Managers, do you prefer “FIFA” or “Football Manager”?

Let’s go off the beaten track for once and compare management to …. a video game.

The story I’m about to tell you took place during a dinner with friends and I’ll start with the end: the dessert.

After having discussed many interesting topics we ended on something lighter: video games. And to be more precise: football simulations.

It’s a subject that quickly gained consensus. Not everyone around the table is a video game fan, far from it, but between those who are interested in this category of games, those who are interested in video games in general, those who are interested in football without being interested in games, and the two who are not interested in any of that but joined the conversation on the way because it allowed us, as you will see, to digress on other subjects, the conversation was very long.

A philosophy more than a game

The conversation quickly turned to who was more into FIFA or Football Manager.

To simplify for those who know nothing about the subject.

FIFA is an action game. You control the players with the joystick and you are “on the field”, in the heart of the action because you are the first actors.

Football Manager is more of a strategy game. You manage a club, its finances, training, recruitment, training of young players, strategy, relations with the press and players. But at the moment of the match you are a spectator. You can change players, give them instructions, change the strategy during the match, but you don’t control the players. What happens on the pitch is only the result of what has been prepared behind the scenes.

In FIFA I would say that an excellent player can go against the odds or logic. A player who masters the game very well, is very technically adept with his controller, will easily beat with a weak team a neophyte or not very gifted player who would take a very strong team. As an example, not being a fan of the game, I think that even if I took the PSG I would be unable to beat a friend of mine who is addicted to the game and who would take a team of amateurs.

In Football Manager it is difficult to go against logic. What has been built, or not built, in the past will shape the future for some time and changing things will take just as long. If you take an average team from the second division you will not be European champion the first year even if you are experienced in the game. You can take an average team and improve it over time but it takes several seasons: if tactics and management are up to you, you need players, players cost money, money comes with results…and again when your club is not known even if you have the means it is complicated to attract renowned players. If you take a poorly built team during the season with a shaky squad, a bad atmosphere between the players, tactics that need to be changed and finances in the red, you are not going to end up as champion overnight even if you are an excellent player.

Knowing which game was “better” was of little importance: they are not comparable in nature. However, the discussion about what people found interesting or frustrating in one or the other quickly turned to a certain philosophy of the game.

There were not pro FIFA or pro Football Manager but those who like to build, to create a context, a “system” that works and wins through the others (the others = the players simulated by an artificial intelligence on the field) and those who like to go on the field, to roll up their sleeves, to put their “hands in” and to create the exploit by themselves.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the dinner.

One plays as one manages

In these times of pandemic and remote working, a large part of the conversations concerned what we had experienced, how we had dealt with it and, finally, the inevitable discussion on what a manager is or should be today and tomorrow.

Imposed remote working had forced everyone to face a new reality to which they had to adapt.

In theory we all agreed on what the role of a manager should be and had done for years. In practice, in the office, things were different. There were those who were comfortable with a certain amount of letting go, and those whose physical proximity helped them stay in their comfort zone by keeping a discreet but real control over what their teams did and doing things instead of taking the time to teach them how.

With the pandemic everyone was on the same page and there was no hiding the dust under the carpet. And, strangely enough, all the discussions we’d had about the satisfactions and frustrations of the time found their way into the FIFA vs Football Manager debate.

There were those who liked to patiently build a system, a context, over time, which allowed others to succeed on the pitch with a ‘distant’ presence on their part, and those for whom action took precedence over construction and who were undermined from the inside by the impossibility of being in the action alongside their teams (physically speaking). They felt as if they were watching a match without being able to influence it.

While the former were comfortable because they had done everything in advance to ensure that the match would go well, even if they were not the main players, the latter were afraid (rightly or wrongly?) that their teams would not be able to win if they were not on the pitch with them.

It reminded me of very old discussions from the time when we often heard that a game like World of Warcraft was conditioning young people to new collaborative approaches online that their elders were not natively capable of, and when we spoke, more generally, of the video game as a learning tool that was not considered at its true value.

Back to basics

The interest of this digression on video games is that they allowed us to talk about the same subjects as at the beginning of the meal but in a calmer, more open, more dispassionate way.

There is no shame in saying at the dinner table that you prefer one or the other because they are more or less what you expect from a video game. It’s harder, even in front of friends, to admit that you’re unable to let go, or even, as one of us did, to admit that you became a manager by default because it was the logical progression of a career, when you’d rather act on the field than help others succeed by standing back. Talking about a subject in a roundabout way often helps to get people talking.

But in the end we talked about the same things:

To make or to build, to do or to have done
Present or future
Individual/action or Collective/system
To be indispensable or to make oneself useless
Technicality of the job or management

If you ask me, both are useful, but the mistake is often to confuse them. In sport there are player-coaches. But this only works at a low level, then it is important to separate the roles.

I would add that it also allowed us to talk about the importance of time and the fact that, contrary to what some people would like, it is an incompressible constraint. The present is only the result of what we did yesterday and it is often too late to change things, or not in a sustainable way. On the other hand, the future depends on what we do today, even if we sometimes have to wait for the results.

At an upcoming job interview, consider asking your candidates if they like football video games…

Image : Management style by pixfly via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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