but in separate fields that are simply not commensurable.

It’s like comparing Roger Federer and Serena Williams in tennis. As Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim wrote in 2015, these two legends have faced “different fields, different set of demands, different external pressures, different dimensions to rivalries with opponents”. Arguing that one is better than the other would be as unfair as comparing footballers from different eras (e.g. Cristiano Ronaldo with Diego Maradona… or Megan Rapinoe with Lily Parr, for that matter).

Also, the ‘one scale for all’ method would be very controversial. Imagine the uproar if we booted up the game and a superstar like Lucy Bronze had similar attributes to a mediocre male lower-league player.

While you could make a case for men and women being rated similarly on some technical and mental attributes, it wouldn’t be fair to do that with certain physical attributes. For example, it’s probably safe to say that the strongest female footballer is not as powerful as Adebayo Akinfenwa – or that even the tallest one might not match the jumping reach of a Lassina Traoré or a Peter Crouch.


“BUT WHAT ABOUT…”

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Of course, not everybody has greeted this announcement positively. There have been a few complaints, criticisms and questions from some people in the FM community, some of which I will try to answer here:

“But women’s football is rubbish!”

This argument often comes from people who only ever watch the Premier League or other top-level competitions. Arguing that a league shouldn’t be included in FM because it’s of a poorer quality is pretty elitist. SI cater to the lower-league manager and the journeyman (or journeywoman) as much as they do the glory hunter.

Okay, so watching the WSL is not like watching the PL, but can you be surprised when women’s football was traditionally held back or even BANNED by authorities for decades. English women weren’t even allowed to play on men’s pitches until 1971!

At any rate, this isn’t about quality – it’s about equality. Jacobson wrote about how SI wanted to do their bit to promote women’s football and put on an equal footing with the men’s. If this gets more people interested in women’s football, or if it encourages more girls and women to give FM a go, that can only be a good thing.

“But don’t SI need to add several more men’s leagues before they start adding women’s leagues?”

FM already covers leagues in more than 50 countries, and SI have said that they will only add a new league if they have enough research on those leagues – and if the demand to play them is there.

Gibraltar and Canada are the only new countries to be officially added in recent years, but there are various reasons why the likes of Cyprus and Japan aren’t playable. Mind you, with several talented modders releasing custom databases that cover many of those missing leagues, I doubt SI need to bring out any new official leagues.

Some people in the community have suggested that putting in more men’s leagues would be simpler, cheaper and less time-consuming than working on implementing women’s leagues. Going by that logic… SI should make the Fijian 2nd division playable before they even bother with the WSL? Don’t be ridiculous.

“But shouldn’t SI fix all the bugs in the game first?”

Guess what? Football Manager always has bugs, and the program is so complex that it always will! SI do try to fix as many bugs as they can, they have to prioritise fixing the more serious, potentially game-breaking ones over the tinier, superficial ones. Tweaking a widget that sometimes doesn’t show up properly isn’t a good reason to postpone arguably the most important addition to the game in recent years.

At any rate, you shouldn’t need to worry about SI moving coders away from the main game and onto this big new project. Indeed, they have stated that they are actively recruiting several new people who will work exclusively on implementing women’s football into FM. The likely impact this new project will have on the game’s Quality Assurance team is somewhere between ‘minimal’ and ‘zero’.

“But the women’s leagues will take up too much disk space!”

Even with such a large men’s football database, a fresh install of FM21 takes up only 7 gigabytes (GB) of data. Even a single save file running 50+ leagues may not touch 1 GB until you are many, many years into the save.

The biggest computer games by file size (e.g. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Grand Theft Auto V) use between 100 and 200 GB of disk space. A typical storage drive may have a capacity of around 2 terabytes (roughly 2,000 GB). Disk space will not be a problem.

“But I just don’t want women’s leagues in my game!”

You don’t have to bother with them. I’m almost certain that women’s leagues – like any other league in the game – will be completely optional, and can be toggled on/off when starting a new save.


So there you have it – women’s football is coming to Football Manager! Again, we have no idea when this will happen, but it definitely won’t be in FM22 at launch. A summer release to coincide with the Euro 2022 finals in England is probably unlikely too, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2023!

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts below, or tweet me @Fuller_FM.

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