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'Attacking someone's family over a video game is not acceptable' - Miles Jacobson

The Sports Interactive boss talks angry gamers, Brexit and 'very, very, very false' SteamSpy data

It's been a tough few weeks for Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson.

The studio's next Football Manager game, which arrives this Friday, is on course to break franchise records, with pre-order figures up by 'double digits' over its predecessor. Yet Jacobson might well be feeling more exhausted than elated. The Football Manager 2017 PR campaign has been fraught with unexpected challenges, with the developer coming under fire from its Chinese fanbase and even Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.

It's Jacobson, as the studio's leader-cum-spokesperson, who has taken the brunt of most of it. Take, for instance, the latest controversy surrounding Football Manager 2017 in China, where the PC title hasn't been successful enough to justify fully localising the game. Chinese fans have felt let-down by this, with many citing an old tweet from Jacobson suggesting that the studio might translate the title if it ever passes a certain sales threshold.

These gamers insist that this milestone has been reached, quoting SteamSpy figures that Miles Jacobson describes as 'very, very, very false' and 'up to 60 percent wrong' in some instances. Yet Chinese users still feel let down, and have expressed their dismay by leaving negative reviews for the game on Steam.

The game's publisher Sega has since reacted by promising to localise Football Manager 2017, but Jacobson has still found himself under a barrage of hate from the game's Chinese players.

"It is always a difficult situation to be in, because whenever you anger anyone on the internet, it gets amplified massively," Jacobson tells Gamesindustry.biz.

"This is one of those cases where they've decided to do a protest very publicly, and it therefore seems to be a very big thing. I'm not saying it isn't a big problem for those people, just to be clear, they clearly have a big problem with it, but to say we've angered everyone in China...that's not the case.

"I'm quite used to getting death threats over a video game."

Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive

"I have to be very careful on this subject, because I have had death threats over this. I don't mind, well I do mind, but I'm quite used to getting death threats over a video game. But when people start bringing my family into it, that's not good. When people are accusing me of being racist, as someone who is an ambassador for Kick Racism Out Of Football, that's not great. Because I'm not racist, and I don't think death threats over a video game are acceptable, and attacking someone's family is really, really not acceptable."

Death threats from aggressive video game fans have become a common occurrence for people working within the business, and it's unclear over what measures can be done to effectively deal with the situation.

Jacobson continues: "What can we do? It is hard to manage this sort of thing delicately. I am someone who is very accessible for our fans. I try to reply to everyone on Twitter who is polite to me. I think I have something like 130,000 tweets that I've sent because I do that. If someone has taken the trouble to ask me a question politely, then I answer politely. If someone doesn't ask me a question politely then they either get ignored or blocked. Nobody in this industry has to make themselves available. When I was growing up, if I wanted to get hold of a game developer then I had to write a letter, and you certainly wouldn't hear back from them.

"It is one of life's things. I put myself out there, I make myself available, so therefore I have to expect that if I do something that annoys them, then they are going to have a go at me."

It's not the only time Sports Interactive has found itself on the wrong side of fans in the build-up to Football Manager 2017. The other example comes when the firm unveiled a loyalty scheme for the game's more dedicated players, where it offered up to 20 percent off the title if users had brought previous versions in the franchise.

The only catch is that gamers had to order the product before a certain deadline, which some fans reacted negatively towards, as Sports Interactive had yet to reveal any details about the game's new features.

"There were people who were angry about our pre-order offer, although there were no death threats over that," Jacobson says.

"It's like an early bird offering. We have very loyal fans who will buy our game every year, and I wanted to reward them. If people wanted to wait until they know about every new feature, or wait until they've played a demo, that is fine as well - but then they won't be able to get the discount that we organised with Steam. As far as I am aware, that's the first time that has been done for a game, where you get money off for having owned previous versions, and it is something that I hope more developers do.

"There have been times in the last week where I've just wanted to shut down my Twitter account."

Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive

"But there are times when you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't. So we try to do. It's not going to stop me trying new things, and it's not going to stop me being accessible to people - although there have been times in the last week where I've just wanted to shut down my Twitter account. But at the end of the day, doing that would be unfair on the 99.8 percent of people who tweet me who are lovely."

It's not just certain vocal fans that Jacobson has found himself sparring with, as he's also received a telling off from political figures, too. Although you feel he may be a little more proud of this one.

Once the UK had voted to leave the European Union in June, the Sports Interactive team introduced the situation into Football Manager 2017. In this year's game, after users have played a few seasons, Brexit will occur, which may (or may not) have a negative impact upon the English Premier League.

When Sports Interactive announced that Brexit would be in the game, it was immediately picked up by the national and international media.

Miles Jacobson on The Daily Politics discussing Brexit

"We never did it for PR, so it surprised us somewhat," Jacobson insists.

"We put the feature into the game because it is part of our lives, and it is going to happen. The feature was designed the weekend after the vote and it was mainly done by me. I sat on my sofa, reading loads of reports, and I was trying to work out how it would affect things. I had already looked at what it meant for us as a studio, especially as 30 percent of our most skilled team members here are from the EU.

"From the football world, I had read one article from Baroness Brady [Karen Brady, West Ham vice chairman) about how many footballers wouldn't qualify for work permits. So I sat there and went into a lot more detail and tried to work out all the different permutations. We then put it into the game.

"Originally we wanted to place it just with the Financial Times, then The Telegraph started talking to us, then suddenly, a day later, I found myself on the Daily Politics, and Ciaran [Brennan, PR director] was on The Today Show. We have done CNN and we have had interest from all around the world - seemingly because the UK Government hasn't gone into the same level of detail as we have in working it all out. At least, that's the feedback I have had from politicians that I've presented to."

However, once again, not everyone was pleased with Sports Interactive's work.

"A political party in Northern Ireland say that we've been irresponsible."

Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive

"There's a political party in Northern Ireland that isn't particularly happy with us [Democratic Unionist Party]. They've claimed that what we've done is irresponsible," Jacobson says.

"In reality, when people in Northern Ireland find out what is going to happen with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then there is a possibility - seeing as Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU - that they might decide to leave the UK and be an independent country within the EU. We have that scenario in the game. It has the lowest percentage chance of any of the scenarios, I believe it's something like one in three million chance of happening. But there are some political parties out there that aren't particularly happy about it being in there at all, but we've never been one to hold back on game features based on whether it might cause problems for some other people. We have to be able to illustrate that there is going to be an impact on English football.

"I think once people have seen it in game, and experienced it, they'll either love it or hate it, depending on the scenario the they get. In my current game, I've got a situation where we have had a Hard Brexit, but it's the lighter side of the Hard Brexit. So all EU players have to get work permits, but the chances of them getting work permits have actually risen compared to how the system works currently. So I can still sign players for my Watford team, so it's ok for me."

Football Manager still sells well at physical retail

It's certainly been an interesting build-up to the launch of Football Manager 2017, but these headline don't seem to have hurt the game's popularity. Jacobson says that if you strip away the Chinese review scores, the game's Beta has a rating of 87 on Steam, and that the pre-orders are by far the biggest the franchise has ever had.

He stops short of suggesting that this might be the biggest game in the series. A lot of it depends on how quickly the game gets pirated, and then comes the challenge of physical retail. Football Manager remains a popular boxed product, and it's unclear how things might perform there.

"It could be that on Friday, when the game is release, we could find out that the day one is actually lower than last year," he acknowledges.

"But at the moment, based on digital pre-orders, we are double-digit higher, which is awesome. It also shows that the loyalty scheme works.

"Physical retail decline has been way slower for us [than other PC games]. We saw a slight drop over the last couple of years and we are expecting a bigger drop this year. The reason we expect a bigger drop is because there will be fewer retailers stocking PC games. But for a lot of people who play Football Manager, it is the only game they really play, and they might not know that Steam is a platform you can even buy games on."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who