The Sponsors Game

On 6th August 2011 the Dons kicked off the second coming of Wimbledon in the Football League by wearing a replica of the short worn the first time the club battled its way out of the non-league game. ‘Replica’ is was, as although it looked familiar enough, there were a number of differences. Mainly these changes reflected the commercially driven modern game we know and love – the most notable being the absence of those three blue stripes on the arm, replaced with a thick blue one thanks to insurmountable trademark issues. The shirt was also sullied with squad numbers and names, and competition decals… and yet the front remained beautifully untainted.

Sponsorship logos are now so lodged into the psyche of the average football fan, albeit crowbarred in by decades of presence, that even in the beer leagues we perform a double-take upon encountering a club sporting shirts free of corporate endorsement. As Dons fans we’ve wandered the country advertising the wares of the likes of Samsung and Carlsberg, LBC, the much detested Maximuscle, Elonex and Tiny (the last providing one of my most embarrassing moments sporting a replica shirt, when a Middlesborough fan encountered at Thornton Heath station after an evening cup replay gleefully pointed out ‘that fat coonts got Tiny on his shirt!’)

The rebirth and subsequent supporter ownership of our club opened up many possibilities that previously would have been unthinkable had the club remained in private hands, one of which was the option of leaving our shirt unspoiled by advertising. Our more radical cousins in Manchester chose that option, and it was one I desperately hoped we would consider, at least to begin with.

Yet from the moment our first shirt sponsor was announced I knew the correct decision had been made… Sports Interactive and AFC Wimbledon were a marriage made in heaven from the moment those nervous trialists set foot on the Gander Green Lane pitch wearing shirts borrowed from our new partners, right up to the aforementioned Bristol Rovers game where the Dons strode out in front of millions of viewers around the world in jerseys devoid of the SI name, publicity probably worth a five-figure sum commercially pretty much waived by a sponsor eager to help. Such a minor detail, but a gesture that meant a great deal to many Dons fans…

One of the benefits of the sponsorship deal is the knowledge we have agreed a commercial endorsement with a company who loves that game almost as much as we do. The game is essentially produced for people like myself (and presumably many of you reading this now)… people not afraid to stand up and say ‘Yes! I am a football geek!’. Back when I was a kid, the majority of my plentiful free time was taken up either watching or playing football… but these were the days before computers, so wet afternoons in the holidays meant Subbuteo competitions with hugely unrealistic scorelines due to my insistence on the realism of a ninety minute match, playing left hand v right hand when I couldn’t find a willing opponent or they walked off half way through.

But if the Subbuteo set was stuck in an inaccessible place (my parents frequently stored it in the loft if I went a few months without using it…), the only option was dice football. This meant rolling dice to determine the score, with the number corresponding to the number of goals scored, unless I rolled a five or six in which case the dice was rolled again and recorded as nil unless the same number was rolled… very complicated and very very random, the real pleasure came in planning home and away fixtures for every club, as well as the two cup competitions. As I said, I was and still am a football geek, a football geek who perhaps missed his calling into the world of sports administration (I don’t own a blazer, but I do like a biscuit or two)…

Eventually my parents managed to scrape the money together for a computer one Christmas, and the world of the football management game came to take over many an evening. There was the original Football Manager, looking retro but hugely limited now, as well as my personal favourite, Football Director. Text only, this allowed you to control the financial side of things as well as players, and its attention to detail (at the time) pretty much captivated me… wet Saturdays with no adults available to take me to ‘proper football’ would see me spend hours guiding the Dons to European success…

Yet it still wasn’t in-depth enough for my liking, and I soon tired of it – plus I’d learnt how to acquire endless amounts of cash, despite knowing it was wrong my pre-teen mind wouldn’t allow me to play the game properly, and ultimately it ruined the game for me. Other games came and went (I’m not even going into the amount of homework left undone thanks to Sensible World of Soccer…). But eventually I grew old enough to be allowed to attend at least home games on my own, that combined with other activities drew me away from the computer…

That was until someone gave me their copy of Championship Manager 93/94. As far as I was concerned it had everything, just the attention to detail I was looking for in a game, and it literally occupied days at a time, to the point my worried parents took the drastic step of removing my computer a few months before my GCSE’s – which probably saved me in a few subjects. Yet I had it back in time for me to start my A-Levels, to this day I blame that game for knocking me down at least a grade in every subject… and from conversations I had with friends at the time I don’t think I was the only one…

