While we have this little time between revelations - while the winter break is working its ill will with us, leaving us cold and bereft of Chicago Fire news - perhaps we have just a moment for something completely different? Perhaps we can even imagine something lovely while we wait for the real news to begin again? I'd like to think so.
I was working in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the summer of 1997 - working as a marketing specialist for a health-care company, while also writing a database app to manage their cell-phone business. I was busy, but bored; lunchtime was my time, and the fact that I seldom left my desk to eat didn't change that. Because, in that same summer of ‘97, I'd stumbled across a link to a demo for a game called Championship Manager 2.
I downloaded the demo, not really sure what to expect. As the link had come from a soccer-talk message board, I assumed the game would have something to do with soccer, but all the original message said was "CM is the greatest game ever!!" or words to that effect. (Yes, it was a simpler time, 1997; any similar message today would have me thinking "trojan horse.")
In some ways, the link was a Trojan horse. What it promised was a management simulation of the world of football, and it was that, surely, but just as surely something astonishingly more. Nowhere was it mentioned that the game was an alternate-universe machine of singular power, nor was its brutal learning-curve cited as insight into the razor-fine margins between success and failure in football, but both were surely true. Within 30 minutes of installation, I was lost.
Championship Manager became my steady lunch-date that fall. My first marriage had guttered, and in alternate universes I could glimpse through the portal that was the game, I found some quiet for my heart full of turbulence; absorption has its own rewards. I led Huddersfield Town from the old Second Division (now League One, the third tier of the English game) to the Premiership, then took over Manchester United when Fergie retired (in 1999, in that game) and led them to multiple European Cups. I failed to lead Athletic Bilbao to the summit of La Liga. I failed to break through in Europe with Leverkusen.
The failure, like the success, were notes to be savored, ruminated upon, perhaps chewed like a cow chews its cud. The game was unforgiving, like the world, and had lots of randomness, like the world, and - again like the world - it was absolutely stuffed to bursting with stories.
Because, see, Football Manager - as Championship Manager has come to be called - doesn't just produce outcomes of football games. It produces stories, whole hosts of them, as many as can be imagined, in every direction, as far as the eye can see. Every player has their story; they progress through time, their skills growing or dwindling, acting petulant or resolute as their personalities dictate. Every team is a host of those player-stories, all jostling against each other; as is every league, and indeed the entire world of football contained therein. FM bundles whole packages of those stories together the same way life does, calling them history, but like the world, history is only told by the observant - it's possible to ignore all of this and just stare at the formation screen. But if stories all bundled into history are something that interests you, and you also enjoy thinking about football, then FM is more addictive than heroin, and can be nearly as all-consuming.
‘The Family Game'
Fast-forward with me, now, perhaps a decade. I am married to my wife Sarah, and we are raising our three daughters from her first marriage; meanwhile, Football Manager ticks away in the background, my not-very-secret obsession. The girls get to the age where they want to know - what in the heck are you doing there, Seannie? And, in the unassuming narcissism of the very young, ask, "Is that me in there?"
Thus was born ‘the family game,' my annual edit of the FM database that inserts family members into the game. When one's 7-year-old daughter wants to see herself in a game one is playing for hours every night, it helps to be able to point and say, "There you are!" So, there we are: Seannie, Mama, Lily, Anya and Kaia, wunderkinds created with a few keystrokes. Inevitably, we play for the Fire - usually, we're very young players, sometimes 16, sometimes 18, but always young. And, as tribute to my own narcissism, the family is always world-class. That's right: The family players have truly world-class potential, 200 out of 200. It's as if the Fire raided the world for five top youth, and got to keep them essentially for free. The games are gonzo, but damned if they aren't fun.
I say world-class when I should say, "Potentially world-class." Because, in FM as in life, potential is no guarantee of future success. I've seen Family games where all five of us prosper in the top leagues in the world; I've also seen games where all five have been shunted, by the unblinking randomness of
fate the game engine, into quieter careers, or perpetually injured, or stuck on the bench behind a bigger name. So if the first thread of each Family game is the Fire, the second is the family itself - how can we nurture these talents to fruition? And how can I, as the patient spider spinning all these webs, leverage the addition of five world-class youngsters into a legacy with the Fire? Can I make CF97 great, and the family great, simultaneously?
This year's crop
Which brings us, now, to this game, our little Winter Fantasy here: The 2013 Chicago Fire, minus five role players, plus five wunderkinds - go!
In this series, I will chronicle the ups and downs of managing an imaginary Fire through the 2013 season. The schedule we'll play will be familiar, but the names on the shirts may not. The stories that result would be enough to fill this blog for years, but we'll restrain ourselves, surely, to summaries, ‘til human voices (in the form of real-world news) wake us, and we drown.
Until next time, then, a snapshot of the Family players to tide you over. I have long adopted a policy of replacing role players I did not fancy with the Family; this is why, for example, Seannie (who is my alter-ego) bears a striking resemblance to Wells Thompson.
Mama will immediately ignite a keeper controversy when placed up against Sean Johnson. Mama's superior foot skills will likely give her a leg up in the fight, as I usually play possession football. (Sarah chose to be a keeper this time ‘round; in previous editions, she's been a wingback, a striker, and a towering centerback).
Lilith is the eldest child of our brood, and at 14 is as changeable in mood and intention as everyone is at that age. To represent that in the game, she is a mercurial striker whose incredible speed (think Dom Oduro, but 18 years old) is a tactics-breaker.
Anya is the most straightforward of our children - hard-working, clever ... and left-handed. In the game, she is a marauding left-sided wingback, one of the most valuable possessions in world football.
Kaia was born with a collapsed lung, and spent two weeks in a NICU before she could come home with twin sister Anya. Perhaps that difficult start engendered her toughness; she's the kid most likely to shake off a nothing injury without complaint. In the game, she's a midfield regulator, skilled enough to keep the ball but thug enough to make opponents worry.
‘Seannie' is my girls' name for me, and in the game he's usually my power-fantasy alternate - a flowing, mercurial No. 10. I accept the mockery this projection encourages.
In Part II: Building a staff, signings and cuttings, and the preseason.