Could fantasy football be a way to find real-life players? Media Fellow Nicky Danino reports from the British Science Festival on how the big teams are using data to find the next generation of star players.


Back in 2000, Alex McLeish, former manager at Rangers, was being pestered by his son to sign up a talented 13-year-old by the name of Lionel Messi. McLeish's son discovered Messi during a game of Football Manager, a football management simulation game developed by Sports Interactive.

McLeish dismissed his son with a pat on the head, telling him that he’d never heard of the player.

Tom Markham, head of strategic business development at Sports Interactive told attendees at the British Science Festival in Swansea this story of how MacLeish could have discovered a young Messi, through a computer game.

Other premier league devotees of Football Manager include Manchester United star Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who says former team-mate Jordi Cruyff got him into the game.

“Me and Jordi Cruyff played a lot against each other, and he got me into the Spanish league and all those players, whilst I was more into the English league.”

For those not familiar with Football Manager, it is an immersive game in which football fans take charge of their favourite club, buy and sell players, choose tactics, pick the team and try and go one step further than their real-life counterparts.

Over 2 million copies of the game have been sold in the last decade, with over 2 million people playing each year on PC. The typical user will spend more than 200 hours playing, with the largest demographic being 17-35 year old males. At any one time around 83,000 players could be participating in the game.

The most interesting feature of Football Manager is that it features ProZone Match Analysis, so that match data from the game can be shared with real-life analysts. Sports Interactive developed the feature in conjunction with ProZone, a real-life analysis company. This sharing of data with one another creates a symbiotic relationship between the world of real and virtual sports.

But why are football clubs using this data? On average, a football club will have only seven scouts, which means they have limited resources to go and look for players.This is where the data really kicks in. They use the match analysis to whittle down the list and then use their scouts to check out the players properly. Certain clubs are now compiling data from every angle and moulding it for their use.

"We now have a network of 1,300 scouts in 52 countries," said Tom Markham. "They grade 650,000 players, coaches and backroom staff based on 250 attributes."

Football Manager’s database is full with information on 320,000 active players, drawn from 116 divisions in 51 countries and lists up to 250 data points on each individual, such as their fitness, stamina, acceleration and speed, all of which is used to bring credibility to the game. The 250 items now go way beyond technical ability, on-pitch strengths and biographical basics like age, height, weight, appearances, goals and honours. As well as these fundamental characteristics, other features are also considered such as language fluency of players, passport eligibility, salaries, and also even personal characteristics such as temperament (though these are not publicly accessible for legal reasons).

Whilst finding the next Messi is not guaranteed, the detailed database behind Football Manager makes it more than just a fantasy game, it offers real life information for today's transfer savvy clubs.  

Nicky Danino is a University of Central Lancashire Media Fellow, placed at BBC Breakfast. She is a Principal Lecturer in the School of Physical Sciences and Computing at the University of Central Lancashire.

Image credit: Vivian Hayles via Flickr.