Every month an industry leader wraps up MCV with their unique insight. In February, our Final Boss is studio director at Sports Interactive Miles Jacobson.
Almost 25 years at Sports Interactive – it sounds like a record-breaking run – how much has changed? What’s stayed the same?
As a studio, we are constantly changing and evolving. The growth has been very organic over the years; there were just a handful of us when I first got involved about 25 years ago (first as a part-time beta tester, then as a researcher, then business manager, then MD, through to my current role) and we’re now a studio of more than 100… and planning a major recruitment drive over the next 12 months.
From making one game with just the UK leagues, through data packs for other leagues, then multiple countries and leagues in one box, other sports (hockey and baseball), changing brand from Championship Manager to Football Manager, three attempts at pushing online titles in various countries, to where we are now with Football Manager, Football Manager Mobile, Football Manager Touch, FMdB and a new project on the way (codename, Project Yuka). So many formats, so many business models, transitioning from mainly retail to mainly digital.
What’s stayed the same is the desire to create the best living, breathing world in video games, set in a football universe. And large chunks of the team have stayed the same too – out of the 35 people in the team which became part of Sega 12 years ago, 28 are still at the studio. Of the current team, 40 are 10-year veterans and there are lots more with more than five years under their belts. That’s really helped with quality over the years, as we have the best possible team to make the games we want to make – not just with the old guard, but some amazing talent who has joined recently (both experienced and some amazingly talented new people in the industry).
It’s been an incredible ride so far – and that will continue. We had major changes last year with our move to Here East (the former 2012 Olympic Media Centre) and a new structure which has seen the arrival of Matt Carroll from Disney as COO and Marc Duffy (who has been with us for 20 years, give or take) becoming production director.
This has freed me up a bit to concentrate more on the creative and strategy sides, and I’m very proud that the team produced not only what we thought was our best game last year with FM19, but also that the press and our players agreed. Now the job is to continue to improve both gameplay and technology wise and we’ll continue to adapt and rise to the challenges that we all face as an industry over the next few years with all kinds of possibilities, both creatively and in terms of our business model.
Your passion for football is obvious, can the industries learn from each other?
We do learn from each other all the time. Football games have been largely responsible for a big push on the statistics side of football, which the sport has largely embraced and has become part of the day-to-day business of football now. Our relationships with real life clubs show that – not just on the obvious partnership and sponsorship side, but also behind the scenes with us working with lots of clubs on data projects and providing data to them.
I’m also incredibly lucky to have unrivalled access to lots of clubs and people who work in football, with the ability to attend training sessions, talk regularly to CEOs, managers, coaches and players at clubs. We have nearly 2,000 people who work in football helping us as alpha testers of our games, and their input is invaluable.
Being so close to the sport that we simulate means we often find out about changes in the real world well before they are known about publicly, so we’re able to get things into the game without panic. We’re also very fortunate that people working in the sport often visit the studio and we have a series of internal talks that we call ‘FootTalks’, where we as a team can see presentations and question people at the top of their professions, which spreads the knowledge amongst the whole team.
Can the games industry possibly change as much over the next five years as it has over the last five?
I believe that the next five years will see some incredibly exciting changes, some seismic. From new business models to new platforms, we’re all going to have to think in a very agile way and it’s something that really excites me. We hope to be trailblazing as a studio with some of the initiatives we have lined up.
With the greatest respect to your current role, what is your dream job?
When I was a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I was never going to make it as a footballer and I wasn’t going to be a rock star as, despite being a performer as a child, my voice wasn’t the same once my balls dropped. I fell in love with the music industry when working in a record shop, and was very lucky to have a successful career in it.
That transitioned over time into games. I’ve been able to be involved in the making of other entertainment media of the years too – and as I’ve always enjoyed entertaining people, and have managed to merge all of my hobbies into my jobs over the years, I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve had dream jobs and still love the vast majority of minutes of what I do now, straddling video games and football.
There aren’t many (non-mobile) developers in London proper. Why are you based in the Olympic Park?
We’ve always been based in London, ever since Oliver and Paul Collyer (the founders of SI and the brothers who made the first Championship Manager game in their bedrooms) moved here from Shropshire. When we were getting ready to leave our previous Old Street base, we did look at options outside of London, but when we went to see Here East we fell in love with the space and the possibilities for the future there. It’s been a great move – it’s a really creative cluster of businesses, with great facilities and transport links. The only think it’s missing is a Pokemon Go Gym.
What’s was the most significant single moment of your career to date?
I think the move from Championship Manager to Football Manager – and subsequently selling more copies of the second Football Manager release than any previous CM – was a really important part of our story. We were told we were crazy by the vast majority of the industry – and we probably were – but it worked out really well and gave us so many freedoms that we didn’t have previously.
As part of that, signing with Sega (despite them being the least obvious partner at the time) was really transformative as they were so hungry to get back to success after the problems they’d had with Dreamcast. We’re very proud to have been a small part in their resurgence and the way they treat us and their other studios is something everyone in the industry can learn from.
Do you feel the games industry is headed in the right direction?
I don’t think the wider industry gets the recognition that it deserves, but we’re still at a very early stage as an industry, with ridiculous growth with can be difficult for us to manage and for others to understand. It’s become an established entertainment medium, which brings lots of responsibility – which I think we live up to, especially from a charitable perspective. We can always do more, though, and the majority are trying to do so.
What continues to impress you about the industry?
I continue to be impressed with the industry’s ability to reinvent itself and hit every challenge, technical or business, head on. We need to be mindful, though, to not make the same mistakes as some industries who haven’t embraced new technology or business models in the way we have. We also need to make sure that we set the agenda when it comes to these things, as other industries have failed to do this and it’s hit them hard, both financially and creatively.