The Designer's Notebook: How to Write Sports Commentary
September 29, 2009 Page 2 of 5
Record and Transcribe a Live Broadcast
You may think you know what TV sports broadcasting sounds like, but nothing is as enlightening as recording and transcribing one word-for-word. It will give you a sense not only of how these broadcasts work, but also -- and even more importantly -- the vocabulary and manner of your voice talent. For us, it was imperative that John Madden and Pat Summerall sound like their real-life selves in the game, and the best way to achieve that was to study them at work.
I had an assistant producer sit with a videotape (it was that long ago) of three different games that had been broadcast by our stars, and type in everything they said. We didn't bother with the pre-game or post-game shows, only from the introduction to the game itself to the final score. Because it was American football, the game neatly broke into plays, and my assistant typed the results of each play, as well as the time remaining on the clock, in among the commentary. Here's a sample from a Tampa Bay-Green Bay game:
3-9-TB30 (2:00) T.Dilfer sacked at TB26 for -4 (G.Wilkins). [I.e. 3rd down and 9 yards to go on the Tampa Bay 30 yard line, 2 minutes remaining in the quarter; T. Dilfer sacked at the Tampa Bay 26 for a loss of 4 yards, by G. Wilkins.]
S[ummerall]: Here's Dilfer back to throw... pocket collapsed, and down he goes, as Gabe Wilkins gets there.
M[adden]: Old Gabe Wilkins is havin' a heckuva day.
S: Isn't he?
M[Telestrator, Circles Wilkins]: Tell ya, he was the guy, course, got that, that interception for the touchdown, and the great run, and the great jump, and here, he's gets a pass rush over Tampa Bay's best offensive lineman. That's their left tackle, Paul Gruber. [Wilkins' stats appear] He just got Gruber goin' back, and then he just he came right off of him, and made the, made the sack on Dilfer. He doesn't watch out, he's gonna be NFC defensive player of the week.
S: Maybe of the month.
M: Yeah, because when you get numbers like that, you know, and that's what every defensive lineman wants is, is numbers. And of course you get the sack numbers. But then, when you get the interception numbers, and the interception for a return numbers, now you're talkin' numbers, now you're talkin', you got some numbers.
S: Green Bay just took a timeout, stopped the clock. Tommy Barnhardt, back to punt. And he's done well against the wind.
In a more free-flowing game you'll just have to note key events when they occur, to indicate what the commentators are actually taking about.
Analyze the Transcript
The next thing to do is analyze the transcript, dividing the speakers' sentences into categories depending on the subject matter. You're looking for particular patterns of commentary, remarks that occur regularly. I loaded the transcript into Microsoft Word and marked it up using the highlighter and font color features. Each color designated a different category of speech. The categories I came up with for our game were
The Telestrator is a device that lets a commentator draw on top of the TV image; it was one of John Madden's specialties and I'll address it later. "Television Announcements" refers to advertising -- "Watch 60 Minutes on CBS tonight."
I didn't duplicate these in the game, but I did want to see how often they occurred. "Local Color and Goofy Remarks" (Mr. Madden was famous for the latter) means comments on the weather, the city, the state of the field, or anything interesting but outside the game itself.
Here's the sample I gave earlier, marked up using the system above:
I highlighted the items that I felt fit into the categories I was looking for. I didn't expect to reproduce any of this material exactly in the game, I just wanted to study the way the broadcasters spoke when discussing particular circumstances, events or issues.
You'll notice that a certain amount of this isn't highlighted at all. That's material that I judged we simply wouldn't be able to get into the game. For one thing, a video game of football goes much faster than a real game, so there's little time for rambling commentary like Madden's remarks about how defensive linemen want to get numbers. In practice, no sentence could be longer than about 20 seconds at the very most, and we tried to keep them down to 5 or 10.
Obviously the categories you decide on will depend on the sport. You won't necessarily find everything you need by looking at the transcript, because not every event happens in every game. For example, I didn't have a highlight for discussing injuries, because none occurred in the transcripts I was working with. Nor did I have a highlight for announcing penalties. In the NFL the referee on the field announces penalties, so that content belongs in the referee's audio script, not in the commentators'.
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