Football Manager’s Miles Jacobson on Apple Arcade, subscription gaming and finding fans in the Ted Lasso cast
This interview write-up very nearly didn’t make it onto iMore today. That’s because I was up all night playing a game. It was inevitable really — Football Manager Touch 2023 has joined the roster of games on the Apple Arcade subscription service, and with it goes any semblance of a social life or healthy sleep schedule I may have had.
Letting you live the life of a football manager (read: ‘soccer’ manager for those in the US), from organizing training regimes to hiring aspiring football superstars, the Football Manager franchise is an iconic one. Starting life nearly three decades ago as the Championship Manager series on Amiga and Atari, it’s highly addictive, boasting world-famous players as fans, with a database regularly used by real-world football scouts, and a fanbase so fervent it’s not unusual for players to wear a suit and tie when simulating the most important cup fixtures. It’s a game not only inspired by the sport, but one with such levels of depth that it actually influences it, too —if “Football is life”, to quote Ted Lasso’s Danny Rojas, Football Manager might be its digital soul.
Joining Apple Arcade means Football Manager 2023 Touch is available not only on Macs, but also across touchscreen devices like Apple’s best iPhones and best iPads, and as a ‘console’ game with a controller in hand in front of an Apple TV set-top box. But speaking to iMore at the game’s launch at West London Film Studios (the current shooting location for Ted Lasso series 3), Miles Jacobson, studio director at Football Manager developers Sports Interactive, revealed how close the touch-oriented version of the franchise came to being relegated permanently.
The reason? Android tablets.
“We used to make a game called Football Manager Touch, and Football Manager Touch was made by a combination of our mobile team and our PC team,” explains Jacobson. “And during the pandemic when we were working from home we decided to stop making that version of the game. The main reason for that, and I probably shouldn’t swear in here, but I’m going to, was because trying to make games for Android tablets is an absolute nightmare, because of the whole fragmentation of that market.
“So we were very happy to be working on Apple devices. But I had to make the decision [to stop Touch development] because it was only going to be on one platform. Secretly, I was hoping that someone from Apple was going to call us and say ‘What have you done?’ And they did! So someone from the Apple Arcade team phones us up, they were the first people on the phone when we made the announcement and said ‘Hey, can we work with you longer term to make certain there’s something here?’”
A through ball from App Store to Apple Arcade
Despite the recent absence of the Football Manager Touch series for iOS devices, Sports Interactive’s relationship with Apple is a long one, going back to the release of Football Manager Mobile back in 2010.
“It’s been a really interesting collaboration because when I think about Apple I think of them initially as a technology company,” says Jacobson.
“But when you actually think about it deeper, they’re not just a technology company. Out of all of those big tech companies that are out there, Apple is a creative business. And that goes back to the days when musicians used to have Macs to be able to use the tools to be able to have recording studios at home. And I always wondered why musicians had Apple laptops when showing me what they were doing with it.”
“When we started talking with Apple, it was a time when (and you should know that I’m a massive film buff as well as a football buff) I had just seen the film called CODA [Apple’s Oscar-winning Apple TV Plus production — ed.]. I knew nothing about it before I saw it and it completely blew me away.”
“Being a bloke I never cry and I was in absolute tears at the end of the film. And immediately I thought that’s gonna win awards. And you wouldn’t have equated that as something that a big tech company would have gotten involved with, right? You wouldn’t have expected The Morning Show to be something that a big tech company would have been involved with. You wouldn’t have thought Ted Lasso was something that a big tech company would have been involved with. But that’s because they care just as much about the creation of the content that’s going to be on that platform as well as the platforms themselves.”
The subscription gaming shootout
But bringing Football Manager Touch 2023 to Apple devices comes as part of a continued, fundamental shift for the franchise — embracing subscription gaming services. As Football Manager Touch 2023 joins Apple Arcade for the first time, it’s the third time the core game has been part of the Xbox Game Pass catalog. For Jacobson, getting the games on such services has been an easy choice — it’s all about growing the player base. And for good reason: Sports Interactive has long wrestled with the illegal piracy of its games.
“We’ve been going for a long time, and we continue to grow our audience over time. But we always used to look at things based on the number of sales. And we’ve actually now changed the way we look at things as a studio — it’s now based on the number of players, because the amount of people that are entertained by us is more important than how much money they’re actually spending with us,” reveals Jacobson.
“If you go back to 2012, we did this massive study on piracy, and how piracy was killing the industry and we worked out that, really, around 1% of those people [pirating the game] would go on to buy the game, the others couldn’t afford to, but that they might do longer term.
“So for me, I’m coming in to talk from my perspective here rather than from the studio’s perspective, I’m a big fan of subscription services as a consumer. I’ve name-dropped a bunch of programs and films today because I love them, and they wouldn’t be possible without those subscription services in place. A film like CODA wouldn’t have been made by most major studios. You’re looking at a script about a deaf family and a very musical sibling and they work as fisher-people — it is not exactly something where Universal is gonna sit there and go ‘wow, that’s a blockbuster.’”
