FIFA and Madden are gaming behemoths, but in-depth simulators like Football Manager (FM), Franchise Hockey Manager, and Out of the Park Baseball (OOTP) have niche appeal. OOTP players aren’t hitting home runs in the World Series; they’re studying scouting reports and financial data to ensure the player they’re considering signing could offer reasonable value five years from now.
In a simulator, running a pro sports franchise boils down to pouring through reams of data. You can make tactical decisions in crudely animated games, but you’re still ceding direct control and hoping the players you developed will justify your faith in them. While this is joyous to statheads, a hands-off approach in games that are a mere graphical improvement to an Excel spreadsheet aren’t for everyone.
But simulators also allow players to create and control entire leagues. The creative side of these games can be as simple as forcing a star to be traded, or it can be as complicated as creating a detailed fictional world and watching it play out over centuries. Players have invested hundreds of hours in leagues based on everything from pop culture franchises to alternate world histories. In doing so, stories have emerged from walls of data.
Baseball in the Kanto Region
Football Manager fans can download the Wakandan Football League, which contains 38 clubs spread across two divisions, each with custom crests, kits, and players loaded with references to Marvel comics. On the OOTP forums, you can read about a league set during a far-future attempt to re-establish professional baseball as humanity rebuilds after an apocalypse. There’s no “post-apocalypse” button in OOTP, but the creator sets the scene by reporting on league developments in the form of letters from a ball player. Or you can visit the website for the Great Lakes Baseball League, a fictional league indistinguishable from many real ones that comes alive thanks to years of news write ups and detailed statistical tracking.
While the video games themselves just produce data, players can add visuals and write ups to create realism and drama. Twitch streamer Nick Ritt, who made an elaborate OOTP league based on the Pokémon universe, tells Fanbyte about his motivation. “The appeal is just creating something,” he says. “When a game gives you the ability to create a team, it just hits me. I’m not an overly creative person, but I can spend hours and hours editing things in games.”
Partially inspired by a league set in the Fallout universe, Ritt’s league includes teams from every Pokémon region, as well as a detailed minor league system and feeder leagues at the high school and college level. OOTP allows you to add demographic data, which it then pulls from when generating fictional players, so only a few players may come from humble Pallet Town while hundreds could emerge from sprawling Goldenrod City. You can track a player as he begins in a small high school and eventually ends up a superstar on the other side of the Pokémon world.
“Back in 2015 I stumbled across OOTP and was amazed at the lengths you could go,” Ritt says. “I wanted to go as in-depth as possible, so I spent a good week jotting down all the cities, assigning them market sizes, and checking the population based on the Pokémon games. I then tried my damndest to get each [minor league] team to fall under the same region as its parent (i.e. Pallet Town to Pewter City to Cerulean City).”
Ritt then used fan-made apps to create logos, hats, and jerseys for every single team, a time sink that’s a major part of creating a convincing universe. Pokémon is a natural fit for baseball; not only are many of its regions inspired by the geography and culture of Japan, a baseball-mad country, but it makes sense that a fictional world as detailed as Pokémon would have professional sports, and that its teams would be influenced by the all-pervasive pocket monsters. Pokémon Sword & Shield, inspired by the United Kingdom, even leaned into Britain’s love of sport. And so in Ritt’s world Goldenrod, for example, is home to the Miltanks, a nod to that city’s infamous gym leader battle.
Not every fictional league has to be this elaborate, or based on an existing IP. One of Redditor Ron Bronson’s Football Manager creations is a humble Caribbean country called St. Benedict.
“Football Manager has a real bias towards Europe,” he says. “Because I don’t really care about football like a traditional fan — I watch, but I’m not passionate — I am far more interested in storylines and mock scenarios where there’s more diversity. What FM does well is generate realistic names and make you feel like you’re participating in a vast universe, so why only utilize small parts of that world? It’s a lot more fun when the storylines diverge from real life, or else I’d just watch real football.”
Players can watch passively, or jump in and develop a regional powerhouse. In the grand scheme of world football, a Caribbean dynasty isn’t even a blip on the radar. But part of the fun of fictional leagues is witnessing sporting achievements that no one else has ever seen, even if it’s just a team of part-timers sponsored by a local pizza chain winning back-to-back titles.
