I've played a lot of Football Manager in my time. It's been ten years since I got the bug, actually, and since then the hours have been whiled away doing the seemingly impossible. Bringing Portsmouth back from the brink, winning the Champions League as Derby County, and of course, trying to rescue my beloved Reading from complete and utter embarrassment.
Visiting the Sports Interactive studio in Stratford, East London, the passion with which the employees approach their work is extremely clear. Everyone gets a signed football shirt of their favoured team when they join the company, there's football memorabilia on every shelf, and the place as a whole is pretty spacious. I was given the opportunity to horrendously fail my first season of management and try out some of the new features brought to the game.
Miles Jacobson has been running Sports Interactive for a couple of decades now, and from the very beginning, they wanted to make a game that was as close to reality as humanly possible. That means they've been all about data, long before the football clubs and industry as a whole understood the value behind it. Decades of experience make Miles more than just a studio director - he and Sports Interactive are in a hugely unique position of being football insiders as well as game developers, which made our conversation all the more fascinating.
One of the headline features of Football Manager 23 is the new way you can interact with players' agents. Prior to starting a transfer negotiation, you're able to get in touch with the agent to see what the player's value might be, whether they'd be interested in joining your club, and even repair relations when negotiations break down.
It's part of a constant effort to bring new and more realistic aspects to the world of Football Manager, and make it the best possible football simulation experience. In order to get things like this right, though, you need to hear exactly what things are like from those in the industry, so Sports Interactive is constantly in talks with various important figures to make sure it's all going as it should.
"We talk to people all the time," Miles tells me. "It used to be that back in the day that I would go into training grounds and have conversations and come back in the office the next day all excited going, 'we need to do this, we need to do that.' Nowadays, we've got over 2000 footballers who are alpha testers, and they range from World Cup winners through to League 2 players. So we get their feedback. The agents tend to be on there as well."
Miles even tells me about a Premier League player who asked to get one of his coaches onto the alpha testing list. It's by recommendation only, though, so don't get excited unless you happen to know someone in the world of football.
It goes deeper than that, though. It's not just about getting players to test out Football Manager and let the team know if it's realistic or not.
"We also have a series in the studio called foot talks. Every month, I get to be a journalist. But I'm a journalist when nothing ever leaks."
These interview subjects range from international managers and players to scouts and data analysts, and the Football Manager team ask about features they're looking to implement in the game. They're about an hour and a half long, and since nothing ever leaks, they get a whole lot more out of it than any journalist ever would.
"For example, we had Rehanne Skinner, Tottenham Women's head coach. We've announced we're working on women's football, so we're talking to a lot of people in the women's game at the moment. Rehanne was asked a question: 'can you please explain in detail how you would describe your tactics to your players?' 15 minutes later she was like, 'is that too much?' It was absolutely beautiful.
"That huge explanation you've just given there is going to help us explain things to people in the game better, and it also makes us understand exactly what you wanted to do. No one in this industry or any other industry has the kind of access we have."
A football business
When Miles was talking about getting phone calls from football clubs on transfer deadline day asking him for advice, it became abundantly clear that Football Manager is far more than just a video game. Apparently, this has always been the aim, but the world hasn't seen it until more recently.
"I've been describing us as a football business for decades. We're as much a football business as we are a games business. The football world didn't catch up on that until André Villas-Boas came along. Villas-Boas was the first person to go public when he was chief Scout at Chelsea. He was asked, 'how are you finding all these players?' And the answer was Championship Manager as it was back then. Now you see these other coaches coming through - any coach that hasn't had a major football career has had a major Football Manager career. So we've become part of the fabric of football."
Miles now reckons Sports Interactive gets more respect from the football industry than the games industry, partly because of the optics of releasing a new iteration of their game each year - people think they're just churning one out every year. It's also thanks to their pioneering data-driven approach that's had a huge impact on their standing in the footballing world, though.
"I'm lucky we can straddle both because we're one of the few. We're one of the few entertainment mediums out there that actually allow the person that plays the game to completely create the story, and that's of interest to a lot of people who work in more traditional media at the moment."
The drive to improve
What's behind the series' constant desire to improve, though? It's not like Football Manager has any real rivals - if they did just churn out the same game year after year, they'd still sell a fair few copies. I know I'd buy one.
It turns out it's not just about that, though. You don't need enormous competition and direct rivals to make your game better - just the drive to improve.
"One of the reasons for being for the studio is to try and make the best value for money games on the market. We're all really lucky here. We enjoy our jobs, and we get paid to do what we enjoy. Most people in the world don't. People who work stacking shelves don't tend to enjoy those jobs - it's the difference between living to work and working to live.
"Those people worked really hard to be able to get the money together to buy a computer game. So we want to deliver huge value to them. We're very proud of our play time average of 300 hours. If we deliver a game that doesn't add anything, people will carry on playing the previous one and not buy the new one. So we've never cared about the 'opposition'. We're driven to be the best in the market, make the best football management simulations, and deliver the best value for money to our consumers."
It's an ongoing process, and having grown into something of an institution in both the sporting and gaming worlds, things are hopefully only getting better for Sports Interactive. The most important reason they put so much into their game, though?
"We play it as well."