Sports Interactive doesn’t have a great deal of interest in what works for other companies. The company owes its birth to two British brothers and their hobby, and its games are impervious to conventional reviews. In an era where companies spend millions on the latest pixel shaders and 3-D surround sound, SI has built a quiet empire in the text-based sports management genre.
The genre itself disregards convention, too. Despite the fact it’s based on sports, you don’t play individual games like you would in Madden. A season in a sports management game can be completed in the time it takes your computer to tabulate a record based on the players you’ve selected. Sports management sims exist on a higher plane of thought, focusing instead on season- and franchise-long strategy as opposed to per-game tactics. You’re a general manager – or an owner – signing players and coaches, upgrading your stadium, and jockeying for media coverage.
Sports Interactive is a pioneer in the field. “There was not really a plan for world domination or anything like that – [founders Paul and Oliver Collyer] were just making games because that’s what they did,” says Miles Jacobson, Managing Director of Sports Interactive. The duo wanted to play a good soccer manager, “so [they] made one themselves for a bit of fun.” With the encouragement of their friends, the Collyers sent their project around to various game publishers, and a company called Domark brought it to market. Written in BASIC, the original Championship Manager was released on September 1, 1992.
Sports Interactive the company was formed in 1994 as the brothers released Championship Manager 93-94, which introduced real players and helped establish the sports gaming tradition. “Around 1995 they were persuaded to take on another couple of people by Domark,” Jacobson says. “The policy for taking people on was always ‘only if we have the money and the need,’ as we weren’t prepared to borrow any more, or have investment, or even an overdraft facility.” They eventually went on to secure a publisher, Eidos, and have since published nine iterations of Championship Manager, carving out a sports management path where few have tread before.
As their soccer series ascended to the top of the sales charts in Europe each year, the company saw a chance to give some young developers the same breaks. First, they brought in Finnish developer Risto “Riz” Remes, who had been at work on Eastside Hockey Manager, a freeware hockey management simulation that was clearly inspired by the Championship Manager series. The first iteration, re-dubbed NHL Eastside Hockey Manager, was released in time for the 2004-2005 NHL season. “There was a lot in Riz that was in [Oliver] and Paul in the early days, so [they] decided to give him a break, and a chance to turn his dream into reality,” Jacobson says.
While Canadians rejoiced that the world’s top sports management company had spent some money on hockey, it was a decidedly curious move for a company based in London.
Distribution problems, slow sales and piracy plagued the NHL EHM series. Even in Canada, where the game should have been gobbled up, box copies were notoriously hard to spot. The third and final version of the game, released in 2006, didn’t even garner a box from publisher Sega. The company cited overwhelming piracy when they ceased development on future iterations of the game in early 2007. “The decision was a complicated one, but it came down to the game just not selling enough units,” Jacobson says. “The first one had done really well, the second was blighted by huge amounts of piracy, particularly in Scandinavia.”
Just as the first NHL EHM went to market, Sports Interactive signed up another independent developer, Markus Heinsohn, and purchased his Out of the Park Baseball series. “The market, in theory, for ice hockey and baseball is way bigger than that of, say, rugby,” Jacobson says. However, Out of the Park Baseball suffered from NHL EHM‘s problems and shared its fate. After two versions of Out of the Park, SI decided to firmly refocus the company on its core strength, soccer, and parted ways with Heinsohn. Remes and the NHL EHM team were folded into their soccer franchise.
Critically, both games were hugely successful. The last version of NHL EHM received an average score of 89 on Metacritic, while OOTP 2007 brought in a 96, including multiple perfect scores. The economics just didn’t line up.
As Sports Interactive flirted with other sports, the company’s core project underwent a major shift. In late 2003 they and their longtime publisher Eidos announced a split. The move saw the company lose the rights to the Championship Manager but retain control of their underlying game engine and databases. “It wasn’t something that happened overnight,” Jacobson says. “We’d been planning for the possibility for a few years, so were well prepared.”
The team bounced back quickly and signed a deal with Sega to continue their main line, but now, under a new name: Football Manager. This put them in the unique situation of going to war directly with their own brand as Eidos continued the Championship Manager series through U.K.-based Gusto Games. “Competing against our previous brand was actually a lot of fun – a real challenge the likes most people in the world of business will never have,” says Jacobson.
The competition has been a lopsided one, at best. The most recent version of Football Manager widely outsold the competition, and the reviews have mirrored the market. Metacritic routinely puts them in the high 80s, while critics have panned each Championship Manager release since the split.
Jacobson believes word of mouth has really helped the company retain its spot atop the soccer manager heap, despite the loss of its iconic brand. “The fans of the game have been phenomenal in spreading the word though – we couldn’t have done what has been achieved without them,” he says.
Finally, in April of 2006, the two brothers from Shropshire sold SI to SEGA; it was officially folded into Sega West Studios. “The right offer hadn’t come along until that point, despite many people trying in the past, but we had no plans of being published by anyone apart from Sega,” Jacobson says. “It’s a unique opportunity to have independently run teams that can all share tech, and one that’s really exciting for all involved.”
According to Jacobson, the change in ownership hasn’t affected company culture. “Sega want us to keep making games the way we have been.”
In October 2006 Sports Interactive’s Football Manager 2007 gave the company a stranglehold on the U.K. sales charts and until that point was the fastest-selling PC game of all time. They’ve done this on a budget, without fancy 3-D graphics and armies of developers. When they lost their hugely successful brand, they went back and engineered the game that dethroned it. Throughout their history, Sports Interactive has done more than just ignore commonly held wisdom on how to make fun games, they’ve engineered a new standard.
Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Senior Editor for WarCry.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.