Sports are, in their own way, tied to history; a 1951 home run is partially famous because it was heard in Korea by servicemen. Even people who don’t care about baseball know famous teams like the Yankees, players like Jackie Robinson, and storylines like the Cubs’ 108-year World Series drought. Teams show up in movies, superstars are used as synonyms for success. Blowing all that up creates a subtly different reality.
In Redditor Joël C’s world it’s the 1970s, the Montreal Wanderers are a baseball dynasty, and the sport is taking off in Europe. “[I have] a passion for history and alternate reality,” he says. “The bulk of my OOTP experience comes from being able to tell my own story and see what naturally develops. My current game [began] in 1944, in this reality MLB never really took off, therefore a few different leagues decide to merge to secure the future of baseball.”
You can, if you want, use OOTP to rewrite over a century of changes to the sport’s tactics, rulebook, and finances, creating a version of baseball that only vaguely resembles what we see today. “I’ve created a spreadsheet I call my playbook,” Joël says. “In it I’ve written down over 80 years of future evolution. Years where the league expands, when a team moves cities, what nationalities players come from and at what rate, the financial evolution of the league, it’s all documented and pre-planned.”
Instead of a total rewrite, you can also subtly edit the world. Another one of Bronson’s creations is the fictional European country of Neloxia, which he slotted into Football Manager.
“Neloxia is based on a childhood story I wrote. Once I created this vast world it was difficult to imagine playing anywhere else. What’s fun is there are people I know who play FM with Neloxia as their primary nation.”
Describing Neloxia as a “vibrant social democracy” with a polyglot culture, Bronson has also created regions of Neloxia in Cities: Skylines and expounded on its culture, history, and culinary tastes in blog posts. Having essentially created a multimedia project, he noted that sports play an important role in building a believable world.
“A lot of people make custom leagues, but they’re so bad at world building and so the immersion is hard and you eventually get bored. Diversity of names/players/cities makes it a lot more engaging.”
Bonding With Stat Lines
Every story needs characters. But how do personalities develop out of walls of data? Games like FM and OOTP do their best to add verisimilitude, as auto-generated news articles will tell stories of players endorsing products, getting in fights, and even injuring themselves in roofing accidents. But, as Joël explains, it’s ultimately up to the game’s player to immerse themselves in their world.
“OOTP is fantastic as a means of storytelling, however it does come down to the person playing. As much as I like to drive the narrative and have a story plan, there are moments where I need to imagine a scenario,” he says. “Justin Ziv, a longtime pitcher for my Montreal team, had been released by the A.I. manager, a move I personally didn’t like. Because of that, I imagined Ziv and the manager got into a disagreement over his usage, and Ziv asked for his release. He went on to play three years on three different teams before returning for one year at age 41 with Montreal. It felt like he was having a farewell tour, the proper send off he was denied years earlier.”
Baseball is perhaps uniquely suited for this, as its reams of statistics can create a bigger picture of what a player was like. Joël doesn’t even consider himself a huge baseball fan, but finds that OOTP’s deep customisation options gel nicely with his love of history and storytelling. He has, over the last six years, put about 660 hours into his baseball universe, and can recall the sagas of individual players like “the Smashing Dutchman,” the first European to go pro in America, or Zachary Langley, a high-profile rookie who had an incredible 8 RBI debut game before quickly washing out.
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Bronson, meanwhile, has been running one fictional league since OOTP’s 2004 installment, and now has 300 years of history to examine. “I had several generations of a family playing over 100 years, including cousins, nephews and so forth. Sometimes they’d even change nationalities due to immigration.”
Regardless of the sport, the strength of simulators is the ability to watch decades upon decades of fictional sporting history unfold. We can’t hit fast-forward on real-life sports, but doing so in games allows countless narratives to emerge, whether it’s a team struggling to win their first championship or an all-star taking his services to his once-bitter rival. And, as Ritt explained, no matter how much planning you do the best stories often come from sports’ fickle randomness.
“The beauty with these games is becoming attached to these completely fictional players. Ask any player and they would be able to talk your ear off about their no name kid who suddenly developed into the next Ken Griffey Jr. That heartbreaking loss after your star quarterback overthrew on 4th down in the Super Bowl. Or that time when you subbed a 17-year-old striker on and he scored the winning goal in the 93rd minute to win the Champions League for your third division team you’ve dragged up from the ditches. It’s what makes these games so amazing and such a huge part of our lives. It’s all a story to tell.”