Everyone who played the game at the time, and the various versions that followed, would have memories of players whose career in the game surpassed anything they achieved in the real world. Nii Lamptey was an example of that personally, the African Pele tipped to be a world star became the epitome of unfulfilled promise, yet in my game was a key member of a multi-championship winning side. And Paul Warhurst, a solid Premier League player in reality, the lynchpin of club and country under my command…

The nature of video games were changing… There was no need for a desktop computer when you could just plug a console into any old TV, but not compatible with in-depth strategy games. Personal circumstances were changing, in my twenties I didn’t have the time for this type of gaming anyway, post-work pre-pub time was limited… plus I had acquired a certain satellite television service meaning whenever I got free time of an evening there would invariably be a football match I could watch.

Yet I still missed the game… personal circumstances changed as I headed into my late twenties, various marriages (not least my own) decimated my social circle, financial considerations reduced the number of nights I found myself out on the town reducing from four, to three, to two, until almost without noticing I find myself lucky to get a night out once a week. Plenty of free time, enough to start a blog about the Dons with more to spare, still as big a football geek as I was as a kid (maybe more so)…

But the game was still there waiting for me. Not Championship Manager anymore, SI’s split with Eidos meaning the game bearing that name was a pale imitation… Football Manager was now the one to own, circumstance forcing our new sponsors to rebrand, but the soul was there – as were various improvements. The starkest of those being rather than text commentary, you could now actually see the action… first in 2D, then 3D. I have to say I was dubious of this at first – how could a mere computer simulate the movement and patterns of a real football match?

Yet they’ve done a surprisingly good job of it. Occasionally you get an instance where a player simply stops and seemingly runs on the spot for twenty seconds before continuing, but when your managing the Dons and Ryan Jackson is on the field I simply regard it as ultra authentic…

There are certain elements of the managerial process that for various reasons aren’t replicated in the gameplay. Unlike their real world counterparts, clubs finances are controlled far more strictly, it’s not the mess of multi-billion pound debt and administration we know and love. Plus I don’t know how, for example, the company that looks after Wayne Rooney’s PR would react if screen grabs started appearing advising he was fined for some indiscretion or other…

Yet for me, this adds to the appeal. Every new version of the game adds detail, brings new challenges. For 2012 I’m looking forward to is the option of switching to leagues across the globe without having to preload loads of different nations and have the slowest game ever. And of course I have the demo up and ready to go… but I won’t be buying the game just yet. SI are perhaps a victim of their own success in this respect, but I’m enjoying my 2011 game so much I’ll be sticking to it for now… in fact I’ll be sticking it on a little later when my wife heads off to work (spouses don’t appreciate the game as much for some reason…). For an in-depth game such as this means I average six weeks to complete a season, so my current save has plenty of legs left in it.

Yet I don’t think this will affect SI as much as you’d think. The 2011 game returned to the top of the sales charts eight months after its release earlier in the year, like AFCW the SI juggernaut is showing no signs of slowing, and hopefully our shirts will continue to bear their name for many years to come.

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4 thoughts on “The Sponsors Game

  1. s_conner says:

    My brother and I lost many hours to Pro Action Soccer (i think?). Which essentially was subbuteo with players mounted on magnets. Good times.

    • dons4div4 says:

      Me and BrisDon had something like it too, you worked the players by sticks under the board.

      Occasionally a magnet would fall off and get stuck under another player, causing them to totter, lurch and judder alarmingly as they continued to maraud around in an uncontrolled fashion, half as big again as everybody else.

      To our great amusement at the time we always deemed this to be Brian Martin, but nowadays everybody would have immediately recognised Lee Minshull.

  2. dons4div4 says:

    Was subutteo so annoying to adults years ago as micropieces, eartunes and mulberries or whatever they’re called are today?

    I think not. Hours of harmless fun, the original fantasy football.

    “Well let’s just pretend Wimbledon have got through to the third round of the Cup and then they could be playing Spurs.”

    “Yeh, but Wimbledon would never be winning 3-0, so why can’t you just be West Brom or something?”

    “One day they could be a big club! Your go.”

    Like you say AD, this Wimbledon thing gets under your skin and you’re hooked for life.

    • anonymousdon says:

      In answer to your first question, Subbuteo was annoying to anyone if trodden on in bare feet on a midnight trip to the bathroom. In much the same way as Lego…

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