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Keith Strudler: Soccer Art Imitating Soccer Life

In the spirit of art imitating life, the popular video game Football Manager 2018 takes its cues from reality. For the uninitiated, which in this case is probably the majority, football means soccer. And Football Manager is a popular video game that allows users to create and manage a soccer club based on real and sometimes mythical players. Based on real data and analytics, the game simulates league play while putting game users in the position of managing an actual soccer, or football club. Such is the wonder of the current technological age.

Like all good simulations, Football Manager uses the most accurate statistics to inform its play. That obviously includes invasive data about game performance and finances. So, like an actual manager of a sports team, you’d have to weigh a player’s past potential and his relative cost in adding him to your roster. Then you’d hope for the best as your assembled roster plays its season, whether that be in the British Premier League of the Spanish La Liga or even America’s MLS. But as is the case for actual sports teams, management isn’t simply a numbers game, but also takes into account the social world around the sport that potentially affects its outcome. For example, Football Manager 2017 – which, as you likely guessed, was this year’s version – began to factor in Brexit, which might impact non-British players coming to the Premier League. Perhaps the same could be true for the MLS if the US were to vastly change its immigration policies. So playing Football Manager isn’t just running an Excel spread sheet – it’s managing people in social context, which is what sport is and it’s most organic pleasure.

And now, in Football Manager 2018, you may now have a player that comes out as gay. This won’t be an actual player, perhaps first and foremost because there aren’t currently any prominent pro soccer players who are openly gay, even though a handful of former athletes did come out while they were still active. And to be clear, the video game is not aspiring to out athletes or predict any player’s sexuality. So, players who come out during the video game season would be “replacement” players who come to fill in for an injured member of your roster.

According to game creators, this new order will reflect the current sports culture, where in small numbers, but increasingly, gay athletes come out while still playing professionally, although often later in their careers. Most notably in soccer, Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay MLS athlete, although he's currently on the non-active injured list and long past his days playing the UK’s second tier Champions League.

So how does it work? What does it mean to have gay video soccer player? In Football Manager 2018, an openly gay athlete might receive additional media coverage, which might lead to increased jersey sales, all which adds to the bottom line of your team and creates additional press relations. Such was done to reflect the reality of pro sports, where jersey sales of the few openly gay professional athletes, like former NFL player Michael Sam, were disproportionately high. So while it doesn’t affect the play on pitch if you will, it might affect a club’s bottom line, which is a big part of managing a sports team. Which is the goal of this game.

Now, not every league or country will have this option. In places where it is illegal to be openly gay, players will not come out, even if only electronically. So if you are a fan of Russian soccer, expect an all-straight roster. Such are the oddities of global sport, where the universal language of competition can be mitigated by the far more limiting language of repression.

This feature will probably be interpreted two ways. On the one hand, some gamers might complain, or ask that politics be kept out of sport. Or at least video games about sport. That perspective might consider this game biased or hyper politically correct or whatever the term. It’s largely the same mind think that prefer athletes to stick to sports and stand for the anthem.

I prefer a second perspective, which is that Football Manager 2018 recognizes the inevitable intersection of sport and the world around it. Instead of presenting the game as a sanitary refuge from real life, this simulation allows users to manage sport in its full context – where players are real people, not products, and sport’s impact goes far beyond the final score. And by the way, that’s what today’s sports managers know very well by now – just ask any GM of an NFL team right now.

For me, I like Football Manager 2018 in its authentic glory. Where art does, in fact, imitate life.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management. 

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