“But because of the way that subscription platforms work, different art can get made and win a bloody Oscar right? Should have won a BAFTA too. Ted Lasso, a comedy about football? The last football TV show that we had in the UK was probably Dream Team, a soap opera on Sky, which was awesome but also ridiculous. Whereas Ted Lasso is a football comedy… that works!”
And that allowance for creative expression extends to games, too?
“There are so many games that wouldn’t get made if it wasn’t for those subscription platforms,” says Jacobson. “And we stopped making Football Manager Touch, yet, Apple came to us and said ‘Right, let’s work on this together.’ And you know, all our dev costs are well covered. It’s a nice feeling. I know that there are some people out there who are anti-subscription, but as long as you’re getting the content, as long as you’re getting the value for money, which I certainly get from being an Apple One [Apple’s subscription bundle that includes News, Fitness, Music and Apple TV Plus] subscriber, just embrace it. The different games I’ve been able to try that I would never have tried before, just because they’re on the device.
“The whole premise of what we do at Sports Interactive is to make the best value-for-money games on the planet. It’s why I go on about playtime so much. And when you look at the catalog of games that are there in Apple Arcade, when you look at the catalog of other things that are there with Apple One as well, it really is incredible.”
“What The Golf? is a personal favorite of mine. I’m spending far too much time playing that.
I had to be so secretive about this project for a whole year when I just wanted to shout from the rooftops about it, so it’s brilliant that I’m able to be here today talking to you about what is a fantastic version of Football Manager: tailored to the Apple Arcade audience, tailored to new players to the franchise people coming in for the first time. But still all of the love and care that comes with the Sports Interactive logo on the game.”
While ‘soccer’ is an increasingly popular sport in the US, it’s never been the heartland of the Football Manager audience that Europe has been. But the reach of the Apple ecosystem affords Football Manager 2023 Touch an international audience it’s never quite managed to court before.
“It’s about bringing the audience in, and looking at those initial download figures and the countries that they are coming in from, we know that we’re going to be bringing a new audience to our work,” says Jacobson.
“Our games do pretty well in Europe. America is one of those markets that we don’t really touch. It’s a bit like the Stereophonics — always nearly there, trying to break America, and they all end up getting drunk and fighting on tour buses. We’d decided to actually embrace that. And rather than it being the mobile team or the PC team or a hybrid of the two, we now have a console team in the studio. And they’re led by a guy called Steve Boyd, who we nicked from Codemasters when they got bought by EA (thanks to EA for doing that, we got quite a few of that team coming in!)
“So we had a new perspective on looking at the way that we look at making games for platforms like the Apple platforms and the consoles that we’re working on. But we also have a team of people in America who are getting the game and going, ‘What the hell are we meant to do?’ And everyone in Europe knows the game really well. We all know that when we boot up the game, you know what we need to do. But one of the things we’re most proud of, and it’s a weird thing to be proud of, is actually the onboarding and the way that we’re going to be able to reach out to this new audience via Apple Arcade. I’m told nine-figure subscribers, I have no idea if those numbers are right or not.”
In the dugout with the Diamond Dogs?
“That audience stays with us for a very very, very long time. Football Manager is not an easy hobby to quit,” says Jacobson.
It’s a point not lost on actor Toheeb Jimoh, the English star best known as AFC Richmond player Sam Obisanya in Apple TV Plus show Ted Lasso. With our meeting with Jacobson taking place on the show’s active series 3 set, Jimoh couldn’t resist popping in to meet Jacobson too, the man responsible for Jimoh’s many lost hours in the clutches of Football Manager addiction.
“Oh man, it was huge,” laughs Jimoh. “The amount of exams I failed playing it!”
“It’s not time wasted, you’re a ‘footballer’ now! Tell your mum it was homework!” jokes Jacobson.
Speaking of Lasso… could a collaboration be on the cards? The show’s fictional AFC Richmond team has already appeared on this year’s FIFA title. Could the Greyhounds ever make it to the Football Manager database? Could players one day join the Diamond Dogs in the dugout?
“We would love to do that and we’re completely open to it,” beams Jacobson.
“We’ve got a few modes where it would definitely work within — I’d love to have a challenge mode of keeping AFC Richmond in the Premiership, but I don’t know what the storyline is for series 3 yet…
“The relationship with Apple is not going to be a short-term one. It’s already been a longtime partnership on Football Manager. We’re all pretty determined for it to not be a short-term relationship when it comes to Apple Arcade. So we’re completely open to it. But then we might have to sack Ted!”
For a virtual seat underneath that ‘Believe’ sign? I’ll grow the mustache myself.