Sometimes, it helps to talk. Welcome to IBWM, Jude Ellery.
It all started at university, back in 2005. Like many (most?) young guys released from the parental shackles holding them responsible for their non-actions, suddenly every day became a free day. I might stumble up the road to snore through a lecture on how sport and politics are inseparable and why cricket statistics are ever so fascinating (they aren’t), but the rest of the time I could do whatever I wanted. As it turned out, what I wanted was very simple and easily achievable on a student budget: to party, and to play Championship Manager.
Like all addicts, I blame someone else. It was my flatmate who encouraged me to play my first multi-player game of Champ 01/02. This is considered a ‘classic’ version, and having both played it for a number of years we each felt we had the upper hand and knew all the undiscovered gems and bargain buys. Don’t we all? Alas, the players I knew, Meysam Javan, Steve Palmer, Stuart Brightwell and Steve Torpey, were useful Conference signings, but I’d made the cardinal sin of letting my heart rule my head. Of course they weren’t up to life at Wolverhampton Wanderers in Division One. My friend/enemy snapped up Stefan Selakovic and Agbar Barsom, and as Millwall he also had a head start with goal-grabbing midfielders Tim Cahill and Paul Ifill. He destroyed me.
Yet I was hooked. Multi-player was the new black. We were weekenders on our own (thanks Lou Reed), playing for ten hours straight just to finish a season or reach that imaginary cup final. I learned from every mistake. In my mind I genuinely became a competent – no, brilliant – football manager. What better way to prove you’re more clued up on the game than your idiotic Liverpool fan of a friend than by mentally pummelling him via the medium of a laptop monitor and wireless internet connection? Who cares if the university provided the web for educational purposes? This was my education.
A couple of years and a couple of versions later and we’ve moved onto the hard shit, the class A. No more basic Champ, times have changed and we’re into Football Manager now. I can see my darling little pixels running about the pitch in a haphazard manner. I can talk to them after the match and sometimes they even listen. Sort of. I can give extremely limited and seemingly ineffective team talks. Blimey, I’m Avram Grant. And it’s heaven. We’ve got our new housemates hooked too. Welcome to our world.
A four player game is even more intense. Champions League spots are at a premium and I’m convinced there’s a conspiracy afoot when denied my rightful place after losing to Reading on the last day of the season. I begin listening to classical music to calm myself during disgustingly tense human v human matches. I receive texts during lectures, asking whether I can let my assistant take control of my League Cup match so my (mentally) ill friend can play his. Transfer fees are through the roof; every youngster’s signature is fought over (sometimes physically) until a compromise can be found to prevent the worst case of hyperinflation since Germany 1923. Usually surrender can be bought at a rate of one can of Carling per £5m.
I start to create my own private story around my team. I seriously consider publishing an online diary about my team, but realise a readership of one would not make this a worthwhile exercise. I’ll keep it all in my head then. Players with silhouettes for faces gain their looks and personalities through their name and nationality alone. Argentine defender Maximiliano Rafael might have poor flair and creativity stats, but he’s still a cultured ball-playing libero in my eyes. He’s also got long hair and sideburns just for good measure.
Rapper Eminem became very relatable at this dark time in my life: ‘Every time I go to try and leave/somethin’ keeps pullin’ on my sleeve/I don’t wanna but I gotta stay/these drugs really got a hold on me.’ Well the game was my drug and the ‘thing’ pulling on my sleeve was a flatmate’s depressingly pale hand, begging me to click ‘continue’ so he could play his Copa del Ray quarter-final match away to Zaragoza (I’d been knocked out) while I cocked up a two-minute spag bol then rushed back upstairs to scout for promising full backs in the J. League. And by heck did I find them.
One of the problems with video game addiction is the blur between reality and fiction. Like the ever-so-realistic wet dream a pubescent schoolboy has about dating the girl next door, sometimes it’s hard to recall whether the young Romanian prodigy whom Chelsea are trailing has actually bagged 20 goals in seven under-21 games, or whether this was merely virtual reality. The sticky sheets were due to a spilt bottle of Sainsbury’s dry cider from the night before. Honest.
But that distortion is only a side effect. The main problem, apart from minor interferences with ‘real’ issues like work, relationships and the like, is what happens when you come off the drug. Four years later I move back home and break free from the spell. Now all I have is memories. My Everton team. Oh what a team. Countless Premier League and Champions League trophies (probably about four, but it seemed more at the time) and the generated players who now occupy a place in my heart alongside Peter Schmeichel’s red nose and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s right boot. I feel so indebted to three of these ‘fakies’ it’s a wrench not to name them; I must remind myself even their names weren’t real. At least Alexander Farnerud and Freddy Adu exist, even if they are crap.
Having immersed myself in multi-player madness, single-player seemed utterly one-dimensional in comparison. What’s the point in struggling my way to five successive promotions with minnows Fleetwood Town if nobody’s watching? Who have I beaten there? A computer? Of course I’m cleverer than that damn thing, it can’t even switch itself on without my help (although I have discovered during long unsaved periods of play that it can sure as hell switch itself off without my help).
The game’s still the same, it’s still a brilliant database of unpronounceable names and unbelievable average rating statistics, but its context has changed, forever. Playing on my own just feels like what it is: a massive waste of time. Everything about Football Manager seems so empty now. Everything, that is, apart from the still-pristine CD case which has finally been reunited with its estranged disc.
My bubble’s well and truly burst. I’m on the other side. I’ve been wrenched out of the matrix and can see the game for what it is: a meaningless stream of numbers. Not only this, but meaningless fun doesn’t appeal to me in other areas of life much any more either. I want things to mean things. Maybe this is what it is to grow up, to gain perspective, to live and learn, to love and yearn.
Like all recovering addicts, I’ve got to find something else to fill my time. It’s a personality trait that can’t be fixed, only managed. Currently I’m throwing myself keyboard first into the footballing blogosphere, hoping that some schmuck at the BBC or Guardian will read my ramblings and offer me a real writing job. I still have my relapses, like when Champ 02/03 hero Peter Odemwingie was discovered by West Brom or when I befriended my all-time favourite Swedish striker, Meysam Javan, on facebook. But I’m using this article as a form of catharsis. Admitting these slip-ups helps me get over them and move on. I’ll be free of the demons one day, but for now, I’m not quite strong enough, not quite old enough, not quite ready. Plug me back in, for just one more season, please.
To read more from Jude, visit the excellent Football Farrago.