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The Designer's Notebook: How to Write Sports Commentary
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The Designer's Notebook: How to Write Sports Commentary

September 29, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

Sort the Event List by Recording Priority

If your voice talent consists of famous (and therefore expensive) broadcasters, as ours did on Madden, you may have only a limited amount of time to record them. In that case, you can't write too much material and you'll have to sort your script with the highest-priority items at the beginning. These should be the most common events in the game: routine play. Leave the material for more unusual events (a no-hitter in a baseball game, a tied final score in a basketball game) for later.

Write the Play-by-Play

Now you need to write the play-by-play -- the actual account of what's going on -- for each event in the game, including the welcome and goodbye remarks, introducing the starting players, and everything else. For commonplace events that happen over and over, you should write many different versions so the players don't get tired of hearing it, as many as ten or twenty. This can be difficult to do -- there are only so many ways to say "strike three."

Here are some sample lines for one particular event -- a deflected pass:

I think the defender just barely got a hand on it.

He knocked it down.

Trent [knocked it down.]

Trent [with the knockdown.]

The defender got his hand in there to knock the ball down.

Tipped away.

It's tipped away.

Trent [tipped it away.]

Lines with square brackets in them indicate interchangeable content -- the name "Trent" would be removed during the editing process and the correct name would be inserted during playback in an actual game. You'll need to do this for names of players, teams, cities, stadiums, and a wide variety of numbers -- those used for the score, time remaining, and so on. Again, see Chapter 13 of Game Writing for details on how to construct this content.

Madden and Summerall's division of labor in the broadcast booth was not strict, so we wrote some play-by-play for John Madden too.

Write the Color Commentary

Once you've written the play-by-play, write the color commentary. Color commentary is much trickier, because rather than simply describing game events, it has to sound like intelligent analysis after the fact. As you saw from my marked-up transcript, I noted remarks about particular players or the team in general. Of course, whatever you write has to be generic and work during any given game.

We didn't try to do interchangeable content for the color commentary. Pat Summerall's voice has a very steady, even inflection which made it easy to stitch his words together into sentences. John Madden's voice has much more dynamic range, so we decided not to try it. This meant that (except as explained below), his comments couldn't include the names of teams. We had to use "these guys," "they," "the offense," and similar generic terms. Here are some example lines for the circumstance in which a team has failed convert on 4th down (rather than punt or kick a field goal), and failed more often than it has succeeded in the current game:

They haven't had much success on fourth down today, at some point you gotta wonder if going for it is actually worth the risk.

If you don't make it on 4th down, you give a lot of momentum to your opponent.

This offense hasn't had too much success converting on 4th down today.

Getting stopped on a 4th down conversion swings a lot of the momentum to the opposing team.

When you get stopped on a 4th down conversion attempt like that, you often second-guess yourself and think that you should have punted or kicked the field goal.

During the writing process my assistant producers identified 5-10 star players on each NFL team, and they wrote four or five special lines of dialog about each of them, which Mr. Madden recorded. The marketing department called this feature "Star Talk." Each line would cover some aspect of the player's abilities -- power, speed, or simply the quality of being exciting to watch. We also included unusual anecdotes, if there were any.

Whenever one of the star players was involved in a particularly big play during a game, the software would try to choose the most suitable line to play for him. The programmers made sure each line was only played once per game. It would obviously sound ridiculous if Madden said exactly the same remark twice in a game. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the line of dialog, the less frequently the player should hear it.

In addition to the Star Talk, we also recorded general comments about the teams themselves, particularly for use at the beginning of the game when they were being introduced. Because John Madden is an especially colorful broadcaster, we were able to create material on all kinds of things, including his thoughts about the weather, stadiums, and even the kinds of food that particular cities were famous for.

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