Although many fans played the original Football Manager in different platforms, the game has become almost synonymous with Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum. It was in many ways the perfect marriage: a genre-defining football simulator meets a ground-breaking machine to foster a technological revolution in the UK.
The accessibility and colour graphics of the Spectrum made home computers a mainstream staple of British households, opening the doors for games like Football Manager to dazzle and captivate a much bigger audience with quick-paced simulation and 3D match highlights. This symbiotic relationship established the Football Manager franchise as a giant in the video game industry and enabled the ZX Spectrum to outlive most, if not all its rivals of the same generation of home computers.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the first Football Manager game was not created for the ZX Spectrum. Over forty years ago, Kevin Toms developed the first playable version of the football management simulation game we all came to fall in love with. But Toms did not make in on the Spectrum – in fact, he did not make it in a Sinclair computer at all.
Around the time that Toms began developing his first game, home computers were a luxury. They were extremely expensive and offered very little in terms of computer capability. For example, the Apple II+ released in mid-1979 cost a staggering $1,195, which today would be something like $5,245 or about £4,019 – more than most state-of-the-art gaming PC’s now.
One of the first home computers that tried to address the price problem was the ZX80, a minimalist product released in 1980 by Sinclair Research that cost under £100. Its successor, the ZX81, came out the following year and cost under £70. Sinclair’s computers undercut all its competition by at least a hundred pounds (for fully assembled computers) and garnered immense popularity for its cheap price.
But the ZX80 and ZX81 cost-sensitive approach came with several drawbacks: poor standard RAM capacity, monochrome display and durability issues that hampered the work for developers.
For Kevin Toms, the ZX81 gave little room for innovation, although he did eventually develop a Football Manager port for it.
On the other hand, computers like the Apple II+ were far too expensive for his target audience.
Thus, a compromise was found in a clone of the TRS-80 home computer: the Video Genie.
Manufactured in Hong Kong, the Video Genie was a unique clone of the highly successful TRS-80 computer. Though the clone differed from the original in several hardware aspects, it kept many of its trademark attributes while also costing significantly less.
Possessing 12KB Microsoft Basic in ROM, the Video Genie was fully compatible with TRS-80 software – a huge advantage for a new computer series entering the market. Unlike most home computers, the Video Genie could be plugged into a regular television, which meant the user did not have to spend more money on an actual computer monitor if he didn’t have one. It came with a built-in cassette recorder and could be expanded to work with printers.
The Video Genie even surpassed the TRS-80 in that it came with 16KB RAM capacity as opposed to the 4KB of the original computer. Priced at £325 around summer 1981, the Video Genie was arguably the most inexpensive 16KB RAM computer by at least £100, making it one of most cost-effective high-end home computers of its time.
With the full power of the Video Genie in his hands, Toms was able to develop the game mechanics that made the original Football Manager so addictive. In March 1981 – 41 years ago – he had successfully conceived the first version of his sports management simulation for the Video Genie as a text-only game. It was the official beginning of a series that would take 1980’s British game industry by storm.
While the Video Genie version was not a commercial success, it paved the way for ZX80 and ZX81 ports of the game, which reached a much larger portion of the market due to the popularity of ZX computers in the UK. In turn, the success of these ports allowed for the development of the ZX Spectrum version in 1982, arguably the most popular version of the game. But every version of the game – Spectrum, C64, BBC Micro, Electron and so on – owe its existence to the Video Genie. That is the true original version of the original Football Manager – created, as fate would have it, using a home computer clone. And that is the version we celebrate in 2022, forty-one years after its release!